All together now…
A pdf of my writing as the Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. Good Work Hunting: In Search of Answers for the Young and Jobless was first published in the Toronto Star Dec 1-15, 2012.
The work was supported by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation.
Spain’s jobless generation
In this year of searching for best practices, I felt compelled to learn what I could from a worst case. In May I travelled to Madrid to see for myself.
I don’t speak Spanish or know Spanish culture. And so, as foreign journalists often do, I hire a local fixer — an all-purpose translator and guide. She is Vicky Hayward, author, journalist, flamenco expert, British expat. She has lived and worked in Madrid for 20 years. She is someone who can size up a situation in a blink and a stranger at a glance.
One morning, we are standing outside an unemployment office, approaching young people as they leave. Jose, 26, agrees to speak to us. Embarrassed by their joblessness, most young Spaniards would speak only on a first-name basis. We walk to a quiet side street where there is a bench.
By now, I have found these translated interviews fall into a rhythm. My question, her translation, an answer in Spanish, her English translation. Vicky is adept at this. She captures both the words and tone when she translates. She becomes the vessel of meaning, herself fading into the background.
Jose is tall, thin and well-dressed. He wears aviator sunglasses. He tells me he lost his job at a call centre only six weeks before. The wound is still raw. He is discouraged about finding work.
Jose lives in a flat with two friends, but Madrid is expensive, he tells me. His rent money will run out in a few months. And then what, I ask?
Then he will have to move back home with his parents.
The interview continues on another subject, but out of the corner of my eye I see that Vicky is tearing up. I have missed something.
After another 10 minutes we say goodbye to Jose. As soon as he walks away, I ask, “What just happened?”
Vicky is still struggling to compose herself.
“You realize he was gay, right?”
“I had no I idea.”
“Oh yes. Clear as day. A Spaniard would see that right away. When he said he was sharing a flat with two boyfriends, well . . . When he moves back home with his parents, you know what will happen, don’t you?”
“He’ll have to go back in the closet.”
The economic crisis has turned Spain into a land of a thousand cruelties, many of them hidden.
I meet a man whose girlfriend is a dentist. He tells me her patients can no longer afford routine procedures. They may need a filling or a root canal, but they ask her to just pull the tooth. Her practice is barely breaking even. But if she closes it, she’ll throw her staff out of work.
I meet a bureaucrat from the unemployment office taking a smoke break outside. He says the unemployed regularly faint, perhaps from the stress, perhaps from hunger. The government no longer pays when someone calls an ambulance. The staff must pick up the tab themselves.
At a soup kitchen called Cachito de Cielo (“little piece of heaven”), I meet Mother Superior Sister Almudena. The energetic, elderly nun tells me the ranks of the hungry have swollen during the economic crisis. The nuns in her charge serve 300 people, mostly males and, increasingly, young men.
“They come in from the provinces assuming that they can get work here in the city, and then they discover what it’s like to be without a family. They don’t have a flat to live in. What we really notice is how they deteriorate. It’s the street life that does that. It’s not the hunger because, fortunately, Madrid does have a large number of social centres where we make sure that they don’t go hungry.”
Sister Almudena describes one 30-year-old man she met at the soup kitchen. He had come from rural Spain in search of a job. She noticed that he had been drinking and told him, “It’s really worrying because it suggests that you don’t have any love for yourself.”
He replied, “I’ll be truthful with you, Sister. I realize that, but I have absolutely nobody waiting for me for anything. I have nobody who loves me in any way, nobody who wants me, nobody who is using me for anything, and this is a way in which I cover my solitude.”
Sister Almudena continues: “We give them underwear. We give them razors to shave with and often we given them sleeping bags and blankets so that they at least can sleep without being cold at night.” But what they need the most is “affection, attention, time, and above all people who can guide them.”
As we leave, the people who have been lined up outside waiting for the soup kitchen to open begin to file in. I thank her for talking to a Canadian journalist. Sister Almudena’s parting words to me: “As long as it doesn’t make Spain look bad.”
And that is the thing. The Spanish, fiercely proud of their country, keep up appearances, and that conceals much from the casual observer. Madrid’s new airport terminal is an architectural marvel, tiled with acres of marble. It is vast but nearly empty. On the streets of Madrid, people dress stylishly. But as one young jobless woman told me, you don’t have to spend much here to dress well.
