For young people, Ontario’s election is about jobs

From Monday’s Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Sep. 11, 2011 9:47PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2011 12:34PM EDT

If Ontario’s election campaign is really about improving the lot of families, attention ought to focus on the province’s unemployed youth.
Ontario’s 15-per-cent youth jobless rate – higher than the national average and twice the province’s overall rate – isn’t just dispiriting for the thousands of job seekers who are seeing their aspirations fade and skills atrophy.

It has broader economic consequences, as well. Unemployment and underemployment are forcing kids to stay at home longer, putting financial pressure on parents and family members. They hamper the ability of young people to buy a home and build assets, reduce their lifetime earnings and place added pressure on social services.
The spectre of a lost generation raises troubling questions about the health of the province’s future labour market.

“If I were in government, this would be very high on my agenda,” said James MacKinnon, head of economics at Queen’s University and past president of the Canadian Economics Association. Productivity, innovation and tax revenue will suffer if the problem isn’t tackled, he added.

Ontario’s next premier faces a host of economic challenges, from the erosion of the province’s manufacturing base to the ripple effect of a troubled U.S. economy. In that context, putting youth to work in a fast-changing knowledge economy will be among the largest of hurdles.
For now, motivated young grads such as Nav Dhanda are languishing. His search for work in finance or marketing this summer has yielded no responses. Too much competition.

The Mississauga resident recalls the last provincial election, which was punctuated with hopeful talk of green jobs and second careers. This time, he’s hearing few ideas that will help his generation.
“They don’t understand the demographic,” said the 28-year-old, who has a degree in political science from York University and just finished an MBA at Wayne State University in Detroit.

While living in the United States, he heard politicians from Barack Obama to state governors and city mayors raise ideas on how to tackle youth employment. Here in Canada, he wonders why political leaders are silent.

For while employment levels have bounced back this year for all other age groups in the country, they haven’t improved much for young people. And postsecondary grads in particular are struggling, says Nancy Schaefer, president of Youth Employment Services in Toronto.
“We need these people to be productive, build their skills and help build Canada for the future,” she said. Otherwise, “these kids are going to go on welfare, or stay at home till they’re 40. And we’re going to create a generation of cynical youth.”

She can’t figure out why Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty promised a tax incentive to hire one disadvantaged group in the labour force – immigrants – but not another: young people.

For some, like Nicole Abi-Najem, a sense of quiet desperation is taking root. The 24-year-old has been searching for work since May. A graduate of Ryerson University’s radio and television program, she just finished a five-month internship at the Late Show with David Letterman in New York. She’s built her brand online, embraced social media and applied for 50 jobs. She’s bright, articulate, fluent in English and Arabic and speaks conversational French.

But no luck. “Everyone tells me that given the time that I’ve been looking for jobs, it’s not uncommon. But that doesn’t help alleviate anxiety because I have the pressure of debt,” she said.

She has taken out a bank loan on top of student loans and is worried about paying them back. She’s now hoping for a retail job and plans to go to grad school for a new career, maybe in journalism.

She is not alone. A projected record level of enrolment in Ontario’s colleges and universities this fall suggests many are going back to school because they can’t find work. Further education can be a positive long-term offshoot. The challenge is ensuring students are acquiring skills that make them employable.

Not all are. A July paper by the Canadian Education Project shows the country’s youth labour market is two-tiered, with students in math, computer science, engineering and architecture having an easier time finding work, and earning more than those in social sciences and humanities. One factor in the varying success rates may be co-op placements.

The national study also found students in Ontario are having a particularly hard time finding “steady, decent-paying work.”
Better policies could help young people get a firmer toehold in the work force. Businesses could get tax breaks for hiring grads. Co-ops, paid internships and apprenticeship programs could be expanded.
Domenic Mattina says he could hire five or six young people “right away” if the province’s archaic rules – requiring a ratio of three experienced plumbers or pipefitters for every new apprentice – were reduced.

“The ratios are out of whack and they’re out of sync with today’s labour market,” said the vice-president of Mattina Mechanical Ltd. and president of the Hamilton-Halton Construction Association, who likes Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak’s idea of expanding apprenticeship programs and cutting the journeyman-to-apprentice ratio to 1:1.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dhanda, the MBA grad, is watching his whole cohort struggle to find good jobs.

“People who graduated at the same time as me also have had little to no response. And they’re very highly qualified, highly educated with great experience. I can’t see why they’ve been overlooked.”

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