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Former OLG CEO Rod Phillips Named New Chair of CivicAction

The civic non-profit will focus on youth unemployment, which remains a big problem in the Toronto region.

CivicAction hopes to bring various stakeholders together to develop a plan to tackle youth unemployment  Photo from the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance's Flickr photostream

Participants in the 2014 Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) showcase, one of CivicAction’s youth engagement projects. Photo from the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance’s Flickr photostream.

When David Pecaut founded the Toronto City Summit Alliance in 2002, the organization was not necessarily intended to last forever. Its purpose was to cut through thorny municipal problems in a non-partisan way—and if we somehow hit a point when there weren’t pressing problems to solve, the organization could fold. Twelve years later, Pecaut has passed away, the group’s name has changed to CivicAction, and Toronto has no shortage of thorny problems to keep it busy.

2014 has been a transitional period for CivicAction. In January, Sevaun Palvetzian became the new CEO, replacing Mitzie Hunter after Hunter was elected to Queen’s Park (Liberal, Scarborough-Guildwood). And today, former Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation CEO and current Postmedia Chair Rod Phillips joins CivicAction as Chair, replacing John Tory, who resigned in February when he registered to run for mayor.

Torontoist had a chance to speak with Phillips and Palvetzian about the role of CivicAction, transit, and the organization’s newest focus: youth unemployment.

If there’s one issue that you might associate with CivicAction, it’s transit. For the past two years the group has led a campaign called Your 32, an advocacy effort that asks Torontonians what they would do with 32 minutes a day—the amount of time congestion is projected to increase if Metrolinx’s Big Move regional transit plan is not implemented. Transit is the latest in a series of issues that CivicAction has taken on over the years, working with the United Way to identify priority neighbourhoods, addressing growing income inequality, and creating youth leadership programs.

For its next project, CivicAction will be focusing on youth unemployment. At 22.5 per cent, the unemployment rate for youth aged 15-24 is more than twice the municipal average. While this disparity is not unique to Toronto, it is particularly pronounced here: youth unemployment is higher in Ontario than in any Canadian province outside of Atlantic Canada.

There are lots of barriers when it comes to youth unemployment  Photo from the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance's Flickr photostream

There are lots of barriers when it comes to youth unemployment; these are notes from a 2013 ELN meeting, capturing some of them. Photo from the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance’s Flickr photostream.

“In our region, we have 83,000 young people who aren’t in school, aren’t working, aren’t in some kind of training,” says Phillips, citing Statistics Canada data. “Those are our lost kids. How can we find a way to connect them to a workforce? … How do you make connections between people who want a job and people who want to provide a job?”

This problem vexes policymakers around the world. In Europe, youth unemployment has consistently been two to three times higher than the general employment rate over the past 20 years. According to a 2012 International Labour Organization report, youth comprised 40 per cent of the world’s unemployed population [PDF].

Part of the problem is that younger workers often don’t have the assistance or support to know exactly how to go about entering the labour force. “Young people aren’t entirely sure where to find the right job,” says Palvetzian, who worked for the provincial government (including spearheading work on the Ontario Place revitalization project) before joining CivicAction. “We hear young people say, ‘I don’t have a mentor in my life,’ someone who can read a résumé and give advice. Someone to help you get organized and get you prepared for your first interview. But not everyone has that, and we have, in this city, a great opportunity to take mentoring that happens on a local level and scale it up.”

Palvetzian points out that the focus on apprenticeship and mentorship is an approach that has worked well for Germany, which has lower levels of youth unemployment than most nations. Toronto has several existing jobs and mentoring programs, like Partnership to Advance Youth Employment, Youth Employment Services, and the City’s Youth Employment Partnerships. CivicAction is hoping to build on those, and is currently consulting with various stakeholders to determine needs before coming up with its own plan for tackling youth unemployment. Phillips and Palvetzian both stress the group’s role is primarily to serve as a convener, fostering collaboration in ways that other groups may not be able to (for political reasons or because they don’t possess CivicAction’s reach and access). They want CivicAction to act as the hub that facilitates discussions, because its non-partisan status enables them to do so—they hope—effectively.

This project-based approach has its limits. While focusing on a particular issue provides direction, it can also obscure the fact that problems like youth unemployment do not exist in isolation, and the barriers young people face when trying to enter the workforce aren’t limited to the size of their Rolodex or their level of education. The ability of a youth in Malvern to find a quality job that will start her career on the right trajectory is limited by transit access, and will be reliant on having the mentorship, role modelling, and opportunities that come from livable, mixed neighbourhoods. Phillips acknowledges that those layered discussions need to take place: “It goes without saying that that hasn’t been an integrated enough conversation,” he says, while adding that getting different groups who work on separate-but-related issues to collaborate effectively can be difficult.

He hopes that CivicAction can begin, at least, by incubating the right kind of leadership. “[Our approach] means by definition that we’ll have to circle back to some of those other issues. But each one brings together an event or activity that brings together a group of people, and they then solve other problems.”

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