The Spanish authorities try to hide the homeless from view. In a smoke-filled squat in the heart of Madrid, I meet Pablo, a 38-year-old unemployed construction worker. He tells me he used to sleep in the historic Plaza Mayor along with others. But when tourist season arrived, the police turned a fire hose on them in the morning to chase them away. It would not do for foreigners to see them.
Back at the unemployment centre, I meet Miguel, a 23-year-old unemployed electrician. He lost his job when the housing bubble burst. He hasn’t worked for two years. He comes from a middle-class family that helps him out. It is his best friend he worries about. They are the same age. His friend has been without work for five years. His friend’s mother has become seriously ill. They live on 300 euros ($385) a month.
There are commentators who dismiss the high youth unemployment rate as not nearly as bad as it seems. They say the official rate, now at 55.9 per cent, doesn’t count youth working in the underground economy. But these pundits are blind to what that means.
Miguel tells me his friend, desperate for money, found two days’ work setting up a bumper car circuit at a fun fair.
“He gets 10 euros for the whole day” says Miguel, and another 60 euros for taking it down the next day. “It’s dreadful, but it’s something.”
It is said that when a country can’t devalue its currency it is forced to devalue its labour. For two full days of work Miguel’s friend has earned the equivalent of about $90.
Who is to blame? Miguel does not follow politics. But of the government, he volunteers, “They fill up the time on television with football to keep us happy and they treat us like easy little glove puppets they can manipulate. They come out with one law after another and each one is more stupid.”
By the second day of staking out the unemployment centre, Vicky and I have become familiar to the security guard. He smiles at us as he keeps busy oiling the door. I walk inside, and I see a middle-aged couple, both dressed in suits. They sag as they wait in line, humbled. Their expression seems to say, how did we fall so far? And then, in a fleeting gesture, he touches her arm, as if to say, we can get through this.
The reasons for the economic collapse of Spain are complex. It was triggered when the housing bubble burst. It was compounded by too many shaky loans, corruption, cronyism and lavish spending on infrastructure like airports and high-speed trains.
Most independent observers say the high youth unemployment rate is a consequence of an inflexible labour market. It is a two-tier system. The “protected” employees work on permanent contracts. Employers pay a steep penalty by way of severance costs for laying them off. Gayle Allard, an American-born professor of economics in Madrid, tells me that if you were an employer who “wanted to fire somebody who had a permanent contract, it could cost you 45 days per year worked, up to a 42-month maximum.”
Employers, reluctant to hire workers they cannot fire, engage the young in short-term, so-called “garbage” contracts. A young Spaniard might work well into his 30s before finding a stable job. Young employees are here today and gone tomorrow, so employers are loath to invest in their training.
Recent governments have tried to reform the system by reducing severance pay. More flexibility would eventually benefit the young. But ironically, Spanish youth see the reform as an assault on their dream of reaching permanent status. They aspire to be protected. At the same time, they resent the already protected.
In 2011, a youth-led protest movement called los indignados (“the outraged”) held demonstrations and sit-ins. One young protester held a placard that read “Civil Servants, it’s not your corruption I mind, it’s your mediocrity. I have a four-year degree and an MA and will never have a job or a pension.”
The overall unemployment rate in Spain is 25 per cent, the youth unemployment rate more than double. There is a growing divide between young and old workers.
But it is not all intergenerational conflict. Families are making sacrifices together.
Nora, 52, lost her job three years ago. She lives paycheque to paycheque, raising her 21-year-old daughter, Brenda, and two grandchildren from an older daughter. The only work Nora can find is as a domestic. She works for a retired senior civil servant. The family pays her under the table to avoid their legal obligation to fund her benefits.
“It’s always like, ‘Oh Nora, we haven’t got the money, we haven’t got the money.’ Then they buy shoes for 500 euros or pants for 329 euros. Or they can suddenly go on a quick Easter holiday to Majorca.”
It is Nora’s hopes for Brenda that keep her going.
“She studies a lot because she knows that we’re making a lot of sacrifices for her . . . She helps me with the (grand)kids. When they’re sick she will sit up all night with them because she knows that I have to go to work at 4 a.m. She’ll take them to school, and then has a short rest and goes to university.”
