In Canada, youth unemployment becomes a national crisis
One in five Canadian youths is unemployed, mirroring similar trends in America
It’s a hot Friday afternoon, and Commercial Drive in Vancouver is bustling with its usual summer cacophony of people, busy car traffic and bright, bold colors. A quiet refuge from the street noise lies at the corner of East Fifth Avenue.
The steady rotation of the ceiling fan is the only thing to be heard inside the Frog Hollow Neighborhood House youth employment center, where two young people in their 20s work silently on their resumes and scroll through online job postings.
“The search has been long and difficult,” said 28-year-old Jack St. John. He’s tired but hopeful. “It’s not surprising, though. It takes months to find a job now.”
St. John works part-time at a coffee shop. He has years of experience in the tourism industry. He has taken courses in theater and radio broadcasting at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Langara College. Despite this work experience and education, he’s spent the past decade — all of his 20s to date — in continuous, excruciating bouts of unemployment.
“It’s hard to know where to look for jobs,” said Nina Perez, 24, who completed her bachelor’s at UBC last summer.
Upon graduation, Perez moved back to New Westminster to live with her parents, after she could no longer afford the apartment she was living in, which she had paid for with her student loans. She has two part-time jobs that add up to about 20 hours a week. “Everyone asks for experience. There are hardly any entry-level jobs out there.”
A lack of experience is one of the top challenges young people face, according to Frog Hollow staff members. They help people between the ages of 16 and 30 find jobs. Their clients range from marginalized youth sometimes without a high school diploma to those with multiple post-secondary degrees. They all struggle to find stable, full-time work.
The rising numbers of unemployed or underemployed youth at the East Vancouver neighborhood house extend far beyond its four walls. A recent CIBC World Market Inc. report found unemployment among youth between the ages of 15 and 24 to be more than twice as high as unemployment among older Canadians.
It’s a record gap, but even that figure is understood to underestimate the total number of young people struggling to find and secure work. The figure doesn’t account for youth who aren’t receiving income assistance because they aren’t registered as unemployed, or, as in the case with St. John and Perez, are underemployed. Nor does it factor in those who have given up looking for work or those working various part-time jobs to make up full-time earnings.
Last fall, The Globe and Mail took into account these scenarios and bumped the unemployment figure among youth to 19.6 percent. Outside of Canada, similar trends are being seen in American and European cities.
“The economy has become de-industrialized,” said Stephen Von Sychowski, the Young Workers Committee chair at the British Columbia Federation of Labour. “North America is a shopping mall industry. Everything is being produced overseas because it’s cheaper. In North America, what’s mostly left for us are jobs in the retail and service sector; jobs that are undervalued and underpaid.”
Von Sychowski cites a laundry list of reasons as to why young workers face this crisis, including a globalized economy, which sees traditional jobs, such as in the lumber industry, disappear overseas or become extinct with technology and automation.
A tough economic climate also causes employers to favor hiring on a temporary basis while remaining reluctant to invest the time and money into training permanent staff.
“Training is a significant investment,” said Christina Porte, a case manager at Frog Hollow. “If companies are experiencing tough times where each person is already doing more than one job, it’s tough for people to hire a person with little experience. Who’s going to train them?”
And if a post-secondary education is one kind of training ground for work in certain fields, a perfect storm of B.C.’s $10.25/hour minimum wage and rising tuition rates has many recent grads struggling to pay off overwhelming student loans with what few jobs they can find.
Porte said she’s often shocked when looking through job postings with clients. Employers expect high qualifications from universities but are only willing to pay low wages.
“It’s a double squeeze,” said British Columbia Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair. “People don’t have time or money to get the education they need now to get out of where they are.”
The education question
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in drama and history from the University of Windsor, 26-year-old Erol Nur applied for an education program that would lead to B.C. teacher certification at an elementary school.
He didn’t get in; he lacked experience, they said, even though he had volunteered at elementary schools by assisting teachers with reading, writing and math instruction during his undergraduate years.
