How Civic Tech Can Be Used To Improve Youth Employment
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How Civic Tech Can Be Used To Improve Youth Employment

A new hacking challenge encourages people to research and develop tech tools.


One of Civic Tech Toronto’s weekly hacknights. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Eng.

Stories about millennials’ supposed aimlessness, laziness, or general underachievement abound. The narrative is familiar: a 20-something with a degree or two is unable (or unwilling, as the story sometimes goes) to find stable work, and is forced to move back into their parents’ home. Though people often editorialize about the root cause for this trend—I’m told participation trophies are at fault, not structural disadvantage—data show troubling trends in youth employment, and the federal government is taking notice.

Last month, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) announced the establishment of an expert panel on youth employment. According to the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey, the 2008 recession hit youth particularly hard, affecting younger Canadians more severely than the general public. The youth unemployment rate is nearly double the national average. This fact is only exacerbated by the rise of precarious employment conditions.

Locally, Toronto’s Vital Signs report indicates that the unemployment rate for Toronto’s youth is even higher than the national average, peaking at over 21 per cent in 2014.

The report also recognizes that several groups of youth are disproportionately not in education or employment: racialized and newcomer youth, aboriginal youth, youth living in poverty or in conflict with the law, youth in and leaving care, LGBTQ* youth, and youth with disabilities and special needs.

The federal expert panel on youth engagement will assess barriers faced by Canadian youth trying to find and keep work, with a specific focus on examining innovative practices for improving youth employment from other governments, nonprofits, and employers in Canada and internationally.

ESDC currently administers several programs designed to address youth employment in Canada, including Skills Link, Career Focus, and Canada Summer Jobs.

One exploration into the landscape of alternative interventions into youth employment is a partnership with Civic Tech Toronto (CTTO).

CTTO is a community group that meets for weekly “hacknights” during which participants come together to bring tech, data, and design skills to bear on civic problems.

The group is one of many similar community groups nationally and internationally, part of a growing civic tech movement of designers, technologists, public servants, and others working to mobilize technology and design for the common good.


Civic Tech Toronto’s hacknights feature presentations and breakout groups. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Eng.

Civic Tech Toronto was founded in the summer of 2015, and has grown from a few folks around a boardroom table to a community of over 1,200. In partnering with CTTO, ESDC hopes to learn how the expert panel on youth employment might benefit from the work of civic tech community groups.

To that end, Civic Tech Toronto is hosting its first-ever sponsored challenge.

The Youth Employment Challenge gives teams of participants six weeks to research, prototype, and test tech tools designed to improve youth employment in Canada. Teams who submit an open source/creative commons prototype, documenting user research and prototype testing, will share the $3,000 cash award.

There are precedents from across the border of civic technologists designing tools to improve youth employment. For example, LRNG builds apps that offer learning playlists focusing on 21st-century workforce competences, and partners with 12 cities to offer locally relevant content. Users can earn badges that unlock employment-related opportunities, such as internships and job shadowing.

Unlike many other hacking challenges, the Youth Employment Challenge emphasizes process, not outcome.

This is because ESDC and the expert panel on youth employment are interested in building a knowledge base about how to use the methods and mindsets of the civic tech movement to inform their work, not just getting their hands on a brand new tool.

“Youth employment is a complex issue, and if we’re going to make an impact, we’re going to have to approach it from every angle,” says Vass Bednar, chair of the expert panel on youth employment. “Policy makers can benefit greatly from learning more about Civic Tech Toronto’s focus on user-centred-design.”

The partnership between ESDC and Civic Tech Toronto signals an interest on behalf of government in taking new, more collaborative approaches to addressing complex social problems. Civic tech alone will not completely untangle complex social problems like youth employment, but the methodologies and mindsets the the movement uses may help loosen the knot.

Those interested in participating in Civic Tech Toronto’s Youth Employment Challenge can find information here. The deadline for submissions is November 29.

Dorothy Eng is a co-founder of Civic Tech Toronto, and Lia Milito is a co-organizer.