08/23/2011 07:20 EDT | Updated 10/24/2011 05:12 EDT

Youth Unemployment In Canada: New Model For Employment Centres May Be Leaving The Young Behind


Tracks, a non-profit employment centre in Collingwood, Ont., has always welcomed job-seekers of all ages. But in the past year or so, there is one group that hasn’t been showing up as often as they used to: youth.

It’s part of a broader trend that has reportedly seen employment services for youth reduced at a time when that demographic group stumbled into record-breaking joblessness levels. And critics say that part of the underlying issue is a change to government policy that has taken the focus off youth unemployment.

As Tracks executive director Roy Spiegelberg explains, the decline in the number of young people walking through the door -- which he estimates at about 20 per cent -- is due, at least in part, to an influx of adults.

“People who are of working age, who have got work experience are most hungry to get services, they are aggressively coming into our office looking for help,” says Spiegelberg. “Youth -- you tend to almost have to go after them to encourage them to come into centres, and we just don’t have time for that now.”

Spiegelberg is not alone. Following a significant change in the way many employment centres in Ontario receive government funding, front-line workers report that it’s become more difficult to connect with kids. In the wake of a recession that drove youth joblessness to a 30-year high, critics charge that Canada has watered down its strategy for putting young people back to work -- an unintentional yet undeniable consequence, they say, of an “all-ages approach” to employment services.

It’s no secret that the past few years have been tough on the young and jobless. In the summer of 2009, the unemployment rate among students aged 15 to 24 surpassed 20 per cent; two years later, it has edged down only slightly to 17 per cent. The unemployment rate for all youth aged 15 to 24, meanwhile, remains at more than 14 per cent, nearly double that of the general population.

But rather than a flood of kids desperate to beef up their resumes and improve their job-searching skills, several youth-focused employment agencies in Ontario report a significant decline in young people accessing their services. From 2009 to 2010, a poll of a dozen such agencies found by the youth employment services umbrella group First Work found that the number of young people aged 15 to 24 receiving employment services dropped by 35 per cent.

According to Matt Wood, executive director of First Work, the decline is the result of a consolidation of many federally and provincially funded employment programs, which resulted in “all-ages approach,” among other things. The new approach, he argues, has made it more difficult to target youth.

The consolidation was implemented in Ontario last August under the Labour Market Development Agreement (LMDA), which downloaded the delivery of many employment programs to the province in an effort to provide job-seekers with more universally accessible service.

Though Nancy Schaefer, president of the Toronto-based Youth Employment Services (YES), says that her agency has not experienced a decline in the number of young people, she attributes this to a longstanding reputation for serving youth, and a concerted effort to reach out to youth despite fewer resources with which to do so.

“The government ... would say they’re giving [more money] to laid off people. They would say that we’re addressing the problem. But my argument is that youth unemployment is the worst, and what’s the government doing to address that?” she says. “I don’t think the youth of the province are being well-served under this model.”

In response these criticisms, a communications officer for Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which is responsible for delivering the employment programs that were consolidated under the LMDA, told HuffPost that the province “has improved on the service delivery experience for clients in that youth (and all other clients) now have a far greater choice as to where they may access service.”

Despite the fact that “the overall number of sites has decreased” due to the “reorganization of the Employment Services [m]odel,” Tanya Blazina maintained in an e-mail that “the performance management framework ... is designed to ensure that service delivery sites are doing targeted outreach to ensure that services are being provided to clients who are most in need of services.”

As for the reported decline in the number of youth accessing services, she questioned the scope of the First Work poll, maintaining that “Youth numbers may well be dispersed amongst the larger Employment Services network.”

Blazina provided The Huffington Post with data indicating that the number of youth -- defined as age 30 or younger -- accessing employment services in Ontario grew by 16,000 from 2008-2009 to 2009-2010, to a total of 166,000. However, the ministry did not have these numbers compiled when HuffPost inquired about them, and it took the ministry nearly a week to put them together.

