Opinion

Generation Lost

How youth unemployment has become a national crisis.

By Yvonne Robertson, 28 Aug 2013, Megaphone Magazine

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Erol Nur is one of thousands of Canadian youth struggling to find stable employment. Photo by Yvonne Robertson.

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It's a hot Friday afternoon and Commercial Drive is bustling with its usual summer cacophony of people, busy car traffic and bright, bold colours. A quiet refuge from the street noise lies at the corner of East 5th Avenue.

The steady rotation of the ceiling fan is the only thing to be heard inside the Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House youth employment centre, where two young people in their twenties work silently on their resumes and scroll through online job postings.

"The search has been long and difficult," says 28-year-old Jack St. John (a pseudonym). He's tired but hopeful. "It's not surprising, though. It takes months to find a job now."

St. John works part-time at a coffee shop. He has years of experience in the tourism industry.

He has taken courses in theatre and radio broadcasting at UBC and Langara College. Despite this work experience and education, he's spent the last decade -- all of his twenties to date -- in continuous, excruciating bouts of unemployment.

"It's hard to know where to look for jobs," says Nina Perez, 24, who completed her Bachelor of Science at UBC last summer.

Upon graduation, Perez moved back to New Westminster to live with her parents after she could no longer afford the apartment she was living in, paid by her student loans. She has two part-time jobs that add up to about 20 hours a week. "Everyone asks for experience. There are hardly any entry-level jobs out there."

A lack of experience is one of the top challenges young people face, according to the Frog Hollow staff members. They help people between the ages of 16 and 30 find jobs. Their clients range from marginalized youth sometimes without a high school diploma to those with multiple post-secondary degrees. They all struggle to find stable, full-time work.

The rising numbers of unemployed or underemployed youth extend far beyond the four walls of the east Vancouver neighbourhood house. A recent CIBC World Market Inc. report found unemployment among youth between the ages of 15 and 24 is more than twice as high as unemployment among older Canadians.

It's a record gap but even that figure is understood to underestimate the total number young people struggling to find and secure work. The figure doesn't account for youth who aren't receiving income assistance because they aren't registered as unemployed, or, as in the case with St. John and Perez, are underemployed. Nor does it factor in those who have given up looking for work or those working various part-time jobs to make up full-time earnings.

Last fall, The Globe and Mail took into account these scenarios and bumped the figure to 19.6 per cent. Outside of Canada, similar trends are being seen in American and European cities.

A 'double squeeze': young people locked out of jobs, school

The economy has become de-industrialized," says 28-year-old Stephen Von Sychowski, the Young Workers Committee chair at the BC Federation of Labour. "North America is a shopping mall industry. Everything is being produced overseas because it's cheaper. In North America, what's mostly left for us are jobs in the retail and service sector; jobs that are undervalued and underpaid."

Von Sychowski cites a laundry list of reasons young workers face this crisis, including a globalized economy which sees traditional jobs, such as in the lumber industry, disappear overseas or become extinct due to technology and automation.

A tough economic climate also causes employers to favour hiring on a temporary basis while remaining reluctant to invest the time and money into training permanent staff.

"Training is a significant investment," says Christina Porte, a case manager at Frog Hollow. "If companies are experiencing tough times where each person is already doing more than one job, it's tough for people to hire a person with little experience. Who's going to train them?"

And if a post-secondary education is one kind of training ground for work in certain fields, a perfect storm of B.C.'s $10.25-an-hour minimum wage and rising tuition rates has many recent grads struggling to pay off overwhelming student loans with what few jobs they can find.

Porte says she's often shocked when looking through job postings with clients. Employers expect high qualifications from universities but are only willing to pay low wages.

"It's a double squeeze," says BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair. "People don't have time or money to get the education they need now to get out of where they are."

The education question

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama and history from the University of Windsor, 26-year-old Erol Nur applied for an education program that would lead to B.C. teacher certification.

He didn't get in; he lacked experience, they said, even though he had volunteered at elementary schools by assisting teachers with reading, writing and math instruction during his undergraduate years.

Out of luck in furthering his education, Nur worked a bevy of part-time jobs. He has spent the last three years working as a bouncer, a server and a retail sales assistant.

While he says none of the jobs paid well even finding work was its own ordeal. "I'd be searching every day and would just apply and hopefully hear something from someone. I gave up for a little while and tried not to think about it and make myself feel like crap," he says. "But at the same time, I was working at these crappy jobs anyway. I knew I had no future there but I needed something to pay the bills and my student loans."

Recently, Nur decided the answer was to return to school to learn a specialized trade. In January, he enrolled in BCIT's automotive service technician program.

Isolating as it felt to be young and fruitlessly looking for work in the city, Nur was not alone in his predicament.

Celia Stewart, 24, spent her late teens and early twenties struggling to find a foothold in both school and work. She lasted only a semester at Capilano University years ago and after a tumultuous, in-and-out cycle of precarious employment, recently enrolled at the University of the Fraser Valley to study horticulture technology.

In the four years Stewart spent in Vancouver before starting horticulture technology classes, she took various jobs waiting tables in restaurants and working part-time at a tanning salon. One job paid no hourly rate; she was paid solely by commission to convince businesses to switch their Internet services to a new provider.

At one point, she was only working at the tanning salon and earning a monthly income of just $400.

"I went a week without groceries, I ended up having to pay rent on my credit card twice," she recalls of those dark days. "I eventually had to ask my mom to wire me money."

