10/08/2015 12:17 EDT | Updated 10/08/2016 05:12 EDT

Canada Needs a Federal Focus on Sustainable Youth Employment

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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman working in clothes shop

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

It was a gut-wrenching dilemma for Connor Smith. At 22, he had to decide whether to stick with a steady but dead-end job working the till at Costco, or take a chance on the offer of a two-month contract that might finally open real career doors.

For almost a decade, Canada's youth unemployment rate has hovered around 14 per cent, double the overall national rate. Even worse, more than 27 per cent of young Canadians are underemployed and, like Smith, stuck in jobs that don't use their skills and education.

"Canada has one of most highly educated youth corps, but second highest level of youth underemployment in the OECD [second only to Spain]," says Sareena Hopkins, co-executive director of the Canadian Career Development Foundation. The Ottawa non-profit works to increase employment opportunities and create better workplaces for Canadians of all ages.

As election day approaches, we're raising some of the issues that matter to young people. One major concern that needs to be on everyone's radar is youth employment.

Smith finished his political science degree at the University of Victoria in the spring. He fired off endless resumes but no one was hiring. He worked for $13 an hour at Costco to buy food. Finally, Smith got an offer to work on the federal election. It pays more and would look great on his CV, but the contract ends in November.

"Young Canadians are racing into the labour market only to hit a brick wall -- low wages, only part-time and contract jobs available. It's a pretty scary brew," Hopkins says.

So, where does that brick wall come from?

Although we know generally there is a need for more workers in the skilled trades, experts say overall a serious lack of good labour market research in Canada means high school guidance counsellors can't help students plan careers because they don't know what kinds of skills and workers our economy will need five years down the road. For example, provinces like Ontario and B.C. continue to crank out graduates from teaching programs, despite having a glut of teachers.

Once in university, the problem is not what degree students take, but the lack of realistic career planning for what they are going to do with that degree. We often hear youth say they are told to focus on academics and worry about jobs later. "The brightest kids are heading out into the labour market like deer in the headlights," Hopkins comments.

While university co-op education programs have made a big difference in preparing many students with work experience, only 12 per cent of Canadian undergraduates participate in them, according to Statistics Canada.

Compounding the issue, Hopkins says there are fewer entry-level positions today because companies contract out these positions that once would have been the starter jobs that gave young workers a place to move up in a company. And with boomers delaying retirement, a lack of movement at mid and senior levels means youth who do land entry jobs are often stuck there.

What's the solution? The NDP and Conservatives promise investments in apprenticeship programs. The Liberals and Greens call for a youth service corps that would give young Canadians work experience while serving their communities. The Liberals also want to invest more in co-op education, while the NDP is promoting paid internships.

The federal government must invest in solid labour market research and incentives for employers to hire Canadian youth, like grants and tax breaks. Industry has to step up, too, offering co-op education placements and paid internships, as well as career mentorship for young employees.

We should closely watch and learn from the European Union. Facing massive underemployment, over the past four years the EU has launched a sweeping youth employment strategy, including better labour market research, apprenticeship and skills training programs, as well as government-business partnerships that are expected to create more jobs.

Back in Victoria, Smith tells us he accepted the short-term government contract. He can only roll the dice and hope more opportunities will emerge when his contract ends.

But when it comes to employment, young Canadians shouldn't have to gamble on their future. That's a losing bet for our country.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.


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