Jobs, transportation key issues in bellwether Kitchener Centre riding

KITCHENER — It’s a sight Lil Premsukh sees all the time.

The manager of workforce access programs at Conestoga Colleges sees people who are motivated, ready and willing to work, but whose skills don’t match the available jobs.

Some are laid-off workers who had good, well-paying manufacturing jobs for years, but who are now looking for work with sometimes less than a high school diploma. Some are immigrants who struggle to get their foreign credentials recognized. Some are young graduates with a general bachelor’s degree finding it hard to land a decent job.

Seeing the frustration and demoralization of these job seekers, Premsukh isn’t surprised to learn that jobs and the economy are key issues on the lips of candidates in Kitchener Centre in the run-up to the June 12 election.

Kitchener Centre encompasses the downtown core and suburbs including Stanley Park, Forest Hill, Forest Heights and Chicopee.

It is the most compact of the ridings in Waterloo Region, and the poorest, with an average household income in 2010 of $71,257, well below the provincial average of $85,772. About half of its adult residents have education beyond high school, compared to 54.6 per cent of all Ontarians. Only 62.2 per cent of residents in the riding own their own homes, compared to a provincial average of 71.4 per cent.

Waterloo Region as a whole weathered the recession relatively well, and today it enjoys an unemployment rate that’s moderately lower than the provincial average. But workers in the riding and in the region have been battered over the past few years.

BlackBerry laid off 1,140 people in Waterloo Region since last September. The manufacturing sector, traditionally the strongest sector of the local economy, has seen a succession of layoffs and closures in recent years. And there’s more pain to come: about 1,200 workers at the former Schneiders plant on Courtland Avenue, now owned by Maple Leaf Foods, will lose their jobs by the end of this year.

Businesses are looking for clear support for the local economy, said Ian McLean, president of the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.

“We have a broad-based economy,” McLean said, noting that manufacturing, finance and insurance, and the technology sectors are all big employers. “We want to see support for those sectors, and a sense of the importance of this region to the health and success of Ontario’s economy as a whole.”

Premsukh would like to see better support for job training and for immigrants. “If you invest in getting these individuals up to where they need to be, they will be in the labour market for a very long time, and that’s a tremendous return on investment.”

“It all starts with jobs,” says Liberal Daiene Vernile. She pointed to her party’s 10-year, $130-billion plan to build roads, bridges and transit as a way to make Ontario competitive, the Liberal government’s financial support of local employers such as Colonial Cookies, Toyota, ComDev, and a $295-million youth employment strategy.

New Democrat Margaret Johnston says her party would support job creation through a tax credit for small and medium-sized businesses, and a fund to support job creation in high-tech and creative fields.

Green party candidate Ronnie Smith believes support for small business will maximize job creation, and rejects the idea that more cuts to corporate taxes are needed.

Conservative Wayne Wettlaufer says his party would boost the number of skilled workers by easing requirements for apprentices, and create jobs by lowering energy rates and cutting corporate taxes.

The need to get people moving, with improved GO service and an improved, widened Highway 7 to Guelph, is another key issue in Kitchener Centre.

All of the major parties support bringing all-day, two-way GO trains between Kitchener and Toronto, though no-one is spelling out a clear date by which they will do this. Nor is anyone talking in detail about how to pay for the enormous cost — estimated at a minimum of $400 million — to improve the infrastructure to allow faster, more frequent trains to and from Toronto. Conservatives say they would reallocate priorities within existing budgets.

Right now, two trains leave Kitchener every weekday morning, and two return in the evening, attracting about 245 passengers from Guelph and Kitchener. The Liberals have promised to add two more round trips by the end of 2016, bringing service up to the levels originally promised years ago.

Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr believes improved service will come, no matter which party forms the government. “This is about getting people off the roads, in particular the 401, where there’s congestion constantly,” Zehr said.

But retired political scientist Bob Williams says these are “easy promises to make to reel in support. The problem is delivering on it, which is almost as difficult as (promising) jobs. It’s so costly.”

If all-day GO service could be provided easily, Williams said, “we would have seen it a long time ago.”

The Kitchener Centre riding is seen as a bellwether, its voters often choosing an MPP from the party that forms the government. With no incumbent in the riding — Liberal MPP and cabinet minister John Milloy chose not to run again after 11 years in office — the leaders of all three major parties have made frequent stops here during the campaign.

In the 2011 election, Kitchener Centre was the only one of four local ridings that did not go Conservative, and only did so by a very slim margin. Milloy, the incumbent, won by just 323 votes against Conservative Dave MacDonald. The NDP candidate was a distant third.

But candidates this time will have to work hard to win over voters, judging from a sample of comments from people in the riding.

Retired nurse Pat Edwards, 72, said she feels the parties are all “promising things they think we want to hear.”

Teacher Peter Hamm admits he feels “more conflicted than I have for a long time” about this election. While he sympathizes with many Conservative ideas such as the need to trim spending, he fears the Tory plan will be divisive and damaging.

Chris Tolton also worries about Conservative plans to cut 100,000 public sector jobs. He believes it makes more sense to cut costs through wages or benefits, but not by stating a number of jobs to be slashed. “I don’t see anyone who thinks we have too many teachers or too many police officers.”


By Catherine Thompson  Jun 07, 2014 , Twitter: @ThompsonRecord

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