It's a hard-knock life for Canada’s youngest jobseekers these days.
That’s the view of the federal government, which has formed a panel of experts to tackle youth unemployment woes.
While experts differ on just how dire the youth employment situation is, the Liberal government has pushed ahead after nearly doubling $300 million in youth funding with its first budget.
The eight-member panel will gather information from across the country and report its findings to the government next March.
The group’s focus will cut a wide swath, looking at employment opportunities and job retention for Canadians ages 15 to 29, including Indigenous youth and those in rural or remote communities.
Over the last 15 years, the average unemployment rate for this age group has been 11.8 per cent, according to Statistics Canada — nearly four percentage points higher than the general population.
The panel will identify and study the barriers young jobseekers face on the road to employment, and seek out innovative practices already in place elsewhere, recommending best practices to government.
Forming the panel is a key move in the government’s focus on Canada’s youth, said Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk.
“Investing in jobs for young people is an investment in Canada’s future,” she said. “We’re going to help young Canadians find jobs and get the best start possible to their careers.”
Looking for answers
The panel’s findings will help direct legislation, said Vass Bednar, associate director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, an economic think tank associated with the University of Toronto, and head of the newly formed panel.
“We know that youth were hit hardest by the recession in 2008, 2009… and the longer a younger person is not in school, not in work and not being trained, the further they fall behind and the harder it is to get a foothold in the labour force.”
The world of work has fundamentally changed, said Bednar, pointing towards the shift away from unpaid internships and corresponding linkage to the academic process.
“But that has not been replaced by any intermediary work experience for young people. I think one of the bigger questions is: ‘Where and how do we strike that balance? How do we do it together, and who is responsible for that?’”
Debunking myths surrounding youth loyalty and employer reluctance may also be a result of the panel’s findings, said Bednar.
“Maybe we can offer better, more accurate, statistically driven personas of young Canadians who are looking to work,” she said. “There’s hopefully going to be a little bit of mythbusting through our report.”
But at least one expert is concerned that the premise of the government’s study is too broad to achieve concrete results.
Philip Cross, a senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, authored a study last fall that said the inclusion of 15-year-olds in youth labour surveys is misleading.
Tackling the needs of 15- to 29-year-olds in one massive study could result in solutions being missed.
“The needs of teens and the needs of 20-year-olds tend to be much different,” he said. “So approaching them as one and the same is likely to be a big mistake.”
Twenty- to 24-year-olds are doing OK, but there’s still the problem of teen unemployment, said Cross.
“The problem of teens seems to be separate and much more dire than the problem of young adults. Once people get into their 20s, it seems that they are transitioning into the labour force as well as they ever have,” he said.
“It’s always been difficult… it’s not ever easy, but it doesn’t seem to be any worse today than it was before. What seems to be clearly worse today is teen employment.”
Employers shouldn’t be mistaken as public charities, said Cross, as most employers simply want to hire the best available candidate.
Governments should consider reducing minimum wage for teens to combat the lower productivity and higher regulation costs, he said.
“It’s not the responsibility of employers to solve this problem,” said Cross. “It’s the responsibility of government.”
Sell hope, not fear
Not all experts believe youth are in dire straits when it comes to gaining meaningful employment in Canada.
“I find that too pessimistic,” said Tim Lang, president and CEO of Youth Employment Services (YES) in Toronto. “It’s true that it’s tough out there, but I’m still optimistic that with the right approaches and government support… we can make positive changes.”
“Not that I want to sound like everything’s rosy, but sounding overly pessimistic just adds to the doubts in young peoples’ minds,” he said. “They’ve got to know that it’s going to take time, but you have to stay hopeful and stay diligent.”
Toronto’s youth unemployment rate is 22 per cent, said Lang, well up from the national rate of 13.2. Nevertheless, if the newly formed panel mines “real ideas that work,” he said, then the government’s contribution will be worthwhile.
“You don’t have to recreate the wheel,” he said. “You can look at countries like Germany and see why their youth unemployment rate is half of Canada’s. To some extent, if they just start to emulate the best countries in the world, we can make great changes.”
Some youth employment problems include a lack of awareness as to what type of jobs actually exist, and the fact that employers tend to lean towards jobseekers with experience — especially during an economic downturn, said Lang. The education system could play a larger role in terms of job preparedness, he said.
“It’s our wish that more companies would be open to hiring youth,” said Lang. Despite the potential for extra training costs, the desire youths have to work helps offset that, he said.
Hiring managers believe young jobseekers have neither the soft skills nor the industry knowledge to add value to their employers, said Rowan O’Grady, president of Hays Canada, a recruiting agency, citing nationwide surveys. So the government’s involvement comes at a crucial moment.
“It’s a dire situation, and I think it’s just going to get worse and worse,” he said. “Canada has got a talent mismatch. We’ve got a lot of job skill sets that there’s a shortage of, and we’ve got a lot of people who can’t find satisfactory levels of employment.”
“The problem obviously is that the people looking for the work don’t have the skills that the employer is looking for.”
If something isn’t done — and soon — Canada could end up with a “skills chasm, as opposed to a skills gap,” said O’Grady.
To alter recruitment strategies, employers should host industry forums in universities and colleges, where ideal skill sets being sought are revealed, he said.
Another option would be to access potential candidates earlier through short-term work placements while they are still students, he said.
“Why not bring somebody in and have them do the lowest-level junior job in the company?” said O’Grady. “Why not get somebody to come in and just do data entry for three months?”
“If you’re a first-year mechanical engineering student and you get to spend two to three months at a company… then you’re getting exactly what the employer wants — industry experience. It’s a very low-risk situation for the employer and individual, and everybody gets what they want.”
Too many graduates’ resumés look the same, said O’Grady, but those with work experience in the field will stand out.
“My advice to an individual is: If you’re serious and you do want a career, then you’ve got to take personal responsibility for it and get exposure to that industry.”
The frustrations of young workers are becoming more pronounced, despite the government’s recent panel formation.
Delegates at a youth labour forum turned their backs on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Canadian Labour Congress event in Ottawa in October, with several criticizing comments by Finance Minister Bill Morneau concerning high turnover and short-term contracts that will continue to face young workers in Canada.
The federal government also received criticism for failing to meet its target of creating 5,000 new green jobs for youth — a promise made during the run-up to the 2015 election, according to the Canadian Press.
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