Opportunity knocks for youth as unemployment expected to stay at record lows: Don Pittis

With Friday's unemployment rate expected to stay at record lows in both Canada and the U.S., there's evidence to suggest young people have never had it so good.

Despite trade war talk, North America is still hungry for workers, including those who need support

Even during periods of low unemployment, a disproportionately greater number of young workers find jobs in food services, where turnover is high, before finding a career niche. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Despite all the trade war talk, the outlook for tomorrow's jobless numbers in both the U.S. and Canada remains strong.

A poll of top bank economists predicts the U.S. rate will stay at 3.8 per cent, the lowest level since April 2000.

In Canada, the numbers for June are expected to show unemployment remained at a low 5.8 per cent and that the economy cranked out 20,000 new jobs.

And despite complaints from young people about how hard it is to get work, there is evidence to suggest they've never had it so good.

Whether the bank economists got it right about the total jobless rate, there is one thing we can predict with great certainty about jobs for young people, says Statistics Canada labour market specialist Martha Patterson.

"The youth unemployment rate is consistently, roughly, twice the rate of the core-age unemployment rate," she says.

It used to be that people could drop out of school and get a job on the farm or in a factory, but now even industrial jobs need high levels of general education. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Occasionally, news stories about jobless Canadian youth will point to that "twice the rate" statistic with alarm. However, as Patterson points out, that ratio applies not just historically, but also in each province and in other developed economies around the world. 

So the good news is that as overall unemployment has declined, youth unemployment has fallen with it.

But, of course, not all young unemployed people have an equal chance at finding a job, says Gordon Betcherman, a youth employment expert who has recently been advising the governments of Greece and Malaysia.

Betcherman, who is a labour economist at the University of Ottawa, points out that young people tend to start out in low-wage job sectors like retail and fast food.

"Those are really big turnover industries, and classically, employers have been reluctant to train because they're worried about losing their investment," he says.

'Transition to work'

Young people are in a period experts call "transition to work."

That's the process of rattling around through part-time and casual jobs before finding a niche in steady employment or a career. And there is evidence the transition period is getting longer.

In bygone days, a young person might drop out of school to begin a lifelong career on a farm, in a factory, or in a mine. 

But even in the years since 1976, when Statistics Canada began keeping track, the employment path of workers in the 15-24 age group has transformed. In 1976, for example, a minority of those workers (43 per cent) were students. Now, the majority (63 per cent) are still in school.

The City of Calgary’s Annual Youth Hiring Fair attracted 5,000 people this spring. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Perhaps reflecting that, in 1976, only 21 per cent of workers in that age group were employed part time. Now, it's roughly half. And despite a relatively high turnover rate, the length of time young people spend out of work is far less than the average for the core 25 to 54 age group.

Betcherman says in some ways the 15-24 employment category has become out of date. Few 15-year-olds are in the workforce these days. And as people stay in school to learn the wide set of high-level skills needed in a modern economy, the "transition" period can easily last to age 30.    

"If we have real worries about young people moving into work, for me it's the young people who don't have much education," Betcherman says.

The perfect match

But according to Tim Lang, director of Youth Employment Services (YES), a Toronto charity that specializes in helping sometimes troubled young people find work, a low unemployment rate is an opportunity to bring young workers and worker-hungry employers together.

Lang says YES has a 90 per cent placement rate performing that intermediary role. A big obstacle, he says, is that young people just haven't learned the skills for finding work.

"They just don't know what they don't know," he says.

City Sightseeing Toronto, a tour bus operator, is just one company that has worked with Youth Employment Services to help young people facing challenges to transition to the workforce. (Don Pittis/CBC)

But the other side of the coin is the employers, especially at smaller firms, who just want part-time workers with ready-made job skills.

YES drives a hard bargain, only placing its young clients in full-time jobs, Lang says. Seventy-five per cent of those clients are people with what he describes as "barriers to employment," from poor education, to mental illnesses, to trouble with the law, to simply being recent immigrants.

Some employers, such as Jebril Jalloh, are now completely on side. Jalloh, who founded the fashion boutique Get Fresh Company five years ago after selling clothing from the back of his vehicle, says the employees he's found and trained have turned into loyal members of his team.

"I prefer to train people from scratch," explains Jalloh, who says he grew up in a part of Toronto the city describes as "at risk."

From the point of view of the employees, companies that make a special effort can inspire loyalty.

That was certainly the experience of Aelita Yoon of Vancouver.

She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in art history in 2016, but says her severe depression and anxiety made it difficult for her to keep a job. That was until she landed a short-term contract job in the back office of a tour company called City Sightseeing Toronto in the summer of 2017.

She says they were "very understanding" of her mental health condition, and the experience gave her the confidence to know she was employable.

"I can pay the rent. I can pay the food," says Yoon, who just passed her three-month probation period in a new job doing alterations for clothing company Uniqlo, where she plans to stay. "I'm pretty good."

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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