Nora never discusses Spain’s crisis or the family’s desperate finances with Brenda. She doesn’t want to distract her from her studies. But Brenda is not fooled. One day she gives her mother her 3,200-euro scholarship money as a rainy-day fund. It breaks Nora’s heart to take it.
When Brenda graduates, she hopes to become a teacher of special- needs children. Nora trusts that her prospects for finding work will be better than most.
She wants Brenda to leave home once she graduates. “I always say to her, ‘I want absolutely nothing else from you,’ ” Nora tells me. “ ‘I’m young, I can keep on working. It’s not a problem.’ She always says, ‘No, I’m going to stay with you. I’m going to help you bring up the little ones,’ and I say, ‘No, no, no. You’ve got to do whatever you want because I really don’t approve of this idea that you bring up children so that when they’re older you make use of them.’ ”
It takes a moment for this to sink in. I grope for the right words.
“In a way, you want to set Brenda free.”
She nods. “Si.”
With research from Vicky Hayward
Spain – who’s to blame?
I’ve noticed a blame game going on in one of the online comments sections…as in, who’s to blame for the Spain’s youth unemployment crisis. There are fingers pointing at socialist policies, unions, etc. It’s worth pointing out that the restrictive contract system has been in place for 30 years. It has been sustained by both conservative and left leaning governments.
Its historical roots can be traced to the fascist dictatorship that ruled Spain from 1939 to the mid 1970′s, as Prof Gayle Allard explains.
Keep an Open Mind about 20somethings
This past year, whether I was interviewing an expert whose career was in full bloom or a young adult struggling to find his or her first real job, at some point I usually asked the question: How did you get here from there? What brought you to this point in your working life? I never tired of their answers.
Every story was its own rich broth of luck and timing, of family circumstance, of mistakes made and learned from, of dozens of choices both wise and regretted along the way.
A parent figured in most stories, too. No surprise there. Young people turn to their parents first for career advice. But parents also send their children unspoken messages about ambition, achievement, status and happiness. And so it was with me.
Having asked the question of so many others, I began to contemplate the trajectory of my own working life and try to make some sense of it.
On an October morning when I was 32, my assignment editor at CBC called me over to his desk.
“The police are on the phone for you.”
I raced to my parents’ house. Two squad cars were parked outside. An officer steered me away from the back door, which led to the kitchen. My mother met me at the front door.
Never sick a day in his life, just turned 64, my father had collapsed on the kitchen floor. His body was still sprawled on the linoleum. He had died of a heart attack.
When death strikes suddenly and so close, it is disorienting. Time is out of joint. Routines are broken. You are numb one moment, and then grief crashes like a wave, and you are left asping for air. Burial arrangements, endless phone calls, the lamentations of amily and friends. There is little time to reflect.
After the funeral, after the ourners had left my parents’ home, there was, at last, silence. I sat quietly with my mother. She gathered her thoughts. After a time, she said, “Well. He was a good provider.”
This was her summing up. I was stunned. It was not, “He was a loving man,” or, “He was a good father,” but “a good provider.” She meant it as a high compliment. He had provided for his family — not with luxury, but with a roof over our heads and food on the table.
He had been steadfast despite a job that ground him down for more than two decades.
If that was what she had distilled from his life, what had I?
My parents had grown up on the Prairies during the Great Depression. Work was scarce. Any job really was a good job. If they dreamed about careers, it must surely have been a yearning for security. Achievement or fulfilment would have ranked a distant second.
My father served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the war. After he was demobilized, he worked at a fur factory, and then as a Fuller Brush salesman. Soon he was married with two small children. He found a job selling life insurance door to door. He hated the job, but he did it for 25 years.
Could he have aspired to something greater? The economy was booming after the war. There was opportunity, had he seized it. But the Depression had taught him not to take risks, not when it came to work. He held onto his job for dear life.
My father was tight with a dollar. But he bestowed many gifts on me that I fully appreciated only later. A stable home life. Frugality. An ease with numbers. A love of baseball. He refused, in his words, to “chauffer” me to lessons or organized sports. But every week he drove me to the public library. I think, at some level, he was sending a message: your brains are your ticket to success.
His unhappiness at work sent another message, unintentionally. Work at something you love. Do better than me.
