Advocates for young workers took Stephen Poloz to task after the Bank of Canada governor recommended that jobless university graduates beef up their resumes by working for free.
Speaking to a House of Commons committee Tuesday, Poloz suggested young Canadians and others struggling to find work should acquire more experience through unpaid internships or volunteering until the country's hobbled job market picks up. He predicted it would improve over the next two years.
Poloz told the committee that when a young person asks for advice on getting through the tough times, he says, "'Volunteer to do something which is at least somewhere related to your expertise so that it's clear that you are gaining some learning experience during that period."'
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The central banker made the remarks a day after he told a Toronto business audience that 200,000 young Canadians are out of work, underemployed or back in school trying to improve their job prospects.
"I bet almost everyone in this room knows at least one family with adult children living in the basement," he said in the prepared speech he delivered Monday.
"I'm pretty sure these kids have not taken early retirement."
Later that same day, he elaborated.
'I wasn't trying to go deeply in this and it's not a monetary-policy matter' - Stephen Poloz's response when asked to expand his thoughts on unpaid work
"Get some real-life experience even though you're discouraged, even if it's for free," Poloz said he tells young people.
"If your parents are letting you live in the basement, you might as well go out and do something for free to put the experience on your CV."
The contentious subject of unpaid internships recently landed in the House of Commons. Last summer, an NDP MP tabled a private member's bill aimed at protecting those who agree to work for free.
And for recent graduates like James Tobin, Poloz's remarks show he's out of touch with the reality young would-be workers face every day.
"I don't think it really works because you have to live, right?" said Tobin, who's been trying to land a full-time teaching job since 2012, when he graduated from Bishop's University in Quebec.
"Not everyone is living at their parents' house rent-free ... so how are they going to make ends meet?"
Tobin, who lives in suburban Montreal, had to move to England for a year after finishing his degree because he couldn't find work in Quebec. These days, he routinely wakes up at 5 a.m. in hopes of finding a day's work as a substitute teacher.
During his studies, Tobin said he spent a lot of time building experience in his field before he earned his certificate — by working 700 hours as a student teacher.
Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer, says he's pleased the Bank of Canada is aware of the labour-market hurdles young Canadians are trying to overcome, but he calls Poloz's comments "incredibly tone deaf."
"He shouldn't be saying stuff like that — it's a very dangerous precedent to set," said Langille, who noted the governor's recommendation seemed to encourage people to "subvert" minimum-wage laws to gain experience.
"We have employment-standards laws in this country for a reason."
Langille said there simply aren't enough jobs for young people coming out of college in Canada.
Statistics Canada's latest job numbers said the unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 was 13.5 per cent in September, almost double the country's overall jobless rate of 6.8 per cent for the same month.
The president of the Canadian Intern Association described Poloz's comments as "extremely problematic."
Claire Seaborn said the comments mischaracterize existing employment laws, devalue the abilities of young people and show no sympathy for the socioeconomic issues related to unpaid internships.
She added that people from more modest backgrounds are less likely to be in a position where they can work for free.
"Mr. Poloz's comments seem to suggest that all young people are extremely inexperienced and live in their parents' basements and don't have anything to contribute to the workforce," said Seaborn, who appeared before the same finance committee last March and again last week to make submissions aimed at helping to protect the rights of interns.
On Tuesday, Liberal MP Scott Brison asked Poloz at the committee hearing whether he thought unpaid internships benefited wealthier young people because those from lower-income backgrounds can't afford to work for free.
"I acknowledge that there are issues like the ones you are raising," Poloz replied. "I wasn't trying to go deeply in this and it's not a monetary-policy matter."
The controversial issue of unpaid internships has been under scrutiny since Andrew Ferguson, a student in Alberta who was interning at a radio station, died in 2011 while driving home after a 16-hour day.
Earlier this year, the Ontario government cracked down on the practice at several Toronto-based magazines, prompting the publications to stop offering unpaid internships.
Bell Mobility, one of the most-profitable telecommunications firms in Canada, also scrapped a contentious program — at least temporarily — that recruits hundreds of interns each year to work for free.
A report released in June by the same parliamentary committee recommended Ottawa work with provinces and territories to ensure unpaid interns were protected under labour laws. It suggested the federal government examine the impact of unpaid internships on the job market.