Stewart has since moved back to Chilliwack with her mother to recover financially while she attends school. She has a part-time job at a greenhouse and believes opportunities will continue to open up for her as her interests lie in Chilliwack's strong agriculture industry.

"Doing general studies at Capilano [University] wasn't for me," she says. "Being outside of Vancouver, things are easier. There are more opportunities."

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After failing to land full-time employment, Celia Stewart returned to university in the hope of expanding her employability.

A broken link between experience and education

Both Nur's and Stewart's experiences raise questions about the necessity of a university education -- something highly valued by mainstream society.

"It's difficult to connect youth to work that relates to their education. That's one of the real challenges we see here," says Porte. "There's a lack of appropriate available positions out there. A lot of youth who've done general studies also don't know what they're qualified for."

Rather than rule out university and focus on trades or hands-on training, staff at Frog Hollow recommend finding better ways to integrate both education and experience.

Having universities form closer relationships with employers -- a common approach in Switzerland and Germany -- is one solution. Systemically addressing the financial barriers to obtaining an education is another. So, too, is bridging the gap between trades and university educations by bringing together the best of both worlds.

Nur has taken it upon himself to move forward professionally by enrolling at BCIT. But he already knows he might struggle to find full-time employment after graduation. He recently completed a four-month internship at a Honda dealership and continued on as a part-time employee. Now he's gearing up for graduation this month.

"It's going to be really difficult to get full-time work [at the dealership again]," he says. "When I left to go back to school, they had to hire someone full-time to take my place."

No jobs, bleak futures

The high rates of unemployment among young people could mean significant shifts in the economy, according to Amy Hanser, a sociology professor at UBC.

"Are we going to cut this generation out from high-paying jobs?" she asks. "Are we going to have persistent inequality? What could end up happening is a segmented labour market with good jobs and bad jobs, and it won't be easy to move between the two."

Being underpaid now affects a young worker's earning potential and future employment. In the fall of 2011, Forbes quoted a British study that found a young person who spends three months out of work before age 23 will spend 1.3 months more time out of work than his or her employed peers later in life.

"It would be interesting to see if young workers view this problem as a personal failure or as a systemic problem," Hanser says. "Traditionally, the working class has viewed it as systemic. But as unemployment creeps into the middle class, it becomes viewed as a personal failure."

Nur, Stewart, Perez and St. John spent hours, days and months chasing down work that never came. The odds were stacked against them, but they faulted themselves for the fruitless chase. They said they felt inadequate, that they could have done more.

"We're creating a generation of despair," says Sinclair. "It's now part of the system to marginalize people. We're creating this underclass of people with no access or hope. They don't participate in society."

Unequal playing field leaves less fortunate in the dust

While young people with some university or trade education struggle to find jobs, the effect trickles down to those with fewer privileges, including people who left high school before they graduated because they needed to work to support their family or because family trauma made it impossible for them to go to class.

That means an 18-year-old who didn't finish high school might find himself competing with a 28-year-old with a master's degree for the same job in a coffee shop.

"I often worry about those folks that maybe have already faced a lot more dimensions of vulnerability," says Porte. "Those folks that maybe haven't completed a secondary education or have a lot of personal or family trauma, and how this whole thing disproportionately affects those folks."

Government-led and expert-driven solutions for youth unemployment often rely on the false assumption that most young people have some form of post-secondary education, even if that means just having taken a few courses. Such thinking often ignores young people's lived experiences, especially those with no high school diploma.

First Call BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition recently released a study, "Child Labour is No Accident: The Experience of BC's Working Children." It looks at how children aged 12 to 14 (the province lowered the employment start age to 12 in 2003) are becoming more likely to be working in dangerous conditions such as unclean fast food restaurants or construction.

The main reasons such young teens are working at all? Family poverty. The report also notes that many young employees get jobs because they want what other kids have -- things their own parents can't afford to buy for them.

"What you end up with is a vulnerable and unassertive workforce, unlikely to know their rights," says Adrienne Montani, First Call's provincial coordinator and author of the report.

"We have to be willing to work together"

Montani calls on the province to regulate where children can work and tackle poverty through affordable housing initiatives and raising the minimum wage.

On top of that, the BC Federation of Labour's Jim Sinclair wants more government incentives for employers to hire apprentices and new graduates.

He also calls for dramatic changes to the service sector. "Jobs in retail, the service sector shouldn't be low paying anymore," he says. "These jobs are replacing traditional jobs that have gone extinct because of technology. They should be seen as viable career options. Make it part of our economy. Give them real pay and real benefits."

Government initiatives such as the temporary foreign workers program keep wages low. So does a public appetite for low prices in the retail sector, according to Sinclair.

Back at Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House, Porte sees a trend towards entrepreneurship. Young people are recognizing the unstable economy and are beginning to create their own jobs that better align with their values. They're starting their own community gardens or doing art outreach in marginalized communities.

"I'm not saying they can open up their own brick and mortar coffee shop," she says. "But programs such as Youth Mean Business help youth look at something they're already doing and train them to really support themselves doing it, such as starting their own line of jewelry or a cleaning company."

"There's this attitude that you should just be thankful you have a job at all and people are so afraid of losing it," adds Von Sychowski. "But at some point, we have to ask, why are we going to take this? How can we make this better for all of us? We have to be willing to work together and get angry enough."

This article first appeared in Megaphone Magazine, and is republished here with permission.  [Tyee]

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