When he died, I had already found my passion — journalism and radio. But it took me eight years of trial and error to get there. It was never a waste of time except for one nine-month eriod. I was unemployed, and it seemed like an eternity. I looked for jobs, but in retrospect, I was too picky. I was holding out for the perfect job. I lashed myself for not finding it. I fell into depression for the only time in my life.
I suppose a social historian would fit my story into the grand narrative of the ’60s and ’70s — baby boomers coming of age desperate not to become their like parents, feeling entitled to a job with meaning. But I did not think of myself as being swept along by the currents of history. It was simply my life. And the universe was taking its sweet time to unfold as it should.
I see now that looking for work I loved had morphed into an impossible quest for perfection. I had become my own worst enemy, just as my father had been his own worst enemy when he stayed at a job he hated. I was indeed my father’s son.
Once I escaped my depression, I decided it was better to get some experience — any experience — than sit paralyzed on the sidelines. As the years unfolded, what seemed like settling at the time led to something better down the road.
A few years after my father retired from selling life insurance, he grew bored. He returned to selling, this time at a carriage-trade furniture store. He told me it was easy because the people who walked through the door were at least thinking of buying. He became one of the company’s top salesmen.
He loved the job. But I think he harboured regret. Why had he not tried something different earlier? It was another lesson I took to heart.
It was said of George H. W. Bush that he was born on third base but went through life thinking he had hit a triple. He had been born into privilege without acknowledging that privilege. He had had the wisdom to choose the right parents, just as some of us have the foresight to be born in a province endowed with oil, or a country blessed with peace. We rarely credit our success to the hand we are dealt with at birth. And that is understandable. We want to see ourselves as masters of our destiny. But that isn’t the whole story.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains how success is not just a result of hard work and intelligence. Good timing and cultural
influences are at play. If you were born in the 1930s in Canada, for example, you avoided the risk of dying in the Second World War. You came of age in the 1950s when the supply of good jobs tilted in your favour. Finding your first real job was easy compared to now. Or maybe you came of age later, in a recession, and you struggled.
Here’s the thing: we all feel entitled to judge others when it comes to work, and we judge none so quickly as the young. We use our own experience as our guide. My father could have said to me, “I sucked it up, kid. You should, too.” But he didn’t, and that was a gift. He let me work it out myself, without imposing his own sour experience.
So here is my plea to you who are no longer young adults. Consider how you got here from there. Consider your missteps, and what help you got along the way. Keep an open mind about 20-somethings.
Don’t rush to judgment.
Spain’s Pain, Explained
With a youth unemployment rate of 55.9%, Spain is a worst case scenario getting uglier by the month. A housing bubble triggered the crisis, but the roots of the problem are historical – a labour contract system that creates two classes of employee. You’re either protected and or temporary. Guess which category young workers fall into?
Listen… as Gayle Allard, professor of economics at IE Business School in Madrid, explains.
Coming to the Toronto Star on Dec 8, 2012…my on the ground report about what’s happening to Spanish youth.
Year Up – Giving Urban Youth a Shot at a New Life
Everywhere you look in this aging five-storey office building in downtown Boston there are rallying cries for self-improvement. Inspirational quotations stencilled on the walls. Slogans handwritten on pieces of paper pinned to bulletin boards: agree to disagree, be accountable, keep your eyes on the prize.
In one classroom, there is a poster with a stop sign. It is surrounded with Post-it notes, each with a word written on it: Dawg. Bro. Like. Y’all. Damn. Axe (ask). These are “stop” words, slang the students lean on too much, language they will have to drop if they are to fit into an office.
If these dictums bother Wanesha, Rondell, Denise and Jovanny, they never mention it. They have bought into the program. At lunch over sandwiches, they tell me Year Up is their shot at a new life.
Year Up is a not-for-profit program that offers disadvantaged youth from American cities life-skills training and paid internships in corporate offices.
Jovanny Ramos, 24, says he was on the street a lot. He was seeing his friends go to jail. But now, with a daughter on the way, he wants to become someone she will look up to, not visit in prison.
They tell me about the hoops they had to jump through to get into Year Up — forms, essays, school records, an interview. Ramos tells me about getting the phone call that he was accepted. He happened to be driving. When he got to the next red light, he jumped out and happy-danced right there in the intersection.
