The search for a summer job: 'The competition is fierce'

Griffin Matheson, 19, has never had trouble landing a summer job. But that was before COVID-19 made so many employment opportunities disappear — not just for him, but for tens of thousands of young people in Alberta.

The window for students to find work is closing, but the province's reopening plan provides some hope

A young woman is seen here being interviewed for a position at Blowers & Grafton, a Calgary-based restaurant and bar. The company says it's going to hire 40 people over the next month based on the province's post-pandemic reopening plan. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Griffin Matheson has never had trouble landing a summer job. But that was before COVID resulted in the disappearance of so many employment opportunities — not just for him, but for tens of thousands of young people in Alberta.

Matheson, 19, just finished his first year at Western, and his usual go-to job at Westside Recreation Centre, a place where he's worked the past four summers, doesn't exist because the facility remains closed due to the pandemic.

So far, he's applied for nearly 60 jobs ranging from child care to retail to hospitality. He landed two interviews, but no offers.

"The more we go into the summer months, the worse the anxiety gets," he said.

Matheson is quickly discovering how competitive the job market is. He says an entry level retail position that he applied for attracted 25 other applicants. Other people with more experience who have lost their jobs during the pandemic and recent university graduates are chasing the same opportunities, he says. 

"The competition is fierce, definitely. It's a lot harder out there."

Griffin Matheson, 19, is back in Calgary after his first year of university in Ontario. He has applied for nearly 60 jobs. However, he has yet to land a position. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

According to Stats Canada, there were nearly 49,000 people aged 15-24 listed as unemployed in Alberta in April.

WATCH | As the economy reopens, students face new obstacles in job hunt:

Searching for a summer job in Calgary

1 year ago
Duration 2:47
Students face a tight window and "fierce" competition when it comes to finding a job right now.

The pandemic has been especially hard on sectors that rely on young people, such as retail and hospitality. Stores, restaurants, bars and hotels have all scaled back. But there appears to be some reason for optimism after the province laid out its reopening strategy

Matheson isn't just competing against strangers to find work.

"Even for me and my friends, it's kind of a joke. We're like, 'who's gonna get the next job?'"

Advice for job hunters: Be prepared

The city's Youth Employment Centre says there is a lot to be excited about as the province prepares to reopen if certain vaccination targets are met. However, this shortened summer job search is going to be very challenging and in some aspects unprecedented.

"Not just with the youth population, but a lot of adults, of course, have been laid off as well. So now, that applicant pool is much larger than it was typically in the past," said Jennifer MacSween, the centre's community relations liaison.

MacSween says students need to better prepare themselves for their search, whether it's tweaking their resume to make it stand out, networking with a potential employer, learning job interview techniques or acquiring a new skill through an online course.

"Young people are in a really good spot, because they should have a lot of opportunities coming down the pipeline very shortly. But they do have to be prepared."

The employment centre, which is a city-owned agency, has been offering employment services free of charge to youth 15 to 24 for three decades. 

40 jobs in 30 days

Blowers & Grafton, a local restaurant and bar, says it's going on a bit of a hiring spree. It's hoping to fill as many as 40 positions at its three locations in Alberta (two in Calgary, one in Edmonton.) 

The plan is based on the province's reopening strategy, so there's always a bit of trepidation, but one of the owners says it's the first glimmer of hope for their industry in nearly 15 months.

"It's exciting to bring people on, grow the team, get back to normal," said Josh Robinson.

"There's been a lot of struggles by a lot of people in the restaurant industry, but I think the light is at the end of the tunnel."

Josh Robinson is one of the owners of Calgary-based Blowers & Grafton. The company is hosting a job fair this week to fill 40 positions at its restaurants in Calgary and Edmonton. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The company has been spreading the word on social media about an upcoming job fair, which will be held this week.

His advice for applicants is to show up prepared for the interview process and be ready to work. 

And, he says, if you don't make the cut this time around, the company is planning to open two new locations in September and will be looking to fill another 80 positions by then.

Support for students lacking

The University of Calgary Students' Union says the provincial government is not doing enough to help students find work — either in their related field of study or work in general over the summer months when most students are available to work full-time.

It's a crucial time for students who now have just three months to earn money that will help them pay for rising tuition fees and living expenses, says SU president Nicole Schmidt.

The UCP government cut the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP) in 2019, and a similar wage subsidy for employers who hire students has not been re-introduced.

University of Calgary Students' Union president Nicole Schmidt worries fewer job opportunities could impact students' mental health as they face rising tuition costs and debt levels. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"Students want to work and employers want to hire students for positions that they have available. Both just need support in doing so from the provincial government," said Schmidt.

A government spokesperson says the department of Advanced Education has invested $10 million to create 1,200 research-based internships with Mitacs, and $24 million is being spent to encourage more young people to learn a skilled trade.

The federal Canada Summer Jobs program is promising to create 94,000 jobs this summer. However, because of the pandemic, the hiring period has been extended into the start of the 2021-22 academic school year.

Job hunt continues

As for Griffin Matheson, he continues to apply for almost any position that comes up. He's been scouring websites such as Indeed and Linkedin for anything. 

"Definitely, getting a little bit worried now," he said.

"I got to pay for some of my school next year, my living next year, so it's definitely a little weight on my shoulder."

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.