Students having trouble finding work during pandemic hoping for help in federal budget

Looking for a job during a pandemic is a daunting task made even more difficult for young people who haven't had a chance to get a lot of work experience. With the federal budget less than a week away, young job seekers and their advocates are hoping there will be something in it for them.

Automated interviews, no call backs the norm during job hunt, students say

Jahnelle Woldegiorgis, left, is graduating from high school this year in Toronto and Billy Hochberg, right, is graduating from university in Halifax. Both are nervous about what the future holds for youth in the job market based on their experience searching for work. (Submitted)

Answering question prompts on a screen instead of talking to real people during interviews, never getting a follow-up and feeling hopeless are regular aspects of searching for a job these days, students say.

Billy Hochberg, who is graduating from Dalhousie University's commerce co-op program with a major in marketing, has secured work for the summer, but has been focusing on finding a permanent job over the last few months with no luck.

"Companies are communicating less. They won't really tell you if they're moving on to another candidate; they just won't say anything," he said.

Hochberg feels he does well during interviews interacting with prospective employers, but doesn't feel as confident answering automated prompts, which seem to be the norm lately.

"It feels unnatural; you're not really getting the chance for a proper interview," he said. As a co-op student with above-average grades, he believes he should have a decent shot at landing work, but he says only a handful of his friends have been able to find jobs.

"What am I going to do? I have a pretty good resume and it shouldn't be this hard for me to find a job, but it really is."

High school and post secondary students searching for summer work and permanent positions during the pandemic are feeling a growing sense of pressure and wondering what the future job market will look like for them.

Statistics Canada says the unemployment rate stood at 7.5 per cent as of last month, the lowest it's been since February 2020, before the pandemic was declared. But youth employment services and young people themselves say they have been disproportionately affected and haven't seen an improvement. They hope to get some help in the federal government's April 19 budget.

Jahnelle Woldegiorgis, who is graduating from high school in Toronto this year, is one of many young people who have been on a difficult job search. 

"If we're talking from the beginning of the pandemic, I've applied to over 80 jobs and I've only got a callback from five in total," she said.

"You can't apply anywhere and everywhere because anywhere and everywhere isn't open, which makes it difficult."

She's been signing up for after-school programs to ensure she's still developing and growing in other ways, but often finds herself wondering about the future.

"You go back and forth from wondering, 'Is it me? Or is it the market?' What will the future look like and will there be enough opportunities for everyone to be financially comfortable?"

Federal budget and youth jobs

Lydia Miljan, an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor, says this is going to be a tough budget for the federal government, given there hasn't been one in two years.

"In the interim, there's been this global pandemic where young people have been hard hit especially in the service sector," she said.

"I would expect some sort of support for young people, either in the form of a nod toward universal basic income, which I don't think they can afford, or perhaps better support and job training and experiential learning."

Miljan anticipates jobs will be an important part of the budget, but is interested to see how it will deal with youth unemployment in particular.

"Young people were hard hit in part because they're part of the service sector and that was essentially closed down over the last year and also supports the government hoped to put in with the WE Charity scandal got wiped out," she said.

The program was to be a way of giving students who couldn't find summer jobs a chance to earn some money while volunteering in "national service" activities related to fighting the pandemic — but that deal was cancelled amid a growing scandal.

"I would hope they'd have some kind of provision for young people and their entry into the workforce," Miljan said.

Shifting to 'pandemic proof' jobs

As the president and CEO at Yes Youth Employment Services, Tim Lang hears young people's worries about the job market daily. He applauds the federal government's previous Youth Employment and Skills Strategy Program, as well as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but says the pandemic financial assistance has also discouraged some young people from working.

"We're hoping to convince them that's the wrong way to go because research shows that youth that are unemployed for a long period of time, it can affect them adversely down the road and even for the rest of their lives," he said, adding that he feels confident there will be something for youth employment when the budget is tabled.

Tim Lang, president and CEO at Yes Youth Employment Services, says youth unemployment rates have always been higher than the national average and young people have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic. (Submitted by Tim Lang)

"Of course, youth are disproportionately affected during COVID. When organizations have to cut back they look at their newer employees or younger employees so youth have had a tough go," he said.

His agency has focused on shifting to helping young people find "pandemic proof" employment in trades, warehouses and digital opportunities. He says some youths they work with have also been open to learning new skills or switching directions.

"This is so important because some of the other entry-level job sectors have been completely wiped out, like hospitality and retail," Lang said.

"That doesn't even get into the whole mental state of how important it is for someone's self worth and dignity to have valuable employment," he said.

That mental impact is what students like Woldegiorgis say they feel the most. She said they want to be financially independent, and have a sense of purpose.

"When you're 18, you're trying to figure out the world," she said.

"I've always been interested in working in communities, always been engaged and social. That's how I learn best, and when you're not able to learn about the world you miss a part of learning about yourself."