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Youth Skills in Canada: Half a Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In 2014, 15 July was declared World Youth Skills Day by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. This declaration aimed to acknowledge the strategic importance of youth’s personal and career development within the framework of national and international economic and cultural growth. Together with agencies such as UNESCO-UNEVOC, the UN emphasized promoting skills for employment, decent work and entrepreneurship for youth.

A UN agenda, ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015, dedicated two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to addressing youth preparedness in entering the world economy:

  • SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

  • SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

Today, in 2022, the question is how far has Canada, a UN Member State, progressed in its commitment to comply with the effort to meet these goals?

First, a somewhat obvious fact—in 2022, it is still challenging for youth (15 to 30-year-olds) to enter the Canadian job market. It remains a Catch-22 situation, where young people with little-to-no professional experience cannot secure employment because they do not have any professional experience, is still a driving dynamic in the Canadian job market.

However, why Canadian youth do not have this experience and what factors are at play are more relevant topics to explore in defining Canada’s next steps in achieving SDGs 4 and 8.

A recent Labour Market Information Council (LMIC) report on the aspirations of youth who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) spoke of five main barriers to employment or training as identified by young people themselves. They were a perceived lack of experience (27%), mental health issues preventing one from securing employment (22%), no jobs that meet one’s requirements (21%), not yet having a profession in mind (20%), and having an obligation to care for a loved one (17%).

Top five challenges NEET youth face when looking for a job, education or training opportunities (% of respondents) | Source: LMI Insights Report no. 17

However, the LMIC findings are merely a snapshot of the problem.

Each of these barriers hides corresponding issues that affect youth access to training and employment. Although not exhaustive, they serve as a starting point in exploring the multiple levels of difficulties facing Canadian youth today.

Another piece of research titled ‘13 ways to modernize youth employment in Canada’ by an expert panel on youth employment grouped some of the issues that prevent youth from getting the work experience they need:

  • Uninformed: The lack of pertinent labour market information for youth and good data on employment for policymakers.

  • Underrated: Employers’ attitudes about and towards Canada’s young people.

  • Uncertain: The challenges associated with precarious work and the unknown jobs of the future.

  • Underprepared: The lack of skills and basic needs of young people as they enter the world of work.

  • Unaccepted: The continued existence of discrimination.

  • Under-resourced: The need to provide Indigenous youth with resources to lead and positively impact their communities.

Youth need access to labour market information and role models before they can know what they want to do. They need to be able to see different occupations ‘in action’ and be confident in their abilities to access the training they need. Much of Canada comprises remote, rural communities where access to multiple occupations to observe work is limited, if at all present. Youth from rural communities may simply not know what an e-commerce specialist or data analyst does, as there might not be any openings for such roles.

An additional difficulty is utility infrastructure, which is at its worst on reserve lands and ‘on the streets’. Indigenous youth have the highest growth rate in Canada but often have little or no access to the internet—or sewers, clean water and heat. Homeless youth have similar issues, sometimes lacking social insurance numbers or even information on how to obtain them. Combined, the lack of internet access, poor living conditions and limited transport to urban areas force a sizable portion of young Canadians to rely on choices at hand—jobs available in their local communities or worse, staying unemployed.

Indigenous, immigrant and other vulnerable youth categories have added disadvantages—inter-generational trauma, socio-economic discrimination and a lack of community support when relocating to larger cities in search of education or employment. The lack of local informational support prevents many from exploring professional opportunities away from home.

The lack of access to labour market information is low-hanging fruit in ‘13 ways to modernize youth employment in Canada’. According to this paper, there are many gaps and overlaps in youth employment programming, which tends to be difficult to access and navigate. A potential solution would be to consolidate career services from the federal, provincial and territorial levels online as a central hub and use ‘youth employment concierges’ similar to the National Research Council of Canada’s ‘innovation advisors’. For Indigenous youth travelling to other communities, the paper recommended creating hubs that could “bring together leading Indigenous organizations already doing impactful work, and offer support for trauma, transition, residency, networking, soft skills training, career development, funding, peer-to-peer support and connecting with Elders. The hubs can also facilitate the rehabilitation of the incarcerated Indigenous population”.

Based on the LMIC survey cited above, all Canadian youth willing to get vocational education in large cities could benefit from such hubs, as mental issues and the inability to identify one’s skills are major contributors to NEET youth’s unemployment.

Thus, if access to labour market information is to be easier to conceptualize and solve, the quality of that information needs to be improved, according to ‘13 ways to modernize youth employment in Canada’. Comprehensive information on labour market needs and youth programming is needed at frequent intervals for policymakers, educators and employers to assess real-time needs to help shape job skills programming for young Canadians.

Data collection should consider the Canadian labour market’s growing digital and knowledge sector. Canada lost 380,000 mainly routine plant and machine operator, labourer and assembly jobs during the period 2003–2009, according to a 2017 policy report by the Brookfield Institute. Digital and knowledge economies, with growing fields of robotics and artificial intelligence, are likely to continue shaping the landscape of the labour market—the speed of the change and need for frequent skill upgrading will only increase. Having access to the most recent and regionally accurate job market information is paramount for young people who need to invest time and money in the right education to secure employment without the fear of their education becoming obsolete upon graduation.

The inherent importance of the digital and knowledge economy to the Canadian job market also signals an urgent need to rethink how modern youth are being educated and what skills are needed in a constantly evolving workplace. Employers should take the role of educators and providers of needed work experience, more so than in the past, the Brookfield Institute suggests. To support this recommendation, the institute states that “even though 83 per cent of Canadian education providers feel that youth are adequately prepared for the workforce, only 44 per cent of youth and 34 per cent of employers feel the same way”. Having employers offer youth an entrance to the job market via on-the-job/subsidized training opportunities would benefit NEET youth and likely reduce employers’ talent search and retention costs.

The Brookfield Institute report cites a 2014 survey of 316 employers conducted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario that found that “the most commonly provided reason for not filling an advertised position was insufficient work experience, with 53 per cent of employers identifying this as a barrier”. Thus, it appears that the Catch-22 situation has at least one reasonable solution—employers’ investments in their future labour capital.

As caring for a loved one was stated as one of the main hurdles of NEET youth in securing employment, it is important to focus on the nature of this issue. We need more information on the reasons such care is needed and if sufficient support is in place to help youth (especially vulnerable youth) secure employment while having dependants. Even though women have progressed rapidly in the volume they represent in the labour force since the early 1980s, far better data is required if ‘loved ones’ are those traditionally cared for by women. Furthermore, investigations into the lack of social services (medical support for the elderly, disabled or ill) in certain communities are required. Regardless, youth needs are clear—a support system that is currently lacking.

As mentioned earlier, the list of issues here is far from exhaustive. It also includes precarious work environments where youth cannot secure full-time, permanent work; the lack of union representation and government policies securing safe and secure work conditions; the lack of access to employment insurance; and the absence of entrepreneurial skill building in secondary schools and beyond. The list of issues affecting modern youth is long.

If Canadian society recognizes youth as an important part of the labour force and the driver of the future economy, committing to SDGs 4 and 8 must mean taking immediate and proactive steps. The Canadian government, non-profit partners, educators and employers must unite to fix the basic, almost mediaeval, problems of today before the country finds itself in a future in which the Canadian youth are unable to provide.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


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