Forum draws attention to youth unemployment in Canada

Student union, labour groups, and policy think tank host forum addressing bleak job market prospects for Canada’s youth

The issue of youth unemployment was front-and-centre last Friday at a forum hosted by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and several labour unions.

The daylong event featured panels, presentations, and round table discussions on the problem of youth unemployment and underemployment, and also saw participants explore possible solutions.

The issue of youth unemployment was raised at the most recent CFS national convention, and Bilan Arte, Manitoba chairperson for CFS, helped organize Friday’s event.

“The discussion around youth underemployment and unemployment really came to light at our last national general meeting. There were many member locals from Ontario that were talking about this issue of unpaid internships, and the problems that graduates were facing after they finished their degrees,” she said on Friday.

Kevin Chief, provincial Minister for Children and Youth Opportunities, spoke at the event, highlighting the challenges faced by young people in his constituency of Point Douglas. Dave Sauer, president of the Winnipeg Labour Council, also addressed attendees.

“The fact that we have had to hold a forum like this, to come together and talk about this issue, I think speaks to the growing urgency of the problem,” said Sauer.

“It is very worrying to see these trends, and more needs to be done to help young people be successful when they leave university, or college, or high school.”

A cause for concern

The economic impact of unemployment and underemployment among Canada’s youth was highlighted in a report released last year by TD bank senior economist Martin Schwerdtfeger, who estimated the loss in wages to be $10.7 billion over a three-year period.

The federal government previously claimed that a “skills gap” arose in the labour force; that is, that job vacancies exist—especially in skilled trades and technical areas—but that workers do not have the skills that businesses require.

Several panellists and participants on Friday rejected this assertion, instead arguing that a sheer lack of jobs is the true problem.

Canadian economist Don Drummond’s work supports this view. A recent report by Drummond found that there have been no wage spikes in the skilled trades, nor in the scientific or technical fields – something one would expect if there were an unmet demand for such workers.

In addition, a Statistics Canada survey of job vacancies from May of last year found that there were 6.3 unemployed people for every job vacancy, suggesting a lack of openings.

Conversely, a survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found that 300,000 private sector jobs went unfilled in the second quarter of 2013.

“Let’s face it, we have too many jobs without people, and too many people without jobs,” said Jason Kenney, the federal Minister for Employment and Social Development, during a speech last year to the Economic Club of Canada.

The Manitoba government increased funding for trades and job training for young people when it released the provincial budget earlier this month. The budget includes a $5,000 tax credit for employers who hire apprentices, and also offers incentives for expanding high school apprenticeship programs.

The issue of training was also addressed at last Friday’s forum. Lynne Fernandez of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives spoke about the private sector’s shirking of its traditional responsibility for training young people, and the offloading of this task onto the public sector.

“Why are these employers not providing training themselves? They are trying to move that responsibility for training onto our public institutions. This is a trend that is definitely very different from when I was young, where employers would take the time and actually train you,” said Fernandez.

The federal government recently reached an agreement with all provinces (except Quebec) to implement the much-publicized Canada Job Grant (CJG).

The CJG seeks to encourage the hiring of more workers by subsidizing the costs that businesses incur when training new employees. However, the CJG will likely defund existing programs that target groups with low labour market participation, such as youth, new immigrants, Aboriginal Canadians, and the long-term unemployed.

Janet Layte, a career counsellor at Sara Riel Inc., an organization that helps people with mental health issues re-enter the workforce, can already see this trend developing.

Layte’s organization, which provides assistance to many young people, has seen its budget cut this year, and may not be able to help as many people as in the past.

“There’s no doubt that a lot of people would still be on social assistance or not working if they didn’t get help from us or similar organizations,” said Layte.

The national youth unemployment rate stands at 13.9 per cent – roughly double the rate of other workers. When you include young people who are underemployed, or have given up looking for work, the rate jumps to 27.7 per cent.