Out of luck in furthering his education, Nur worked a bevy of part-time jobs. He has spent the past three years working as a bouncer, a server and a retail sales assistant.
While he said none of the jobs paid well, even finding work was its own ordeal. “I’d be searching every day and would just apply and hopefully hear something from someone. I gave up for a little while and tried not to think about it and make myself feel like crap,” he said. “But at the same time, I was working at these crappy jobs anyway. I knew I had no future there, but I needed something to pay the bills and my student loans.”
Recently, Nur decided the answer was to return to school to learn a specialized trade. In January, he enrolled in an automotive service technician program.
Isolating as it felt to be young and fruitlessly looking for work in the city, Nur was not alone in his predicament. Celia Stewart, 24, spent her late teens and early 20s struggling to find a foothold in both school and work. She lasted only a semester at Capilano University years ago, and after a tumultuous, in-and-out cycle of precarious employment, recently enrolled at the University of the Fraser Valley to study horticulture technology.
In the four years Stewart spent in Vancouver before starting horticulture technology classes, she took various jobs waiting tables in restaurants and working part-time at a tanning salon. One job paid no hourly rate; she was paid solely by commission to convince businesses to switch their Internet services to a new provider.
At one point, she was only working at the tanning salon and earning a monthly income of just $400.
“I went a week without groceries; I ended up having to pay rent on my credit card twice,” she recalls of those dark days. “I eventually had to ask my mom to wire me money.”
Stewart has since moved back to Chilliwack with her mother to recover financially while she attends school. She has a part-time job at a greenhouse and believes opportunities will continue to open up for her, as her interests lie in Chilliwack’s strong agriculture industry.
“Doing general studies at Capilano [University] wasn’t for me,” she said. “Being outside of Vancouver, things are easier. There are more opportunities.”
Experience or education?
Both Nur’s and Stewart’s experiences raise questions about the necessity of a university education, something that seems to be valued by mainstream society.
“It’s difficult to connect youth to work that relates to their education. That’s one of the real challenges we see here,” said Porte. “There’s a lack of appropriate available positions out there. A lot of youth who’ve done general studies also don’t know what they’re qualified for.”
Rather than rule out university and focus on trades or hands-on training, staff members at Frog Hollow recommend finding better ways to integrate both education and experience.
Having universities form closer relationships with employers — a common approach in Switzerland and Germany — is one solution. Systemically addressing the financial barriers to obtaining an education is another. So, too, is bridging the gap between trades or university educations by bringing together the best parts of both worlds.
Nur has taken it upon himself to move forward professionally by enrolling in the automotive technician course. But he already knows he might struggle to find full-time employment after graduation. He recently completed a four-month internship at a Honda dealership and continued on as a part-time employee. Now he’s gearing up for graduation this month.
“It’s going to be really difficult to get full-time work [at the dealership again],” he said. “When I left to go back to school, they had to hire someone full-time to take my place.”
CommentsStudents need to look beyond the equation of simply having an academic credential. During your time in university, you need to be networking, and developing relationships with the community and industry. You cannot expect to find a job simply by stockpiling on academic credentials in this current environment. Young people need to develop their skills and leadership potential to truly understand what is out there for them. Relationships are equally, if not more important than your academic degree to getting a high quality job. The biggest barriers for young people today is the lack of developing their soft skills in areas such as people skills, social media, personal branding, global experiences, extra-curricular involvement, the list goes on. Main point: students need to look beyond the classroom to truly understand and see the world to find their purpose. I could not agree more with what Gordon wrote above. I work in the employment field and many youth seem to have lost the ability to use telephones, write effectively, or relate successfully to adults. A degree or a trades ticket is only useful to open doors for you as a basic qualification, you then have to learn to seek out and capitalize on opportunities. Youth in Vancouver also seem reluctant to move. There are unlimited opportunities for youth in AB, SK and MB where there is virtually no unemployment.
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