Finding solutions to youth homelessness ‘everybody’s business,’ says report

Online tool kit helps employers navigate all aspects of employing at-risk youth
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/14/2013

About two years ago, Amanda Arnold moved to Toronto from the small community of Pefferlaw, Ont., to “find new and exciting opportunities.”

Arnold, who was 22 at the time, had only worked sporadic shifts at a local bar and had a difficult time finding work. She became very discouraged with the fruitless search and ended up on welfare.

Arnold eventually decided to sign up for the youth employment program at St. Christopher House, a community agency in Toronto. And when a job came up at Intact Financial, she was encouraged to apply.

“I thought it was a long shot… but even though I didn’t have any office experience, they took me on as a summer student,” she said.

At the end of the summer, Intact extended Arnold’s contract, gave her a raise and she now helps train new employees in the mailroom as a mail services assistant.

Hiring youth who are either experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness is a key way employers can help keep them off the streets, according to a new report by Raising the Roof. Finding solutions to youth homelessness is “everybody’s business,” including that of the private sector, it said.

“At the beginning stages of their career, everyone needs someone to take a chance on them. This is particularly true for at-risk and homeless youth, who often lack the invaluable connections and supports necessary to find entry-level jobs,” said It’s Everybody’s Business: Engaging the Private Sector in Solutions to Youth Homelessness, based on interviews with 31 employers across the country.

In addition to the report, Raising the Roof, an organization that aims to reduce homelessness, has provided an online tool kit to help employers navigate all aspects of providing employment to at-risk youth.

The first step is connecting with a community agency and the tool kit includes an interactive map where employers can find reliable agencies in their area, said Carolann Barr, executive director of Raising the Roof in Toronto.

Employers need to sit down with agency representatives to discuss what types of employees they’re looking for, so the agency can properly identify and pre-screen potential candidates, said Sara Laidlaw, vice-president of HR for Ontario at Intact in Toronto.

“Be very, very clear on what your company is about, what is the culture, what are the rules,” she said. “It’s a matter of having very good communication, bringing them into your environment, exposing them to various areas where the youth may end up working, having them talk to managers.”

The agencies provide a variety of pre-employment programs including developing a resumé and cover letter, preparing for an interview and understanding workplace expectations, said the report. Some programs offer other opportunities such as health and safety training and certification in customer service excellence.

Intact has had great success with its community agency partnerships across Ontario and Quebec and has hired about six at-risk youth since 2010, said Laidlaw.

“We started slowly — we didn’t want to go out with a broad-brush approach and just contact every community agency. We thought, ‘No, let’s do this slowly and make sure we’re successful and we know what we’re doing,’” she said. “We’re delighted with the success so far and we will continue to work with them.”

At-risk youth will likely be best suited for entry-level positions, such as service staff, stock room assistants, reception or clerical, sales staff and the mailroom, according to the report. The positions should offer progressive learning opportunities and employers should make sure they provide sufficient training, said David Lamarche, service delivery co-ordinator at the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa.

“You’re looking for an area where they’re not getting too much responsibility,” said Lamarche. “Most of these youth work well… in more of a hands-on type job. But it is a case-by-case — it’s not cookie-cutter.”

The challenges of hiring homeless and at-risk youth vary tremendously, found the report, but they may include:

• difficulties keeping youth interested in the work

• challenges with the youth’s adjustment to the work routine

• the need to provide additional support

• inappropriate work conduct

• poor punctuality and attendance

• difficulty dealing with dissatisfied customers.

One-third of employers interviewed said they experienced some challenges with the at-risk youth they hired.

“Employers (need) to be very clear about what they expect from the youth — simple things like dress code, appropriate language, how to deal with co-workers and customers, even self-care issues and getting a good amount of sleep before they come to work,” said Barr. “Always keep it in perspective — that young person may not have had a lot of employment experience.”

To overcome some of these challenges, employers should connect these young workers with a mentor. It’s important to ensure those lines of communication are open and they have someone they can go to whom they trust, said Lamarche.

“You want to build those support groups in the organization so they want to come to work, because they need those types of supports to get them through the day sometimes,” he said.

“Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, homelessness, mental health issues, or violence at home, there are a lot of different things youth are faced with.”

It’s also important to make sure managers are willing to take on an at-risk youth and are trained on how to handle some of the challenges they may face, said Laidlaw.

“They may show up improperly dressed, maybe they spent the night sleeping on the street — so you’ve got to be flexible and be able to cut them a bit of slack,” she said.

But hiring at-risk youth enriches a workplace environment by providing new perspectives as well as offering new opportunities to existing staff, such as mentorships, said Lamarche.

It can also boost an employer’s reputation.

“It helps them get their name out there and more people will want to stay and work with a company that they know is giving back,” said Barr. “It really does help corporations and their bottom line to do great business and also that double bottom line to give back to their community as well.”

Hiring at-risk youth helps Intact stay true to its corporate social responsibility strategy and live up to its commitment to “foster safe and vibrant communities,” said Laidlaw.

And the youth it has hired are dedicated and loyal employees who are ambassadors for the company, she said.

“The fact someone is reaching out and giving them a helping hand… they’re just so excited each and every day, it’s like, ‘My goodness, somebody believes in me.’”

Arnold is a “tremendous success story” and Intact will continue to look for more opportunities for her, said Laidlaw.

“(Arnold) has been extremely successful… and it’s open to her as far as she wants to take it,” she said. “If you give them the opportunity, it’s amazing. They will take it and run with it — they want to succeed as much as we want them to succeed.”

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