Raised in inner-city Boston and more accustomed to hoodies and jeans, these youths wear dress shirts and slacks, blouses and skirts. And now, they are trying to make a graceful exit from our meeting. They politely remind me they can’t be late for class. Not even by a minute. Show up ate too many times and “you fire yourself” out of the program. And that can’t happen. Not when it’s your last best chance.
In 1999, Boston entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian sold he multi-million dollar communications firm he co-founded. He turned his attention to a project he had dreamed up years earlier while at Harvard usiness School.
Chertavian had been a Big Brother in Boston. After e found a job in New York, he became a Big Brother to a boy from the crime-ridden Lower East Side, further witnessing the obstacles to success that urban youth face. He set in motion a plan to help them.
A Wall Street veteran, Chertavian recognized the financial services industry was having trouble retaining university graduates in entry-level positions. They left for greener pastures as soon as they could.
His big idea was to train young adults from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to fill these jobs. They would be paid for taking six months of life skills and technical training, then placed in a six-month paid internship at a financial intuition. Along the way, they would earn 18 college credits.
The fruit of his thinking, Year Up, was born in 2000. Linda Swardlick Smith, now the director of student services, recalls, “We were developing a private school for young men and women who couldn’t afford it. We were paying them to learn . . .
“(We thought) what a difference that would make because they could put the time and energy into learning new skills and not have to worry so much about putting food on the table. And they also could really develop relationships with other people in this community who had networks of support.”
Then she adds, “We weren’t sure whether this program would really work because we had nothing to prove that it would.”
Today, an A-list of corporate partners such as State Street and Fidelity Investments pay Year Up to train a steady stream of recruits. Year Up has been praised by U.S. President Barack Obama and lauded by the Harvard Business Review.
And why not? The employer satisfaction rate is 95 per cent. The program has spread to nine cities, serving 1,500 students a year. Eighty-four per cent of graduates find jobs or go to college full-time within four months of their leaving the program.
An independent study compared earnings of a random sample of Year Up graduates to a random sample of young adults from the same neighbourhoods. Over time, Year Up graduates earned 30 per cent more.
This close tracking of performance is one of the hallmarks of Year Up. It is rare in this field. Youth unemployment programs are devilishly difficult to evaluate. Evaluation requires following individuals for years after they have left a program to see its lasting effect. It requires comparing the group of young people who receive the services to a similar group that hasn’t. This helps answer what difference the intervention made, if any.
Year Up views this painstaking measurement of outcomes as essential to keeping corporate partners satisfied, and to attracting new ones. It also speaks to its long-term commitment to its alumni, to making sure their gains are not lost.
And that means helping them deal with the stress of new success.
Swardlick Smith says pressure often comes from home. Mothers tell them, “You have to stay home and take care of your little brother. I don’t really care about this program that you’re in. You have priorities in the household, priorities in the family. I have diabetes. As your mother you need to take me to the hospital. I don’t speak English. As your mother you need to go and translate for me. Mothers feel like, ‘Where are you going with your life and I’m being left behind.’”
Kern Williams, 25, graduated from Year Up in 2010. Born in Trinidad, he came to Boston as a child. He told me that what held him back was getting his papers in order. After high school, he scraped by working long hours at a gas station. When he finally became a citizen in September 2008, “it was like a brick wall came down.”
He voted for Obama, whose victory inspired him. That fall, he also learned he was accepted in the Year Up session beginning in March 2009. That led to a job at State Street mutual funds, and recently a position in property management at Center Realty Group.
He wears a suit five days a week. When he goes back to his neighbourhood, he bumps into his old friends. “It’s just like, well, ‘Why you have to wear a suit? You speak differently now. You’re going to all these different places.’”
Sometimes success at Year Up means leaving friends behind. It can be a difficult adjustment. But alumni also know there are staff they can turn to for support. They learn early that at Year Up, someone always has your back.
Tips for the Young & Jobless
At the conclusion of this series, I’ll lay out what I think public policy can do to ease the problem of the young and jobless. That’s the big picture.
But on an individual level, every young adult and parent I speak to asks me a simple question. What’s your best advice for me or my kid? Indeed, I’ve pondered what I would tell my own teenager or twentysomething if I had one.
Here’s what I would say, in no particular order.
