Young workers in Saskatchewan must prove job readiness

Province requires certification around health and safety, employment standards

Devan Pilatzke is hoping to start his first job soon as a busboy or food preparation worker at a local restaurant.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t have any income and you don’t always want to rely on your parents,” says the 15-year-old student from Regina.

But first Pilatzke had to pass a mandatory job-readiness test. As of the end of March, all 14- and 15-year-old workers in Saskatchewan must take an online course — focused on occupational health and safety, employment standards and rights and responsibilities — to be certified. They also require their parents’ written consent to work.

The test was “common sense,” says Pilatzke, but he learned a lot.

“It was all pretty important stuff,” he says. “Like, if the job is too dangerous, you have the right to say, ‘No.’”

Until recently, there was no minimum age to work in Saskatchewan, although students 16 and older had been required to take the province’s Ready to Work curriculum in high school. Last summer, the government set the age at 14. To address the gap between the school curriculum and the needs of 14- and 15-year-olds, the government introduced the Young Worker Readiness Certificate Course.

Employers that hire 14- and 15-year-olds who have not completed the course could be subject to a fine up to $2,000. Enforcement will be done through routine inspections and anonymous complaints.

Many of the challenges that face young workers may not be faced by those even a few years older, says Marlene Smale, manager of education programs in the labour standards branch at the Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour.

When asked why they want to work, most students respond “I want to make money,” she says, but when asked to identify a hazardous situation, they can’t.

This speaks to their level of maturity, something the course tries to address, says Smale.

“They’re learning how to be in that place: Understanding that you need to behave in a certain way, you need to learn a little bit about occupational health and safety, that you shouldn’t take the water hose and spray down your buddies, that you shouldn’t leap on the back of the tractor or get carried in the forklift,” she says. “Pause and think a little bit about what’s going on.”

The course covers a variety of topics, ranging from safety and fair treatment to understanding a pay stub, resolving conflict and deciding whether you’re even ready to work. One of the biggest concerns is teaching younger workers about responsibility, according to a ministry survey of students, parents, educators and employers.

“You get a meal break, for example, but it’s your responsibility to show up promptly at the time you’re supposed to return,” says Smale. “So it’s teaching them some fairly basic workplace skills.”

The course strikes a “pretty balanced approach” to both employees and employers, says Chris Thomas, labour strategies manager at Tim Hortons in Calgary.

“It talks a lot about what employers need. It also talks about a lot of the questions I think young people have when they’re first looking for a job,” he says.

The course presents many scenarios and asks students to consider the consequences involved with the choices. Younger employees, who have less life experience than their older colleagues, come with different aptitudes and attitudes and the course gives them a dose of reality, says Thomas.

“There are a lot of expectations coming into work for the first time that don’t necessarily fit the work model,” he says. “Things like fully flexible schedules — ‘Oh, I have a basketball game today at three o’clock this afternoon and I can’t come into work.’ That puts the employer in a bad position. Having (young workers) go through these things in advance puts it into perspective for them: ‘Maybe now is not a good time to be looking for a job. Maybe I should wait until after basketball season.’”

The course’s focus on education is also appropriate, says Thomas. Fourteen- and 15-year-old workers are not allowed to work more than 16 hours during a school week and no later than 10 p.m. prior to a school day or before school starts.

“They very clearly maintain that the focus should be on education and remaining in school and that work is a supplementary activity,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.”

It’s reassuring to employers, as well, to have parents involved, especially given the pressures facing young people, says Thomas.

“The parents may be in their 40s and how they reacted to getting a job 20 to 30 years ago is a lot different than what 14-year-olds are experiencing today,” he says. “A lot of kids have a lot of things on the go that they need to schedule for and a job is only part of that — not the focus.”

But the program doesn’t focus enough on employers’ expectations, says Thomas. While there are segments devoted to responsibility, there is a greater focus on occupational health and safety. So it would make sense to add a fourth module to the three-module program, he says.

Pilatzke says he now feels better prepared to work than when he passed out resumés a few weeks ago. Even the pay stub has lost its mystery.

“There were four questions about holiday pay, compensation and stuff,” he says. “That really helped out. At least I know what I should be getting.”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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