Being unemployed as a young person can have ramifications that last a lifetime — without work experience, formal training or a professional network, it’s hard to reach even the first rung on the corporate ladder. Youth across the Greater Toronto Area face barriers to employment that range from precarious work to mental health issues, all of which are exacerbated for low-income youth. Despite these barriers, taking a more holistic approach is helping to institute much-needed change.
1. Precarious work
A major employment barrier for youth is the rise of precarious employment, from contract jobs to part-time gigs and temp work. While this makes it harder to find full-time employment with benefits — and can limit income growth — it’s even more challenging for vulnerable youth who face systemic racism, income disparity or lack of social capital (often, many of these factors are inter-related).
And while jobs are out there, “there’s often a disconnect between formal education and what employers need,” says Andrew Reddin, director of partnerships with NPower Canada, an organization that provides youth with training, job placement and ongoing support in the information technology sector in partnership with United Way. A sector-based, employer-driven workforce development model takes a different approach, where employers are consulted about the specific skillsets they’re looking for and the curriculum is reverse-engineered to facilitate direct job placement. Paid internships and apprenticeships are also part of the solution.
2. Lack of work experience
Many vulnerable youth haven’t completed post-secondary education, says Reddin, but even in cases where they earn accreditation there’s no guarantee of a job; employers want to see co-op experience or applied knowledge. If they’ve completed post-secondary education outside of Canada, those credentials aren’t always recognized by Canadian employers. Racialized women with university degrees, for example, are still experiencing gaps in securing employment, despite an improving labour market.
A survey by RBC found three critical gaps in youth employment: getting work experience, growing their network and growing new skills. The survey found that while 83 per cent of educators feel youth are prepared for work, only 34 per cent of employers and 44 per cent of youth agree. That’s where community programming and public-private partnerships are helping to bridge the gap: RBC’s Future Launch, for example, is a partnership with governments, educators, the private sector and youth-serving organizations to foster change.
3. Lack of access
While free job training programs are available to vulnerable youth, these programs can still be inaccessible to youth who don’t have social supports or social assistance. “In many cases it’s an access issue,” says Mandie Abrams, executive director of the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC), which trains youth ages 18 to 29 to work in the hospitality industry, in partnership with United Way.
They still have to pay the bills; in some cases, they may be supporting a child but can’t afford childcare. Even the cost of transit can be a barrier during training — and affect future employability. “Our partners [in the hospitality industry] tend to be clustered downtown and by the airport,” says Abrams. So, if you live in Scarborough but can’t afford transit, then you can’t take a job at the airport. That’s why many job training programs work with other agencies and charities to direct low-income and vulnerable youth toward social supports that can help them stay gainfully employed.
4. Hidden homelessness
Housing in Toronto has become a major issue, with rental and ownership prices among the highest in Canada (and above the rate of inflation); almost 100,000 Toronto households are on a wait list for subsidized housing, according to Toronto’s Child and Family Poverty Report Card. In Toronto, 34 per cent of families with children aged 17 and under are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent; in the meantime, some of those families live in unsafe situations, such as housing that’s overcrowded or in disrepair.
“Many youth aren’t ‘street’ homeless, but there’s ‘invisible’ homeless,” says Reddin. They might be couch surfing with extended family, or they might be on social assistance and sharing a room, but if their roommates can’t make rent they’re all at risk of being evicted. “Housing precarity really impacts somebody’s ability to complete training,” says Abrams. “They’ll often have to stop training because it takes all of their time and energy [to find housing]. … We’re assessing them on their work performance but their lives often impact that performance.” That’s why many of these programs have a non-judgmental, open-door policy, so if someone is unable to complete training because of life circumstances, they can come back and pick up where they left off.
5. Lack of support for mental health issues
A perhaps lesser-known barrier to youth employment in the GTA is the lack of culturally sensitive mental health counselling, according to Reddin. Vulnerable youth might live with anxiety or depression; refugees coming from a war zone might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If triggered, their mental health can spiral, but sitting on a wait list for 10 months to get help impacts their employability and financial security.
These days, there’s a greater focus on holistic solutions, recognizing that many barriers to employment are related. NPower, for example, provides a soup-to-nuts spectrum of service, with 15 weeks of free training to job placement and ongoing support for two years after employment. But it also has social workers on staff who provide mental health counselling throughout the process. HWTC, for its part, works with case workers and other community agencies to help trainees get the supports they need; there’s also a social worker on staff focused on identifying and overcoming barriers to a successful transition into the workforce.