For more than a decade, the International Labour Organization, the UN body that tracks the human toll of economic progress, has been sounding the alarm about youth unemployment.
So far, its member governments, including Canada’s, have paid little heed. As its warnings became starker — de-skilling, social instability, lost generation, global crisis — policy-makers acknowledged the problem, studied it and drafted long-term plans. But they showed no urgency and took few practical steps.
Determined to provide impetus, the ILO launched a Global Initiative for Decent Jobs for Youth in New York this month. The UN’s 28 other agencies joined the campaign. “Today two out of every five young persons of working age are either unemployed or working in jobs that don’t pay enough to escape poverty,” said ILO director-general Guy Ryder. “Our challenge is to continuously find new and innovative solutions as we look into the future of work.”
His objective is to enlist member governments, business, academe and youth in a worldwide effort to generate decent jobs for young people.
By international standards, Canada is faring well. Our youth unemployment rate is 13 per cent. In Sweden, 19.4 per cent of young people are looking for work. In France, the youth jobless rate is 25.9 per cent. In Spain, it is 46 per cent. In Greece it is a staggering 48.6 per cent. (It is hard to get comparable statistics from Africa, where youth can mean anything from 12 to 30 years of age.)
But we trail the United States (11.2 per cent), Australia (12.2 per cent), the Czech Republic (10.9 per cent) and Germany (7 per cent). More importantly, our youth unemployment rate is almost double the national average (7.1 per cent). Nearly half of 15- to 24-year-olds who do work have part-time jobs.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper did more to undermine than assist young job seekers. Between 2006 and 2014 his government opened the floodgates to low-skilled temporary foreign workers, who took the entry-level jobs normally sought by young people.
In 2013, he claimed there was a severe skill shortage in the land. There were plenty of jobs but employers couldn’t find workers with the skills they needed. This misalignment, Harper said, was “the biggest challenge our country faces.” No one could figure out where these job vacancies were. Reporters, economists, the parliamentary budget office and the Conference Board of Canada did some digging and discovered they didn’t exist. Federal officials were relying on data from Kijiji, a classified ad service operated by eBay. It allowed employers to post the same job in various categories, which led Ottawa to double and triple count.
Justin Trudeau has pledged to spend $455 million a year helping young Canadians find work. His intent is to create 40,000 jobs annually by expanding Ottawa’s summer jobs program; increasing the number of co-op positions available for business and engineering students; giving a one-year payroll tax break to employers who hire young Canadians for permanent positions; and relaunching a youth service program like Katimavik, started by his father in 1977 and eliminated by the Harper government in 2012.
Canadians will find out when Finance Minister Bill Morneau tables his budget this spring how many of these election commitments make the cut. If there is funding for all — or even most — of them, Canada will be several steps ahead of the UN coalition, which is still in the brainstorming stage.
But the Liberal youth employment strategy has gaps. Its primary focus is the public sector. Most of the opportunities it creates would be seasonal or temporary. Apart from Trudeau’s pledge to create 5,000 “green jobs,” it is not particularly innovative. And the prime minister has 190 other election promises to keep.
In light of these factors, it would make sense to back the UN initiative. Ottawa has no monopoly on fresh thinking. The Liberal plan doesn’t tap into the ideas of business, the post-secondary sector and young people. And Trudeau may need affordable alternatives to his own policies if the economy continues to underperform.
The good news is that youth unemployment is finally on the radar screen domestically and internationally. But it will take sustained political will, enlightened leadership in the private sector and public pressure to unlock the potential of the millennial generation.