Starbucks Canada brews up youth hiring initiatives

But one critic suggests the initiative is more of a public relations exercise
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2015

Budding baristas should rejoice — in mid-November, Starbucks Canada announced a plan to tackle rising youth unemployment. The coffeemaker said 10 per cent of all new hires would be chosen from a pool of young workers between 16 and 24 who are not working and not in school.  

The program was first piloted in Toronto in April and is expected to exceed its initial goal of 150 jobs for its first year (on top of the 109 young workers hired in the first six months). Montreal and Vancouver are next on the list of locations, with other cities to follow. 

That the company is already one of the largest employers of 16- to 24-year-olds in the country helped spur the initiative, said Sara Presutto, vice-president of partner resources at Starbucks Canada in Toronto.

“Those two factors combined give us an opportunity to make a real difference.”

While Presutto said it is too early to publish numbers, it’s evident thus far that the program’s retention rate is above average when weighted against the retention rate of regular employees. 

The program is important because it fills a need, according to Luisa Girotto, Starbucks Canada’s vice-president of public affairs in Toronto.

“And the reason it was successful wasn’t just because we’re offering a meaningful opportunity, it’s because there’s a need and we’ve barely just started to tap into it.”

The picture of youth unemployment is a grim one. In Canada, the unemployment rate for youth hovers around 13 per cent, compared to about 11 per cent in the United States. That is almost double Canada’s overall unemployment rate, which was seven per cent in October, according to Statistics Canada. 

2003 program

Starbucks Canada has been involved in the youth employment circuit in some capacity since 2003. In conjunction with Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS, a not-for-profit service headquartered in Vancouver) and Bladerunners (an Aboriginal youth-focused employment and skills training program), Starbucks launched a baristas training program for disadvantaged youth in British Columbia.

That provided the framework to roll out the plan nationally, and in June, PCRS celebrated the graduation of its 500th barista from the program, which includes young people facing barriers such as lack of education, domestic violence or abuse, being newcomers to the job force and single mothers. 

About 75 per cent of those youth move on to full-time employment, sometimes at Starbucks, but also at other like employers, according to the program’s facilitator, Alejandra Hergert in Surrey, B.C.

Of the eight baristas in her last cohort, four were hired at the Starbucks franchise where they did their training, she said. As well, since September of last year, 28 workers were hired on at Starbucks following the workshop and 23 remain current employees. 

“The whole point of the program is to make them employable, in customer service in general,” said Hergert. 

PCRS’s program stands apart from the national 10 per cent commitment because it includes an educational component, with participants spending five weeks in classroom training and four weeks at a Starbucks where they do almost everything full baristas do except operate the cash register. 

“They learn life skills to begin with that help them to build a good foundation,” said Judy Crooks, the program’s co-ordinator at PCRS in Surrey. “There are things like self-esteem, communication, conflict resolution — things to really help them get through life. Then we start with employability skills; how to make a resumé and cover letter, interview skills.”

That also includes technical training, such as certification for the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), food safety and first aid.

Combined, Starbucks Canada’s 10 per cent pledge and PCRS’s program will see about 4,000 jobs and work placements created nationally over the next three years, according to the company. Most of these new jobs will go to workers found in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation in British Columbia, the Partnership to Advance Youth Employment and the City of Toronto, as well as Société de développement social de Ville-Marie in Montreal.

A precarious cycle? 

While Starbucks Canada’s youth hiring initiative is well-intentioned, at least one critic has deemed the plan less of a solution to youth unemployment and more of a public relations stunt. 

“What I would paint this initiative as is some form of green-washing, but instead of being environmental, it’s linked to the labour market,” said labour lawyer Andrew Langille in Toronto.

The service industry itself is problematic, he said, as most jobs tend to be precarious or dead-end, with little opportunity to advance through the ranks. 

“What you’re seeing with these employees is that they’re really stuck in precarious jobs, that’s the reality,” said Langille, who is also general counsel for the Canadian Intern Association. “They’re hiring young people already — this isn’t revolutionary for Starbucks; they depend on young people to fill their ranks. It’s wonderful but it doesn’t get around the fact that these are terrible jobs, for the most part.”

That’s because so many service and retail industry employers fail to provide benefits or vacation perks. So improving the nature of the actual work, and then recruiting young workers to those positions, can really fuel workforce development, said Langille. 

“There’s a responsibility… to make service and retail jobs into something that is more sustainable than currently exists — where people are being put on zero-hour contracts, where people are being paid very low wages, do not have any idea of what their schedule is going to be,” he said. “That’s where I think the responsibility lies for employers, not coming up with cute initiatives that are designed for public relations people to push into the media.”

The ideal working world for youth, therefore, is one in which active labour market programs (such as internships and co-op university placements) exist in industries where there is a potential for well-paying jobs, benefits and pensions, he said.

But there are perks and opportunities for most employees to move up the ladder at Starbucks, said Girotto. 

“(For) part-time, we offer full-time benefits, medical and dental, stock, vision. It might be your first job, not your last job but, my god, at 20 hours a week, you have the same benefits as the vice-president — that’s huge,” she said. “It sort of sets them up for what remuneration needs to look like.”

And, as an added bonus, the company gets to train its future labour force. 

“We are very focused on internally developing our talent. We’re developing for our future needs,” said Presutto. “The opportunities are endless not only in terms of the role they play but also the benefits we provide, the nurturing environment we provide, the training we provide — but we hire hundreds of leadership positions in our stores every year, so they are amongst that talent pool.”

When Starbucks or another  employer of young workers takes on such a commitment, it contributes to the growth and betterment of the community, which not only feels good but upholds a corporation’s responsibility and reputation, said Crooks.

The workshop component of the Bladerunners program helps budding labourers gain work experiences and maintain those skills — something that is old hat for most workforce veterans, said Hergert.

“(There) are specific workshops on starting and maintaining new job skills that most youth don’t really realize, and that we take for granted — like showing up on time and not calling in sick if you have a headache, or not gossiping about colleagues and co-workers and all these little things that youth don’t really know.”

Starbucks said it plans to roll out the youth initiative to several other cities across Canada.

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