Friday's employment figures held a rare spot of good news for young workers – the creation of 15,700 jobs for 15- to 24-year-olds in September.
The burden of unemployment has fallen especially heavily on Canada's youth over the last three to five years.
Youth joblessness currently stands at 12.9 per cent, down from 14.1 per cent in August, possibly on account of many young people returning to school in the fall. That compares with a Canada-wide unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent.
'It definitely is a very competitive job market, and when it is competitive, employers have more choices.' - Manjeet Dhiman, job counsellor
Youth participation in the workforce is a scant 63 per cent, and only 48 per cent of young workers have full-time employment, with the rest making do with part-time work, according to Statistics Canada.
And while dismal job prospects have encouraged many young Canadians to stay in school, for many, a master's degree is no guarantee of employment in any job, let alone in their field of study.
An estimated one in three 24- to 29-year-olds is underemployed.
"It definitely is a very competitive job market, and when it is competitive, employers have more choices," said Manjeet Dhiman, senior director of business development of the Acces employment counselling service .
"They are going to choose the individuals who have the most experience, the most qualifications or the best fit for the type of work they are recruiting for," she said in an interview with CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange.
Younger people are disadvantaged in the job market because they don't have much experience, she said. There is evidence that older workers, many of whom lost jobs in the manufacturing sector over the last five years, are moving into the low-wage service jobs that many young people start out in.
Told to play down education
Michelle Falk graduated with a master's degree from McMaster University in Hamilton last year and was hunting for a job before she even finished her thesis.
But when she applied to a temporary work placement agency in Toronto, a manager told her to take her degree off her resumé.
"They said it was a liability instead of something to be promoting," said Falk, who majored in gender studies. "I was a little bit shocked. They said I would come across as overqualified, and my knowledge would be too niche for what I was looking for."
It took half a year for her to find work, though she left her educational background on her resumé.
"I applied for a couple of hundred jobs, and I had 30 interviews over a six-month period and finally got hired," Falk said. "I was lucky. I made them laugh during the interview, so they decided to take a chance on me."
Dhiman said the real challenge for her counselling service is finding the right job to match their clients' skills.
"We're trying to make sure people are targeting the right job for them," she said. "So, if they have that level of education, they want to be able to target the kind of positions that fit with them. I would certainly not recommend that people take their education off their resumé."
The skills mismatch
There is a perception that young Canadians are studying the wrong things. The skills shortage in Canada is in trades, health care and IT, according to employers.
Yet, a recent study by Georgetown University found 15 per cent unemployment among people who studied information systems, eight per cent among computer science majors and 11 per cent among film and economics graduates.
Fields such as nursing, teaching and engineering, once sure routes to employment, also were showing much lower job prospects than the previous generation experienced.
And the employment path for skilled trades is increasingly murky, with apprenticeship opportunities few and far between. That leaves young jobseekers with limited paths to success.
Ontario is trying to address the mismatch between jobs and skills with the $295-million youth employment plan introduced this April. At the same time, it wants to make the most of a well-educated workforce.
Ontario has 17% youth unemployment
"I think there is a need in the economy going forward for a diversity of skill," said Brad Duguid, Ontario minister for training, colleges and universities. "Seventy per cent of jobs are going to require post-secondary education.
"There is a skills gap out there, so we need to encourage more people to get into skills and trades. At the same time, businesses are looking for someone not just well educated and trained. They're looking for people who are going to drive innovation."
Ontario had a youth unemployment rate of 16.9 per cent last year, and Duguid is worried about a cohort of young workers who will never have the experience of a steady job.
"It's one for young people not to get a job off the bat – that's challenging for them today, but think about our workplace down the road if they're not job-ready or job experienced," he said.
"We're pretty good right now when it comes to having a very competitive workforce … We need to keep it that way. We need to ensure that young people are getting into the workforce and getting that job readiness so they can compete globally."
The Ontario job plan has an incentive for creating youth jobs but also programs to encourage youth entrepreneurship and innovation in industrial research and development that attempts to build on the research being done at university by well-educated graduates.
Minimum wage and no protection
For the rest of the young workforce, with high school education or less, the only option appears to be minimum wage jobs.
Employers are increasingly gun-shy about hiring these workers full-time, and many are juggling two or more part-time service jobs to try to support themselves.
These are Canada's most vulnerable workers – vulnerable to sexual harassment, low wages, managers who don't treat workers fairly and health and safety concerns, according to Tyler Shipley, a York University economics professor who studies labour trends.
Yet, they are increasingly turned off unions, he said. It's a two-sided problem – fewer union jobs available but also young people thinking that they will get little from joining a union.
"Unions haven't — over the last 30-40 years — done the job they need to do: actually holding employers accountable," he said.
"They need to encourage young workers to actually defend themselves, to actually protect themselves."
Youth unemployment is a concern in part because we're going to need these workers to power the Canadian economy over the next 30 years. As the baby boomers retire, the burden will rest on the shoulders of this generation, no matter how underemployed they remain.