09/08/2014 07:42 EDT | Updated 11/08/2014 05:59 EST

Companies urged to bridge jobs gap for at-risk youth

When asked about why he has trouble getting a job, Jesse Brophy gives a blunt assessment.

"If you put another person with much better circumstances beside me, which one do you think would turn out better?" said the 25-year-old, who faced physical and verbal abuse at home when he was growing up.

Too often, he says, problems from the past continue to hurt his job prospects in the present.

"A lot of people, because of that, find me a little bit too much, because I wear my heart on my sleeve, I say it how it is," said Brophy, who didn't finish high school.

Sitting on the steps of Home Base, a drop-in centre in Richmond Hill, he describes the challenge of overcoming the stigma around at-risk youth in the workplace. He says employers are too quick to write young people off as lazy or unmotivated.

According to a new report from CivicAction, Brophy is not alone. In a new report titled “Escalator: Jobs for Youth Facing Barriers,” the group estimates 83,000 — or 1 in 10 — youth in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are both without a job and not in education or training. The report finds the situation even more difficult when you look closely at the numbers.

"We're talking as high as 30 per cent unemployment for youth who are in the black community. We're talking about unemployment numbers as high as 25 per cent for aboriginal youth," said Sevaun Palvetzian, CEO of CivicAction, which met with more than 800 individuals and organizations while researching the report.

The group found young people in racialized and at-risk groups lack connections to mentors and role models who could help them find jobs. The opportunities those youth do find are often low-paying, short-term positions with limited prospects for building a career.

Palvetzian says government and community groups are doing their part, but added the private sector must step up and bridge the gap.

"This is about scaling up some great efforts that have been taking place, but frankly, adding the private sector leverage, assets and resources to the equation," said Palvetzian.

Bridging the gap

Fayzal Samji, a support worker at Home Base, has worked with Brophy to get him temporary work. Samji works out of a modified house tucked behind some trees off a busy stretch of Yonge Street. There's a room for youth to find donated clothes they can wear to job interviews. There are computers to write resumes and search job postings. Hot meals are provided for those with nowhere else to go.

"A lot of people feel that it's not in their backyard," Samji said. "A lot of youth, they want to work and they want to be successful, but all they really need is that opportunity."

Home Base also offers training, work-placement and mentorship services, but Samji says businesses too often overlook, or are aren’t aware of, youth who access the centre.  

The report says mentorship programs, like the one offered at Home Base, could reach more people and businesses if they were co-ordinated by a regional body. The body would be able to recruit companies and better link them to the agencies. CivicAction also calls for more industry involvement in the programs and training offered by community agencies.

"This is not necessarily about reinventing the wheel,” said Palvetzian. “This is about making the wheel spin faster.”

Corporations stepping up

The CivicAction report says programs like NPower could hold the key to offering long-term solutions to youth unemployment. The 15-week program, first pioneered in the U.S., gives youth industry-designed training from corporate volunteers. They leave with a certificate and a seven-week paid internship. It offers not just a job, but the chance at a career in in-demand sectors like banking and IT, Palvetzian says.

"If we can get some of these young people plugged into jobs that we know we need, it benefits everybody — the communities the youth come from, their families and the company's bottom line," she says.

Samji welcomes the report and greater partnerships with big companies

"It's a first step and I think the biggest fear is just even trying," he says.

Brophy meanwhile is looking forward to taking advantage of another one of the report's recommendations — making job information more accessible. He's learning how to use LinkedIn to gain access to more postings than ever before.

He says youth in his situation just need a chance.

"There's so many people that I know that, given just a little chance, have so much potential to go far."