• Check out Alberta and Saskatchewan. Their economies are booming. The unemployment rate is low. The demand for workers is high. Do your homework before you pull up stakes, but don’t be afraid to move to find work.
• Don’t wait on the sidelines for the perfect job. You can learn something from every job. Besides, what seems perfect may turn out not to be. And what seems like a so-so job may surprise you, or open the door to something better.
• Don’t get hung up on the status of a particular occupation. There is satisfaction in doing any job well, however humble it is. Your employer will usually notice your pride in the work. And this may open up opportunities.
• Broaden your life experience. Employers value that. It speaks to maturity and perspective. Consider taking a gap year. Research shows that it doesn’t hurt your chances of finding work, as long as you return to post-secondary education. Volunteer. Get out of your comfort zone. All this will build your confidence.
• Don’t rely solely on advertised postings for your job search. Sixty-five per cent of Canadians report that the “hidden job market” was important in their finding employment. The hidden job market refers to job openings that are never advertised, but are filled internally, or through the employer’s family, friends or contacts. Bottom line: to find work, network. Do independent research and summon the courage to make cold calls to prospective employers.
• Learn the basic principles of marketing. In a job search, ask yourself, “How can I add value to my prospective employer? What do they need?” Appeal to the self-interest of the person you want something from. Remember, it’s not about pleasing you. It’s about pleasing them.
• Ask a professional. Consulting a career-development professional can help you clarify your options, improve your job search skills and focus your goals.
• Don’t fret about your friends’ and parents’ opinions. Listen to them, but in the end, remember, it’s your life.
• If you are shopping for a college or university program, look for one with a co-op work experience component. You will graduate further ahead because you have on-the-job training and the beginnings of a network of contacts.
Interview with Matt Galloway, CBC Toronto
CBC Toronto has one amazing host, Matt Galloway. He interviewed me on Nov 30, 2012
“In the total employment scheme of things, (it was) hardly even a rounding error.”
Bill Young is talking about the 500 jobs he created for people with barriers to employment — street kids, urban First Nations people, battered women and welfare recipients. He had made a difference in 500 lives. Yet his self-assessment was harsh, if realistic.
“It made us ask ourselves the question, how do we change the landscape?”
By the late 1990s the Hamilton businessman had become wealthy. He had built a computer business and then sold it to GE Capital. An early investment in the tech start-up Red Hat had gone through the roof. At 47 he was set for life.
“Rather than thinking, ‘Why don’t I become a philanthropist in any kind of traditional way?’ I was thinking, ‘I’ve got all this business experience. Why have we separated this world? Why can’t business and doing good be linked in some way, shape or form?’ ”
People in the social justice movement and political progressives have long mistrusted the corporate world. Business practices were part of the problem, the thinking went. When a business did engage in socially responsible conduct, it was dismissed as window dressing.
As one of a new breed of social entrepreneurs, Bill Young saw it differently. If he could find the sweet spot where doing good and commercial self-interest intersected, there was hope of making a real impact in solving social problems.
In 2001, he founded a non-profit called Social Capital Partners in Toronto.Young wasn’t just interested in analyzing social problems. He wanted to create a real-life research and development lab for solving them. Not a think-tank, but a “do-tank.”
Five years into the mission, Young had created four self-sustaining enterprises from scratch. TurnAround Couriers in Toronto, for example, recruits only at-risk youth for its bike courier and back office positions. It operates as a competitive business. But doing “only one deal a year and then having to take so long to get them to be actually profitable was hard,” Young says. He wondered, “Could we find a more cookie-cutter way to do this?”
He cast his eye on companies with a proven business model — franchises. New franchisees were usually short on start-up capital. Why not lend at favourable interest rates? In exchange the franchisee would agree to hire from a pool of candidates with barriers to employment. Local social service agencies would train them to be job-ready. The more hires, the lower the interest rate.
Active Green + Ross, a car maintenance company, signed on to a pilot project in Hamilton. Young selected social service agencies that understood “business was the customer, not just the person they were trying to employ.” The agencies would supply suitable trainees, not just available ones.
It started small. One franchisee accepted six community hires. Then another franchisee signed on, and another. Instead of doing one deal a year, SCP was soon doing four deals a month. Then one day the parent company asked to tap into the pool of the community hires, without the sweetener loans. That surprised Young. The owner of AG+R said, “You found us a labour pool we never would have access to. They’re working out. It’s the right thing to do for the community. Why wouldn’t we do it?”
