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Kenney pitches virtues of skilled trades, but don't ask him to fix a leaky pipe

OTTAWA - Even though he hopes to encourage young Canadians to learn trades, Employment Minister Jason Kenney admits he probably would have made a lousy plumber.

Governments must work to remove the negative stigma that accompanies trades like welding and plumbing, and provide young Canadians with better information about what skills have the best job prospects, Kenney said Tuesday on the eve of a skills summit in Toronto.

"What we ought to do is ensure that young people make fully informed decisions that are unencumbered by stigmas attached to skilled work," he said in an interview.

"All of the incentives and encouragement have been encouraging young people to make choices that don't necessarily lead to good outcomes."

To that end, Kenney said, Ottawa is working with provinces to obtain better data on employment outcomes from various post-secondary education institutions, and to make that information more readily available to young Canadians online and via wireless applications.

But Kenney, a University of San Francisco philosophy graduate, laughed at the suggestion that he might have had a successful career as a tradesman had he been similarly encouraged 25 years ago to learn a trade rather than study liberal arts.

"That would be highly improbable if you knew my practical skills," he said.

He was quick to add that the federal government isn't trying to push young Canadians against their will into professions that don't excite them.

European apprenticeship programs — elements of which he hopes to replicate in Canada — simply give youth more employment options, Kenney said.

"People are not trapped," he said. "They do an apprenticeship program, and after that many of them do choose to pursue academic studies. The point is, at least they have a vocation to fall back on."

Wednesday's skills summit is intended to bring together an array of stakeholders from labour organizations and corporate Canada to discuss labour market and employee training issues.

It's being held less than a week after Kenney announced a major overhaul to the controversial temporary foreign workers program.

The new changes include a limit on the number of foreign workers that large and medium-sized companies are permitted to hire, stiffer penalties for companies found to be violating the new rules and on-site audits and inspections to guard against abuses.

Kenney said that while some companies and business organizations are miffed about the crackdown, the public was supportive when he was in Alberta over the weekend.

"I had nothing but unprompted positive remarks from ordinary grassroots Albertans, several of whom actually told me that in the last few days and weeks, their kids suddenly got restaurant jobs, funnily enough, after months of applying."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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