Banding together to fight youth unemployment

Eight employers make pledge to hire 40,000 young people over five years

Banding together to fight youth unemployment
Starbucks Canada and seven other employers have formed a partnership promising to hire 40,000 youth over five years. Credit: Sarah Dobson

For employers that say they can’t find enough good workers, there are about 400,000 young persons in Canada who are not in school or employed and are actively searching for work, according to Statistics Canada.

So Starbucks and seven other companies are hoping to benefit from this untapped job market by pledging to hire 40,000 youth over the next five years.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to get more workers because the reality is there is a war for talent. We all want great people and there shouldn’t be a 19 per cent (youth) unemployment rate in Toronto,” said Luisa Girotto, vice-president of public affairs at Starbucks Canada in Toronto. “That is unacceptable and it begs the question ‘What’s going on?’”

Along with Walmart, Chipotle, HMSHost, Tridel, the Source, Coast Capital Savings and Telus, Starbucks Canada has announced a partnership that will target NEET (Not Employed, in Education or Training) youth who face multiple barriers to accessing meaningful employment.

NEET youth, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are people aged 15 to 29. The Starbucks-led initiative will target those who have been disconnected from employment for four months or longer.

Spearheading the new effort is Richard Derham, lead executive at Opportunity for All Youth (the coalition’s operating group) in Toronto.

“I’m excited about this because this is the first time it’s been a national effort by employers to actually work on a demand-led, hiring-focused program,” he said. “It’s my job to see the coalition employers actually deliver on the mission they’ve given themselves to see this sort of employee coalition grow in number, and the likely impact it can make in hiring NEET youth.”

The goal of the program is not simply to be a good corporate citizen, he said, but to reach a vast, untouched market of under-
employed workers.

“This isn’t a corporate social responsibility media piece for consumption by corporate communications teams, this is really an HR-focused initiative which is aimed at achieving a social good, but it will also support businesses by allowing them to hire, train, retain a section of the population which, frankly, they probably haven’t got too much experience in hiring today. It’s quite a missed opportunity,” said Derham.

The program will also monitor how well young people are doing throughout their early careers.

“I’m going to be tracking not just the hiring rate for NEET youth, but also their retention rates and their career growth within the organizations,” he said. “I’d like to see those high targets met but, just as importantly, I’d like to have clear evidence that these youth are succeeding in the workplace, that they’re not just joining. And that it’s not all going horribly wrong after a few weeks, that they’re managing to succeed and blossom in these places of work.”

The first step is a job fair, taking place at the end of June in Rexdale, Ont., he said, and the group hopes to steer NEET youth into more substantial careers.

“We’re spending time as a coalition looking at ways in which we could come up with sort of career-lathering mechanisms between different coalition employers so that, for example, somebody who might start as a barista at Starbucks goes on to work in a customer-care capacity at Telus,” said Derham.

“It will be a tragedy if, after five years, we realize that we’ve hired 40,000 people but 39,000 of them hadn’t survived their probation periods.”

The tracking initiative is sorely needed because “data on this demographic is sparse. When you talk to federal government, provincial government or even city (government) — even the youth agencies themselves — it can be very hard to actually ascertain the number of youth that are being hired,” he said.

“(We’ll be) working closely with employers to have them upfront commit to sharing baseline information on their interviewing, and then hiring and onboarding, and who are then also surviving training periods, probation periods.”

Opportunity for All Youth’s mandate is to ensure the participating companies do not operate in a vacuum, said Derham.

“We are working hard with the employers to make sure that best practices are being shared within the coalition to ensure that people are being onboarded properly, in an appropriate fashion and trained and encouraged to succeed.”

Barriers to employment

For frontline workers at youth employment agencies, the NEET initiative is welcome.

“Starbucks have been a great advocate of employing youth that often have certain barriers to employment — be it lack of education, or a new Canadian or economic issues,” said Timothy Lang, president and CEO at YES (Youth Employment Services) in Toronto.

“This new initiative is just taking that one step further, working with other businesses to try to encourage them to also give people a chance, because it really changes their lives and creates more prosperity, not only for the individuals but for the regions that we live in.”

Often, NEET youth face a range of barriers that handicap their efforts to enter the workforce, he said.

“Many of them could be just the educational barriers that some youth just didn’t complete high school or didn’t like the school setting. And then when they go to look for work, the minimum requirement might be high school or more,” said Lang.

“Sometimes they have economic barriers, they come from a disadvantaged economic background or family, so that they don’t even have the right clothes to go do an interview, or have never been trained on how to perform a proper interview, or even dress properly, or resumé writing.”

A lot of youth are not well-versed at communicating, said Clay Shaw, operations manager at Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming (SCYAP).

“We’re seeing an increase of social anxiety. And I’m not an expert of why obviously. However, I really believe that social media and cellphone misuse is some of the reasons.”

“They kind of hide behind the whole social media platform and their communication skills are lacking because, perhaps they’re in their parents’ basements or couch-surfing at a friend’s house where they’re not going out into the world and making themselves employable, getting skills, increasing their communication skills,” he said.

“They’re really hiding behind computers and tablets and cellphones… and being exposed to stuff on the internet — it desensitizes them to some of the violence and extreme behaviours.”

Promising ROI

There are direct economic benefits for companies hoping to tap into the youth market, according to Lang.

“The return on investment from every $1 for government funding returns — from our analysis — is at least three, sometimes five to seven, back to the economy.”

As well, the youth are often very productive employees, he said.

“Sometimes, when businesses take a chance... they realize they could be very, very valuable employees for the long term,” said Lang.

When Starbucks first began a youth-hiring initiative, it partnered with the City of Toronto.

“We had relationships with government, with not-for-profit, and certainly Mayor (John) Tory in Toronto. He invited us to help the city reduce youth unemployment in the city’s ‘needs-improvement areas,’” said Girotto.

The company dedicated 10 per cent of all job hires in Toronto to this group and in the first year, it hit the 10 per cent target.

“We overshot actually,” she said.

Looking ahead, the eight companies hope to expand the program to Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

“It’s really about scaling the geography and getting the employers onboard,” said Girotto. “Forty thousand jobs for youth that are disconnected now is an ambitious number. And, really, it should be just the first number, right? We will aim higher than that.”


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