Jobless but not broken: Youth workers gather to talk unemployment

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"Who here has worked two or more jobs at the same time?" asked Roxanne Dubois, a staff member at Unifor and former Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) chair, to over 30 people, most under 30 years old, in a conference room at Ryerson University.

Almost every single person raised his or her hand. "And who here is in an union?" Significantly fewer people raised their hand. "And who works evenings and weekend?" she asked finally. Again, almost every hand went up. She, nor anyone else attending the Youth Un(der)employment Forum -- a day long event to discuss youth unemployment -- seemed surprised by the result.

DuBois's quick poll represents a microcosm of the situation young workers across Canada are facing. A recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report found that Ontario's unemployment levels are twice as high as the overall provincial youth unemployment rate. Canada wide, youth still face challenges even where the unemployment rate is lower. Full time, entry-level work has become difficult to find, so when young people work -- if at all -- they cobble together resumes with a mix of part-time and casual employment, internships, advanced degrees and volunteer hours.

It was exactly this issue that the organizers behind the Youth Un(der)employment Forum were hoping to not only address, but start finding solutions too.

"What we really wanted to do was push the conversation a step forward and start thinking about solutions," said Brynne Sinclair-Waters, a researcher at the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), one of the organizations behind Friday's forum. The event was a chance for young people to share some of their own challenges finding work and start a dialogue about how to approach these problems.

The stories told by some of the youth were sobering yet all too familiar to anyone under the age of thirty who's ever looked for a job. Victor Rodriguez, who spoke at the forum, works four different jobs and goes to school. He often finds himself waiting by the phone waiting to find out if there's a shift available for him. In an ironic twist -- one he acknowledges himself -- his chosen specialty is working with unemployed and at risk youths.

"It was a bit of culture shock for me because there is always something in the media saying there is such a need in this area," he said. "When you go out there and find something to do people will tell you 'sorry we don't have anything for you.'"

Melissa Larue considers herself lucky to have found steady, unionized employment when she was studying for her Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Windsor. But while trying to find permanent full-time work as a social worker, she has found herself working casual and part-time to gain the experience to be able to make the jump to full time.

She believes it is more important than ever to reach out to students and make them aware ahead of time of what the job market is like and that a university education may not be enough to make it today. "I think people should be going to school," she said. "But the narrative that it is the be all end all needs to stop."

It was once the case that a university student could leave school and have a reasonable chance of obtaining entry-level employment after graduation.

"When I graduated from university in 1978 there were lots of entry level jobs to be had," said Maria LeRose, the co-director of Generation Jobless, a CBC documentary that examined the growing rates of unemployment among youth in Canada. LeRose and her co-director Sharon Bartlett explained at the forum that they knew they had hit a nerve as they made their film. This was a story young people were passionate about because it was directly affecting them -- a lot of them.

Youth unemployment is not a problem that strikes fairly. Racialized young people and people with disabilities face higher unemployment rates then other youth. "We have to do a better job," said Luam Kidane, the youth programming coordinator at FoodShare Toronto, speaking on a panel about solutions. "We can't ignore racialized youth if we’re going to fix youth unemployment."

For all the stories about the struggles youth are facing finding employment, there was also stories being told about those who were challenging the status quo and looking for solutions.

Rosemarie Powell is the founder and CEO of Big on Green, an environmental consulting agency that is also a workers co-operative, based in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto. While doing community work she began to notice that there were young people and recent immigrants who had environmental skills, like environmental planning, but couldn’t find jobs.

"[We thought] 'how would we put our skills and resources together to create something meaningful for us?'" she said. So they created a co-op that would employ locals as consultants to businesses that want to go green. "We thought we would be eco-entrepreneurs," she laughed. So far, Big on Green has worked with organizations in the Jane and Finch and Rexdale neighbourhoods and at a downtown Toronto law firm.

Traditional union organizing efforts have also yielded positive results. C.J. Hanlon, a member of Unifor local 1075 in Thunder Bay, told the forum that collective bargaining efforts with Bombardier in Thunder Bay resulted in many jobs for young people. The Bombardier facility is now building the fleet of light rail vehicles that will soon appear on Toronto streets. And at University of Toronto, the students union has made challenging the current laws around internships a top priority.

A common theme amongst participants was the need for larger, systemic change. In the course of making their documentary, Bartlett and LeRose traveled to Switzerland, a country that has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the OECD countries thanks in part to a national education program that streams students into apprenticeships -- there are over 200 options -- after junior high.

It became clear making the film that there was a need for a bigger picture approach to both education and youth employment. "There is no question," said LeRose. "The number one thing we heard is that we need a national strategy."

New federal legislation to be introduced in Parliament this fall may address some of these concerns. Andrew Cash, Member of Parliament for Davenport, explained that his proposed National Urban Workers Strategy would extend unemployment benefits and employment insurance to more workers among other measures.

"It's a framework bill," he explained. "It sort of lays the foundation for how we can move forward on this issue."

What many people may have gotten out of the Youth Un(der)employment Forum was a sense of togetherness. "A lot of us out there that don't have full time work and sometimes people interpret that as something they are doing wrong," said Rodriguez. "The biggest goal here is just to really inform the youth that they are not alone."



Photo: Joel Duff

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