Moving out of the Basement: Addressing Canada’s Youth Unemployment Problem

Andrew Abballe

Many youth are told that the path to success in entering the workforce is straightforward: get into a good university, work hard to get high grades, and surely there ought to be a well-paying job in your desired field waiting for you upon graduation.

But while there is clear evidence that graduates of both university and colleges earn more than those without post-secondary degrees, recent graduates have been struggling to find relevant work.

Canada’s youth (15 to 24 years old) unemployment rate is 12.6 percent which is nearly double the national average of 6.9 per cent. An interim report from the federal government’s Expert Panel on Youth Employment highlights the several challenges youth face when seeking to enter into the job market. Recent graduates of post-secondary education have found it increasingly difficult to get their ‘foot in the door’ as they enter a workforce that is largely characterized by precarious short-term contract work. Further, many youth face additional barriers, such as mental health issues, food insecurity, and racial discrimination, which hinder their ability to search for and secure relevant employment opportunities.

students-in-classMuch of the debate surrounding youth unemployment has centered on both the central purpose and role of higher education. Critics of the current post-secondary education system claim that universities are not adequately equipping students with the skills that are demanded by employers. They stipulate that higher education institutions should promote more career-oriented degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, which lead to high paid and in-demand jobs.

University of Saskatchewan professor Ken Coates believes that Canadian universities can produce higher quality graduates who are better equipped to enter the job market by reducing university enrollment by 25 to 30 per cent. He claims that “we’ve oversold the value of a university degree as a market entry, as opposed to an education…we’re finding from employers that the credential doesn’t carry the same weight and substance as it used to.” Coates recommends that governments should actively promote colleges and polytechnics which provide more practical and career-ready programs.

Preparing students for the modern workplace “is less a question of curriculum per se but more a question of how subjects are taught – how interactive they are, how much the problems reflect ‘real life,’ how much teamwork is required and how team dynamics are assessed.”

However, governments promoting or incentivizing enrollment in certain degrees introduces a risk of oversupplying the market with graduates in a particular field. In addition, no profession or field is necessarily safe from technological change and automation — not even STEM-related jobs.

A broad skillset that can be applied to a rapidly changing workforce is the most important thing that students can acquire from their education. As a Goldman Sachs report notes, preparing students for the modern workplace “is less a question of curriculum per se but more a question of how subjects are taught – how interactive they are, how much the problems reflect ‘real life,’ how much teamwork is required and how team dynamics are assessed.”

A study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario indicates that one of the main barriers for recent graduates entering the workforce is not a lack of skills but rather an absence of relevant work experience. The study included an assessment of 316 entry-level Canadian job ads and a follow-up survey of 103 employers. It found that entry-level jobs were largely filled by individuals who had prior work experience. For instance, 59 per cent of employers hired an applicant with three or more years of work experience, whereas 25 per cent of employers hired an applicant with more than five years of relevant work experience. On the contrary, only 24 per cent of employers would consider hiring a candidate with no work experience for an entry-level job.

The key to bridging the gap between school and work is to expose students to meaningful work experiences before they graduate. Work-integrated learning allows students to apply the skills and theory they learn in the classroom in a practical setting. Employers are less concerned with the content that a student learns in school and are instead more focused on the tangible skills they have acquired and the companies for whom they have previously worked. According to an Institute for Public Policy Research report, “it is increasingly the company’s name – McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Google or the FT [Financial Times] – on your resumé that determines future progress. This is because, in addition to being highly selective, these companies are great places to learn transferable professional skills. They are also places where mentorship happens and where valuable networks are formed.”

Post-secondary institutions must take a collaborative approach to ensure that graduates leave with the right skills to succeed in the labour market. Many university graduates have been turning towards college programs to supplement their degrees with practical skills and hands-on learning. Others have been drawn to collaborative diploma/degree programs which integrate theoretical and applied learning.

The STEM to STEAM movement aims to integrate hard skills such as marketing, sales, or computer programming into more abstract and theoretical liberal arts programs. This opens up more employment opportunities and increases earning potential for graduates. This approach acknowledges the fact that many companies are looking for not only technical experts, but also individuals who are holistic thinkers and have soft skills, such as the ability to work in teams and communicate effectively.

Youth must take initiative by ensuring that they are familiar with the latest labour market trends and competencies dem
anded by the job market.

The path for students entering the workforce is no longer linear. Addressing the youth unemployment problem requires governments and educators to depart from conventional thinking on youth employment. It requires these institutions to be cognizant of the rapidly changing economy, and to explore innovative ways of integrating youth into the labour market. Likewise, youth must take initiative by ensuring that they are familiar with the latest labour market trends and competencies demanded by the job market.

As Hoffman and Casnocha posit in the Start-Up of You, “[w]hat’s required now is an entrepreneurial mindset … if you want to seize the new opportunities … you need to think like you are running a start-up: your career … this means you need to be adapting all the time. And if you fail to adapt, no one – not your employer, not the government – is going to catch you when you fall.”

Andrew Abballe is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Ethics, Society, & Law and International Relations from the University of Toronto. His policy interests include economic, education, social policy and innovation. You can usually find him drinking an espresso in one of Toronto’s many cafes.

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