Recently I had the opportunity to interview Matt Wood, the Executive Director of First Work, about the dimensions of the problems related to the youth labour market in Ontario. First Work is an umbrella organization of youth employment centres across Ontario that assist young people in gaining entry into the labour market. What resulted over the course of the interview was a thoroughly interesting discussion about the public policy construction relating to youth at the federal and provincial levels, the ongoing changes to our economy, and what solutions might be possible.
AL: Historically recessions have hit young people in Canada very hard over the past four decades. What has been the fallout from this most recent recession on the youth labour market in Ontario and what's your prognosis for the youth labour market if we slip back into a recessionary economy?
MW: In general we’ve seen unemployment hit youth hard this recession and the recovery has offered little relief. The recessions’ impact has been felt very different across Canada according to our national research – out east we’ve seen little change from constant struggle, out west we’ve seen wilder fluctuations from extreme booms to extreme busts, and in Ontario we’ve seen a big hit to manufacturing in particular. So the labour markets are very local in character. This is something some youth can take advantage of, given their typically higher mobility than adults. But more youth are willing to work and compete for seasonal and survival jobs so the prospects for youth are bleaker in that sense.
AL: Presently what do feel are the greatest challenges facing youth entering the labour market in Ontario?
MW: First, it is getting increasingly hard to navigate a career path, by which I mean piecing together jobs that build on your formal education in a field you desire to work in. Increased competition due to more candidates and fewer opportunities due to austerity and slower economic growth are the causes there. Second, the reduction in good entry-level, lower skilled opportunities. The hollowing out of manufacturing has put many people back onto the unemployment lines. This has increased demand for training and has eliminated many higher-paying lower-skill jobs. Whereas factory workers may have made $40/hour they are more likely to get $25/hour now – and there are fewer of these opportunities.
AL: The Labour Market Development Agreement ("LMDA") is the main governing document that outlines shared public policy between the Federal and Ontario governments vis-a-vis the labour market. Last year there was a consolidation of some government initiatives aimed at encouraging labour market participation which resulted in a all-ages approach which resulted in quite a bit of criticism recently. Can you explain how the all-ages approach impacted on organizations providing employment services to youth and how this policy decision negatively impacts youth looking for work?
MW: The decision to consolidate services (i.e. reduce the number of organizations delivering Employment Ontario services and favor larger organizations over smaller ones) was informed by some multi-jurisdictional research conducted by KPMG (and supported in part by ourselves). The consolidation was not a necessary element of the LMDA, but rather was an operational decision Ontario made on its own. And this consolidation is not complete, by the way, with 83 employment agencies still living with “on-hold” status – meaning they may not be given long-term agreements with the province once the chips are down.
The all-ages approach, which was also new, caught many of us by surprise. Although I’m sure the province would argue it is somehow based on evidence, the evidence base for all these decisions is very very weak, and goes against most common perspectives in the field. Integrating ‘at-risk’ youth and adults in an educational setting is unheard of. Integrating ‘at-risk’ youth and adults in an employment centre makes as little sense.
We work very closely with government and had informed them on several occasions of our finding that 35% fewer youth were taking advantage of employment services. We have proposed program changes to make employment services more attractive, relevant and ‘friendly’ to youth. The press coverage we received seems to have generated more interest in our message. I have yet to see government statistics that refute our findings, and I am genuinely concerned the government is not measuring the impacts of the program changes appropriately.
I have to take a moment and say that the McGuinty government has made many important and valuable investments in youth. These include the Learning to 18 agenda and several increased investments in summer job programs. There are also ongoing conversations with a coalition called Ontario Youth Matter that may result in action (although time will tell). The Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities has inadvertently shifted its attention away from youth – and I think on this score the Ministry is an outlier among other Ministries.
AL: Youth in Ontario are not a homogeneous group and display a stunning amount of diversity. In your experience are there any specific segments of the youth population in Ontario who are being left behind through the implementation of the LMDA?
MW: We talk about marginalized youth, meaning those who are living at the margins of mainstream society or ‘at-risk’ youth, those who are at risk of falling into lives of poverty or anti-social behaviour. These groups have certainly lost out in the program changes at Employment Ontario for two reasons. First, the ongoing squeeze on funding, and the increase in red tape, has hampered agencies’ ability to find and recruit these youth. These folks are not as easily attracted to use social services as adults are, and the increase in adults has meant an increase in the need to serve them, again with increased red tape. Second, youth employment programs are successful with significant funding put toward employment placement – the money that pays a portion of the wage for an employer to hire a young person that they otherwise would not hire. The amount of money for employment placement is significantly lower than in the past.
One of the provinces investments in summer jobs (the Summer Jobs for Youth program of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services) have targeted marginalized youth very well. This program impacts only the summer and only 15 communities across Ontario so it does not have the scope of the Employment Ontario program of MTCU.
AL: What was the motivation of the Federal and Ontario governments to move toward the LMDA's all-ages approach and was the current situation facing youth in the labour market properly considered in the formulation of this policy?
MW: There has always been minor tension between the Federal Government and Ontario over youth employment, since federal government has informally reserved youth employment programs as their bailiwick through their Youth Employment Strategy while the Province has been operating its Job Connect (and earlier) programs for fifteen years prior to the LMDA. Job Connect was the Provinces employment program that focused heavily on marginalized youth, was genuinely results-based, was implemented very consistently across the Province and built a long-term and highly effective community of practice among practitioners.
As mentioned, the all-ages approach was an operational decision made by Ontario but who knows what might have been discussed behind closed doors to try to reinforce the federal reserve of youth employment. There’s nothing in the LMDA text precluding the delivery of services to youth or other specialized client groups.
The Province would argue that their post-LMDA programs allow for adjustment to local labour market conditions and that the local agencies delivering the program are responsible to accomplish this. This is technically true, but the lack of funds and the burden of paperwork have made serving marginalized youth an unaffordable luxury for Employment Ontario agencies.
MW: It is important to conceive of the school to work transition as being the important time for intervention. In todays context of rapidly changing labour market prospects, an emphasis on local flexibility and responsiveness is crucial, as is an emphasis on partnerships with employers. I envision a long-term (10 – 15 year) program that follows youth through their personal transition, supporting them with career, training, entrepreneurship and unemployment bridging support until they establish themselves and attain a certain level of independence and security.
AL: Given the high youth employment rate it's clear that more needs to be done on the part of government. What policy tools might be effective in reducing the youth unemployment rate?