A new federal program launched Monday aims to help post-secondary students make the jump from school to a career through paid co-op placements.

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu spoke with CBC Radio's Metro Morning about why the program is needed, what skills young job seekers frequently lack and her ongoing battle against exploitative unpaid internships.

Questions and answers have been condensed.

Metro Morning: What would you say to the young person who is starting school, taking on debt and worrying whether what they are studying is actually going to get them a job that they want?

Patty Hajdu: I would say they are not alone. Investing in yourself through post-secondary education is wise decision, but the fear of what happens next can often be really scary. We know that kids with post-secondary education do better than those without, but we know also that depending on the field, many kids struggle afterwards to find employment in their field. That's why we want to be there to help.

MM: You've met with employers — what are they telling you that they need?

PH: Employers, interestingly enough, talk about a labour shortage. They'll say, "we see great kids coming out of school, but they aren't ready to work in our industry." Many times they'll talk about soft skills, the kinds of things we don't learn in school, things like how to interact in a group, or what do you do if you have a difficult colleague, how do you present your ideas in a group. All of those kinds of things we take for granted because we've been working for a very long time but that actually are the secret sauce in a successful company.

MM: Who is supposed to teach that?

PH: I think they try to a little bit in grade school. Sometimes kids will get that in their first jobs. But for kids that haven't had a really great experience in a workplace, they may be coming out of their course of study with really great technical knowledge and not really the understanding of how to apply that.

MM: You are announcing a new program today. What is it?

PH: It's called student work placements. It's a commitment of $73 million over five years to work with partners, education institutes but also different career sectors to provide paid co-op experiences as part of a student's studies. We think this will help bridge the gap between that graduation place where you might have some great technical skills and getting that first job. We've seen this model implemented very successfully in other countries.

MM: Over the past few years, the youth unemployment rate in Toronto has hovered between 15 and 20 per cent — pretty high. We also talk about how unaffordable this city is. How do you address that?

PH: One of the things that we're trying to do is encourage young people to look at those more lucrative fields that coincidentally we have shortages in. All of the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — we cannot keep up as a country — we can't find the labour we need in those specialized fields. The other sector where we have a huge shortage in Canada is many of the skilled trades…. Whether it's electrical work, or cement work, or construction, or carpentry — we just are not attracting students to those studies. Another part of my role is to work with the skilled trade unions and employers to try and find ways to incent young people to choose those skills.  

MM: You're working on a ban around unpaid internships — tell us more.

PH: This is really about companies that will sometimes take advantage of young people's desire to really show that they can produce and they can work efficiently. These are companies that would advertise for an intern to learn their business, the intern comes in and provides work and they're not paid for it, and it's not part of a course of study. We think that's unfair, and we think it's an abuse of young people, and that there are better ways for young people to get experience.

MM: Do you worry that this will cut off a point of entry for young people to enter fields?

PH: I worry more about young people not being paid for what they're worth, and I worry about companies taking advantage of young people for lengthy periods of time on no more than a hope and a promise. I think there are more ethical ways to get young people the experience that they need — and the student work placement program is an example of that.

With files from Metro Morning