TORONTO — Braxston Bennett smiled when he said it. “Yeah, I guess this is my first job.”
Bennett, a grade 12 student from a hardscrabble corner of northeastern Toronto, was given a job as a teacher’s assistant in January as part of a social program that helps challenged youth make the difficult transition every young adult faces when it’s time to go to work.
Bennett is lucky. He’s among a shrinking number of secondary school students in Toronto that have a job, an asset considered by employment experts to be a key factor in a young person’s prospects for more gainful employment down the road.
Yet the long held narrative of a young kid picking up part-time work once reaching a certain age, either out of necessity or to earn a few bucks and the independence that brings, has changed dramatically in recent years.
In 2006, one in three students had a part time job in Toronto according to survey results provided to Global News by the Toronto District School Board. In 2011, the last time data was collected, that figure had fallen to one in five.
The post-recession labour market has left many youth idle and unemployed into their 20s. For some, it means a far higher risk of being jobless for prolonged periods of their adult lives and the myriad of financial and social challenges that brings, say experts.
“Young people always have a much higher unemployment rate than the rest of us,” Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist at the left-wing think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says.
“But here’s something new that’s structural, not cyclical – the degree of competition now at the shallow end of the wage pool.”
Government programs that have allowed a flood of temporary foreign workers into the country, the ongoing off-shoring of jobs to cheaper regions across the world as well as swelling ranks of older workers whose retirement plans took a hit in tandem with the economy are each pushing younger workers out of the workforce and keeping them out for longer, Yalnizyan and others say.
“If you want a good launch, you have to have experience working. The longer you don’t work the harder you are to hire,” the economist said.
David White hasn’t been as fortunate as Bennett. At 20, he’s found entry into the workforce challenging, unable to pick up a steady job since finishing high school in North York.
At a job fair organized this week by the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Catholic District School Board and the City of Toronto, he alongside hundreds of other kids across the city met with and submitted applications for positions with a diverse range of 30 employers, including Canadian Tire, CN Rail, Fairmont Hotels and Canadian Forces.
White says he thinks he’s found a job at a Longo’s grocery store near his parents’ house, where he lives.
He’s attending the job fair, “to keep my options open,” he said. An earlier chat with Home Depot may lead to an interview. “Fingers crossed.”
Higher joblessness among youth isn’t confined to the country’s biggest city.
Figures crunched by Yalnizyan suggest that employment among those aged 15-19 has fallen by more than a fifth across the country since 2008. That breaks out to about 220,000 jobs that were once the territory of the youngest in the labour pool, both part-time and full-time, lost to competing classes of job seekers.
At the same time, some non-profit agencies historically focused on youth – serving as critical bridges into the workforce for the most at-risk of younger workers such as those with no viable path to an education after high school – have pivoted to assist displaced older workers having troubling finding work or whose jobs were lost in the recession.
In 2010, WoodGreen, an agency funded by the province of Ontario that has served as a springboard into the workforce for young workers for years, expanded its mandate to assist unemployed workers of all ages to find other jobs or retraining opportunities.
Saleem Hall, manager of employer services, noted a recent drive by Target Canada to hire hundreds of cashiers and store clerks in southern Ontario. Many of those WoodGreen placed with the retail giant held at least some post-secondary training.
“What has traditionally gone to high-school students is now skewing toward university and college students,” Hall said.
Linda McGrath, coordinator of Youth Employment Partnership, a City of Toronto initiative to match older youth up with non-profit employment agencies like WoodGreen, doesn’t mince words when assessing the current market.
“When you look at the decrease in entry level opportunities … it’s an extremely tough market for them.”
Still, there remains a silver lining for some willing to work hard.
Work Connections, the job fair McGrath organizes funded by Toronto’s school boards, is flourishing – providing a platform each spring for the last decade that has given some younger workers entry into highly skilled jobs otherwise unavailable to them.
Aside from placing some of the 1,000 or so young workers who attended directly into jobs, the event is an important tool for introducing fields some wouldn’t have considered — and providing them with the contacts and know-how to enter them.
Luciano DiLoreto, project leader for the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program for the Toronto District Catholic School Board makes a simple but effective pitch: “You don’t find too many plumbers not making good money these days,” he said.
Air Georgian, an affiliate airliner for Air Canada that flies lesser travelled routes across Canada, was one of the dozens of employers seeking recruits last week.
This is the first year of what the company hopes to establish as an annual program of recruiting 10 ambitious high-school graduates to become pilots. The program requirements are demanding – a student loan of at least $60,000, and 48 weeks training at a flight academy in Florida. A few years of on-the-job training as well.
The reward, however, is a job quite literally where the sky’s the limit.