When asked about the discrepancy between the ministry data and that which First Work collected, Wood points out that the province has a much broader definition of youth, defining it as people under 30. The First Work poll used 24 as the cutoff for youth.

“These numbers cannot compare apples to apples,” Wood asserts.

“The data [the province is] sharing sidesteps the issues by using such a high age category,” he says, adding that the province’s numbers also reflect an increased investment in summer job programs in recent years, which only serve students.

“The drop we have witnessed has been in the out-of-school unemployed youth, a much more needy population who do not typically take advantage of summer job programs,” he says.

According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), Ottawa inked the LMDAs to “help unemployed Canadians quickly find and return to work and to develop a skilled labour force … Through these agreements, Government of Canada funding enables provinces and territories to design, deliver and manage skills and employment programs for unemployed Canadians.”

A similar consolidation effort is currently underway in B.C., where the province is expected to award contracts for “one-stop shop” employment services agencies under the LMDA later this year.

Though there are still federally funded programs that serve specific groups of youth (HRSDC told HuffPost that 57,000 young people across the country were served by Youth Employment Strategy programs in 2010-2011, about 2,500 more than the previous year), the consolidation of other major youth and adult programs in Ontario has reportedly taken the emphasis off of young people, even in centres that specialize in serving this typically tough-to-reach group.

“The system overhaul has really kind of forced us to market more generally across all demographics,” says Jeff Burry, director of employment services at the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa. “Youth are kind of thrown into that, whereas before it was exclusive to youth.”

As Wood sees it, the all-ages mandate means many young people must now compete with adults for limited time and resources in a battle that is tough for them to win.

“Serving adults in employment services is like shooting fish in a barrel. Adults are self motivated, adults understand the system and adults have experience and strengths that they can build on,” he says. “So when [agencies] open their doors, who is lining up? Adults.”

More than 50 per cent of poll respondents told First Work they were serving fewer young people because of “the strict measures of the new Employment Services model, which excludes youth with more needs in order to serve clients most likely to achieve employment as quickly as possible.”

But that doesn’t mean out-of-work youth are any less desperate.

Isatou Bayo, a 20-year-old who immigrated to Toronto from Gambia last year, says that despite spending months dropping off resumes, making calls and applying online, her search for a minimum-wage job has so far come up cold.

“I’m not looking for [a] high-standard job, but just a job that’s stable for me to support myself,” says Bayo, who has enlisted the help of YES.

“My resume is good, I have a good customer service background, but I don’t know why I don’t have a job,” says Bayo, whose sister sponsored her to come to Canada, and is currently providing her with a place to live. “It’s getting harder and harder every day. I’m so disappointed.”

To be sure, the wide array of government bodies and private sources that fund youth employment program (not to mention the absence of a standard for defining this demographic) makes it difficult to get a clear picture of whether services are working as well as they could, or even as well as they did in the past.

But when it comes to keeping kids from slipping through the cracks, those on the front lines say that gauging the effectiveness of government-funded programs is key.

“[The new Employment Ontario model] is a developing model, so the impact of the model on youth needs to be specifically measured,” says Steve Cordes, executive director of the London, Ont.-based Youth Opportunities Unlimited. “My hunch is that it’s going to be a model that meets with better success when you’re dealing with specific, targeted services for youth. But the Employment Ontario numbers will have to bear that out over time … I sure hope the province is measuring the impact, because I don’t know that they are.”

In the meantime, however, youth-focused employment agencies are focusing on doing what they do best. After noticing a drop-off in the number of young people accessing services last year, Burry says his organization has been “rethinking the way we reach out to youth” online and in social networks, which is beginning to reverse the trend.

“I guess the youth focus got watered down, but that still doesn’t preclude organizations from doing strategic outreach activities catered to youth,” he says. “I just think that as we all try to wrap our heads around the new model, it’s just taking time to figure out.”

Canada's youth joblessness problem has in many ways echoed that of other developed countries. Check out this comparison of youth unemployment rates, inside and outside Canada.