Young thought, “Yeah, why wouldn’t you do it? Why wouldn’t everybody do this, if someone made it this easy.” And that is the challenge Bill Young is tackling now.
As things stand, there are hundreds of social service agencies in Canada doing essentially the same thing — helping people with barriers to employment become job-ready, then finding them work placements, often by subsidizing employers. Some agencies work with the disabled, others with new immigrants. In Toronto, there are at least two dozen agencies helping the young and jobless.
The agencies compete for grants, for clients (the jobless), and for employers who will give them a chance.
Three levels of government also offer employment services. In the federal government alone there are 31 youth employment programs spread across 13 departments.
It is a chaotic system. And it stymies large employers who want to engage in community hiring. It is so fragmented, they don’t know whom to turn to and give
up trying. They resort to placement agencies to do their hiring.
Bill Young wants to build the business case so that placement companies will tap into the pool of people with employment barriers.
“These organizations are seen as the ‘bad guys’ by community service agencies because there are some bad actors, frankly, in the placement business. But the large ones, the Manpowers or the Adeccos or the Randstads have these relationships at very strategic levels of the companies (with jobs). They are playing a very important function that no community service agency can play.
He is pitching to one of those placement firms to participate in a pilot project. “We want to show that we can deliver a person who is grateful for this opportunity as opposed to entitled to it for the entry-level jobs.” If that works, Young’s thinking goes, community services agencies can concentrate on getting people job-ready and bowout of the placement function.
It is early days in this latest experiment. Social Capital Partners will test its assumptions, make mistakes and learn along the way. But Young says the beauty of being a non-profit “do-tank” is this. When a commercial enterprise figures out how to do something better, it guards the secret. Bill Young wants to give it away.
The Big Picture
If you were casting Katie Daniels for a movie, she would be a lock for the sunny, can-do girl next door.
But the day I meet this 26-year-old, her brow is clouded with concern.
Life has not been going according to plan.
“Do what you’re told. Do the right thing, and good things will happen to you.”
That was her credo since she was a kid, growing up in the small town of Brighton, Ont.
When she was 14, her parents gently kicked her out the door and told her not to come home until she had found a summer job. She has been earning some sort of wage ever since.
Daniels has always worked hard, she tells me. It paid off in track, soccer and rugby. She studied hard in high school, too. Four universities offered her scholarships.
But she chose the only one that accepted her without offering her money, the University of Toronto.
She believed a degree from a university touted as Canada’s Harvard would give her an edge. She studied political science with an eye to a career in public policy. But on this day in 2011, two years after graduating with her bachelor of arts, she is still waiting on tables.
“I feel like I was sold a bill of goods,” she says.
“I used to know the path,” she continues. But now she isn’t so sure.
Should she pursue a master’s degree? What if that turned out to be a false promise too?
By serving at Sapore, an upscale restaurant in Woodbridge, she has paid off a $27,000 student loan in just two years. If some people look down on her, who cares? The money is good.
And yet she yearns for something better, or at least something different.
Four years ago in September, Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. For years, U.S. lenders had sold dodgy sub-prime home mortgages. They bundled them together, packaged them like Russian dolls, tied them with a ribbon, and resold them to a market blind to risk and hungry for a quick profit.
When the band stopped playing, international credit froze. Global stock markets crashed. And consumers curled into a fetal position. For a while, the developed world teetered on the brink of a Depression.
For Canadian youth seeking work, September 2008 was the last best month before the economy tumbled into recession. The number of 15- to 24-year-olds with jobs was the highest in a generation — since March 1982, in fact. The youth unemployment rate was 11.1 per cent, roughly what it had been for two years.
In November 2008 the Canadian economy began shedding jobs. By the following summer, the youth unemployment rate had ballooned to 16.4 per cent. Eventually the rate settled in the 14- to 15-per-cent range. The most recent seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds is 14.7 per cent.
The jobs picture is not bleak for everyone. The unemployment rate for older workers, that is, those 25 years old and up, has fallen to 6.2 per cent, just 1.2 percentage points above pre-recession levels. But the youth unemployment rate remains stuck roughly where it was three years ago.
