06/10/2011 08:43 EDT | Updated 08/10/2011 05:12 EDT

Youth Employment A Challenge As Students, Graduates Struggle To Break In

AP File

Kathryn Agler figures she needs to make at least $5,000 this summer so she can afford rent and food while studying next year at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. But after being back in her hometown of Cambridge, Ont., for more than a month, Agler is still searching for that elusive summer job. The 22-year-old, who is looking for work as a server or hostess in a restaurant, said finding a job for the summer months used to be easy.

No longer.

"They want people with experience," said Agler, who is studying general arts and science. "I'm a friendly person, outgoing. But now everyone wants experience too. It makes it even harder."

While the overall Canadian employment market is improving with 22,300 new jobs created last month, according to the latest figures from Statistics Canada released today, young adults continue to struggle to find work.

Friday’s job report showed that Canada's overall unemployment rate fell in May to 7.4 per cent, compared with 7.6 per cent in April, but the unemployment rate for men and women between the ages of 15 and 24 was at 13.9 per cent, compared with 14.3 per cent a month earlier.

For students, in particular, the picture is a little more bleak as those between aged 20 to 24 was at 15 per cent.

"Whenever there is a recession, and we are coming through a major one, young people are always the hardest hit," Nancy Schaefer, president of Youth Employment Services, a non-profit organization providing employment counselling and training, told HuffPost Canada.

"They are the first to be let go, and the last to be hired back. That's one of the main reasons why it is very difficult for young people, whether they are high school graduates or university graduates."

More jobs are being created now, mostly part-time, but at a sluggish pace, she said.

"And young people that want to work in a specific field can't break into it because the baby boomers are holding on to their jobs. And employers are not expanding."

Another barrier to finding employment is unrealistic expectations of the job market, said Schaefer. New graduates, particularly those who studied sciences or studied technical subjects such as architecture and engineering, often expect to earn between $60,000 and $70,000 in their first job, within their field.

It may have been a reasonable assumption a decade ago, but not anymore, she said.

"Their expectations, they're not congruent with the labour market realities... But it's getting so serious for young people that if you graduated, it will take six months to a year trying to get a job in a field that interests you," she said.

Stephanie Barrett has been struggling to get an edge up on the competition for longer than that.

She graduated from Toronto’s Seneca College in 2003 with a diploma in computer programming, and worked on a contract basis, as an operations infrastructure clerk for the town of Newmarket.

But union rules stipulated that an employee could be kept on contract for no more than seven years. With no permanent position to take at the end of her seven years, Barrett found herself back on the job market two years ago.

What she found was a radically different employment landscape than when she first graduated.

"I've had to branch out a little bit, and ended up going to Walmart for almost a year," said Barrett, 32. "I've been mostly looking for similar positions to what I have experience in, but the employers are looking for more experience than I can offer them, or looking for current students or recent graduates," she said. "There is just too much competition."

The hard slog for job hunters is tougher in some provinces than others.

In May, employment increased in Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan while there were drops in Newfoundland and Labrador.

At the University of Manitoba, job postings for students are down slightly from last year, said Lynda Peto, the school's employment advisor and co-operative education liaison.

Job ads from employers are up this year at the University of Toronto compared with last, said Mary Giamos, career management consultant at the career centre the St. George campus.

Still, the old and young alike in Canada are better off than their counterparts south of the border, according to dismal employment data released by the U.S. government last week. The unemployment rate for Americans held steady at 9.1 per cent in May.

"Our situation isn't comparable to what's going on in the U.S.," said Giamos. "The situation is better here, and is probably better in the [greater Toronto area] than in the rest of the province, and other parts of the country."