The white collar job has long been heralded as the golden standard of success. Post-secondary education, now commonly accessed in Canada, has become a societal rite of passage, and one widely accepted as a key step toward enhancing career opportunities.
Yet job prospects for Canada's highly educated youth are slim, the competition stiff, and professional development opportunities continue to erode. Add to that the shifting perceptions of what constitutes "ideal" work -- with youth often ranking things like social impact and work-life balance higher on their list of career priorities than financial security -- and it seems it might be time to update our thinking.
For over two decades, the proportion of young adults accessing post-secondary education has steadily climbed upward, from 25% in 1990 to 37% in 2009, with peak enrollment predicted in 2013. While educational achievement among youth soars, the same cannot be said for increases in job quality. The result? Disillusioned graduates facing the reality that a degree may prepare one for a challenging and meaningful career, but does not entitle one to it.
In an economy in which employment is increasingly scarce, Canadian youth need hard and soft skills to create their own opportunities.
"Adaptability, resourcefulness, creativity, and drive for innovation are essential attributes that are seldom honed exclusively in the classroom," says Elly Adeland, Director of Operations with The Otesha Project, the youth led non-profit where I work as Communications Co-Ordination. The Otesha Project combines experiential learning and bicycle tours to foster personal and professional development among participants.
Igniting a spirit of social entrepreneurship (enterprises that contribute to greater social and economic well being) is one tactic volunteer-based organizations like ours are using to address Canada's high youth unemployment. The Otesha Project offers a unique brand of skills development, organizing volunteers to set out on pedal-powered tours to deliver sustainability education in schools across the country. Living as a mobile community, participants refine their public speaking, networking, and problem solving skills, often returning home energized to start their own social enterprise.
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Another great example is the IMPACT! Sustainability Champions Trainings program provided by The Natural Step and The Cooperators. This program trains young leaders to strategically plan and design their own sustainability projects while providing participants with support and access to seed funding for their initiatives.
While Social entrepreneurship has been on the rise, social intrapreneurship has also been receiving ever more recognition. Social intraprenuers are agents of change who, rather than creating something new, work within their existing occupations, leveraging networks and resources to create positive change from the inside-out.
Creating new work is one thing, but thinking differently about existing work is quite another.
"As much as we need to shift our mindset from getting a career to making a career, we also need to transform our attitudes about existing work," says Adeland. "We need socially-minded people doing good work in the public and private sectors, and we also need to bring dignity and pride back to undervalued but essential work. A white collar job may have plenty of appeal, but professions like farming and skilled trades are sorely in need of dedicated individuals keen to contribute to social and environmental well-being."
Achieving increases in the number of youth employed with satisfying work will require a variety of strategies, with no one simple solution. However, youth creating new work that aligns with their values, or bringing their values to already existing opportunities, seem like two good places to start.