Persistently Overlooked Youth Unemployment
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Persistently Overlooked Youth Unemployment

The GTA is particularly affected, but despite a big impact to the economy, youth unemployment remains low on the list of campaign promises.

Photo by Gardner from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Gardner from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Mike Sullivan, the NDP MP representing York South-Weston, recalls a time when companies in Toronto would show up at high school convocations, take their pick of newly minted graduates and launch them into a career—a job some of them would hold down until they retired some 40 years later.

Whether that sounds like a fairytale or a nightmare, for today’s young people, that sort of job security is far from a reality.

If you’re between the ages 15 and 24 and live in the Toronto area, there’s an 18 per cent chance you’re out of school and out of work. For the last few years we’ve heard that joblessness among youth in Toronto—Canada’s commercial and economic centre—is nearly as rampant as in the chronic unemployment hubs in the Atlantic provinces. It’s about two percentage points above the provincial average, and almost five percentage points above the national average. For young recent immigrants in Toronto, the unemployment rate climbs to 30 per cent, bringing the total number of unemployed youth in the GTHA to roughly 83,000.

“That’s a striking number,” says Sevaun Palvetzian, CEO of Civic Action, a Toronto-based non-profit tasked with tackling social challenges within the city. “That’s a lot of youth that are not plugged in, and a lot of talent that’s not being utilized.”

Civic Action started focusing on youth unemployment about two years ago, partnering with the provincial government and private companies on a long-term initiative called Escalator aimed at connecting local employers with young job-seekers. “We knew this wasn’t a new problem,” says Palvetzian, “but it was on the rise.”

In fact, Toronto youth unemployment has been trending upward since the early 2000s, reaching its peak at 21 per cent in 2012 before falling to the current 18.1 per cent.

“It’s been really tough, even having a degree…I thought after graduating I’d find a job right away.”

Twenty-five-year-old Dornel Phillips is one of the many young Torontonians who has struggled to find work in the city. He immigrated to Toronto from Georgetown, Guyana 15 years ago, and then moved to Windsor for university. He returned to Toronto after finishing his degree in marketing and IT, and was eager to settle into a job and start paying off his student debt. It didn’t quite pan out that way. “It’s been really tough, even having a degree,” says Phillips. “I thought after graduating I’d find a job right away.”

Instead, Phillips spent two years volunteering, sometimes working part-time contract gigs and odd jobs, to barely scrape together enough money to support himself. One of his temporary positions, ironically, was helping at-risk teenagers at LAMP community health centre in south Etobicoke develop skills they need to land a job. “A lot of my time then was spent sending off resumes,” says Phillips.

“Part of what’s happened is it’s become very difficult to get a good manufacturing job,” says Sullivan, pointing to the outsourcing of Canada’s manufacturing industry—the bulk of which was in Ontario—as one of the culprits of the dwindling young workforce.

“Those jobs tend to be more permanent, tend to be more full-time, and tend to have better wages with more opportunities,” he says, adding that not only are youth missing out on these jobs, but their parents are as well. “You’ll find, in this riding in particular, that it’s moms and dads who are working the McDonald’s jobs—the low wage jobs. The stuff that we older folks thought was what kids did to earn enough money to go to school, those are now being done by families trying to eek out a living in this city.”

According to Sullivan, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Toronto is another factor that’s pushed young people out of the job market. In August 2013, a letter addressed to Minister of Employment Jason Kenney from officials within his own department flagged the threat: “Five of the top six industries that employ the most youth (accommodation and food service, construction, information and cultural industries, and “other services”) were also in the top half of (temporary foreign worker) program users,” the letter reads.

The Conservative government waited another year before updating the program regulations to require employers to try to fill jobs first with Canadians before offering them to temporary foreign workers.

Last winter, Phillips heard that Civic Action was looking for tech-savvy youth for a new, fully-funded employment program called NPower. Phillips applied to the program, got an interview, and was accepted on the spot. Over the next 22 weeks, he and 23 other classmates received technical IT training, professional development coaching, and a paid eight-week co-op placement. Phillips finished NPower in May and was immediately hired by RBC to work in the tech sector. All of his classmates found employment, too.

“For me, not having a network was the biggest barrier—not being able to even get in the door,” Phillips says regarding his pre-employment predicament.

It’s a challenge Palvetzian sees all the time. “So many of these youth facing barriers (to employment) do not have mentors in their life. They struggle with just getting plugged into the job market.”

In order to address that struggle, Civic Action partnered with United Way Toronto & York Region, and, a web-based networking service, to launch a mentorship program called netWORKS. Organizations such as Accenture, BMO, College of Carpenters and Allied Trades, and Virgin Mobile Canada will provide mentors for youth participating in the program.

There are other initiatives like Civic Action’s Escalator program throughout the GTA, like the City of Toronto’s Partnership to Advance Youth Employment (PAYE) strategy, and Hammer Heads, a training and apprenticeship program for youth interested in the construction industry. While these have helped handfuls of young people find work in their city, mitigating youth unemployment in Toronto may require more streamlined planning—and funding—from all orders of government. Alternatively, ignoring the problem, as Palvetzian argues, could cost the country $12 billion over the next 20 years [PDF].

Until mid-September this year, youth unemployment garnered little attention on the federal campaign trail. Thomas Mulcair was the first to announce that, if elected, the NDP would pledge $200 million over the next four years towards employment initiatives for youth, including creating 400,000 jobs and conducting a “crackdown” on unpaid internships.

The following day, Justin Trudeau promised to spend $1.5 billion over four years on youth job strategy to help 125,000 young people find a job.

Stephen Harper has yet to announce his plan for getting youth back into the workforce.

While now gainfully employed, Phillips continues working part-time at his community health centre in Etobicoke where he sees his peers, some of whom are university-educated, still struggling to find work. “The government should be doing more,” he says. “They’re the ones who made the policies. They have their thumb on the pulse and can dictate what happens next.”