There are a couple of important points to understand about job statistics. First, the unemployment rate is a blunt measure of the health of the labour
If you are discouraged and have given up looking for work, you don’t count as unemployed. You are deemed “not participating” in the workforce. If you are a PhD who can only find work driving a taxi, you count as employed. If you work part-time, you count as employed even if you would prefer full-time work.
Sometimes economists use a broader measure called the “R8,” or supplementary unemployment rate, to take into account some of these characteristics. The R8 includes the unemployed plus those who have given up looking for work, those waiting to start a job and involuntary part-time workers.
The involuntarily part-time are by far the largest of these “add-ons” groups. In July 2012, the supplementary unemployment rate for youth was 20.7 per cent (not seasonally adjusted). By comparison, in July 2008, just before the recession hit, it was 17.1 per cent.
The second point about the labour market is that it is dynamic. Even when the unemployment rate is stable, the individuals who are jobless keep changing.
In a recession, though, it takes longer to find work. These days roughly one in eight unemployed 15- to 29-year olds has been looking for work for more than half a year. That is about double what the rate was four years ago.
It is easy to drown in these statistics. Believe me, I struggle myself sometime. But here is one critical number to remember: 266,000.
There are 266,000 fewer 15- to 24-year-olds working now than in that last best month four years ago.
Almost all of those 266,000 lost jobs were in the 15- to 19-year-old group. In other words, those with little more than a high school education, and some with less.
That doesn’t mean it’s all roses for college graduates. Many better-educated twentysomethings — like server Katie Daniels — are underemployed. They have settled for jobs that pay the rent, but in no way require a university education.
It’s not that these are “bad” jobs. It is just that they usually pay poorly, are insecure, lack benefits and require little of the higher learning associated with a university degree.
This group — the art historian pouring your morning coffee or the bachelor of science selling you an iPad — is growing.
Tom Zizys is an economist and policy analyst. While working for the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group, he tracked this trend. In 1996, 18 per cent of university graduates in Toronto worked in jobs that required only a high school education. By 2006, the percentage had jumped to 34 per cent. One in three.
An undergraduate degree has become the new high school diploma. What has happened is that the well educated are pushing 15- to 19-year-olds out of jobs.
Meanwhile, the underemployed university grads represent a squandering of money — theirs, their parents’, that of the public purse. Weighed down by student debt, they bide their time at jobs with no connection to their training.
Their skills grow rusty. As time passes, employers stigmatize them. When a decent job does come up, the freshly minted graduate has the edge.
There is ample evidence that the underemployed suffer long-term reduced earnings. In the meantime, jobs in some sections of the economy go begging because of a shortage of people with the right skills.
How did it come to this?
It’s partly the result of the recession. The young are always the first to be let go. But youth joblessness has become entrenched because of long-term structural changes in the economy and the labour market.
Globalization has exported jobs. This has unfolded in two waves. The first was driven by the low wages of Asia, the second, by the Internet.
David Ticoll is special adviser to the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s ICT Skills, an organization that promotes the labour needs of the information, communications and technology sector. He notes that IT work, which he describes as “programming, call centres, legal research, even some journalism,” has moved offshore. “Even transcription of medical records might happen in India.”
This has transformed Ontario into what Zizys calls an hourglass jobs market. In a report for the Metcalf Foundation, Zizys analyzed the changes in Ontario’s
labour market from 1991 to 2006. The number of middle-tier jobs has stagnated. Job growth has come in the low-wage service economy and in the well-paying knowledge economy.
The hiring practices of corporate Canada have also changed, and they have hurt young people entering the workforce. A generation ago, large companies
invested more heavily in training. This enabled entry-level employees to work their way up in an organization. Companies hired from within.
That’s been replaced by just-in-time hiring of people with exactly the right credentials, training and experience. The effect is to kick out the middle rungs of the career ladder. In a hiring environment in which the currency is experience, the young are beggared.
Precarious employment — short-term contracts, part-time, on call — has become the new normal. In 1989, 11 per cent of newly hired employees in Canada held temporary jobs. By 2004, 21 per cent of new hires were temporary.
And so people like Torontonian Eleanor Edgar, 29, cobble together a portfolio of jobs. Edgar earned her master of social work degree from York University in 2010. When I first met her, she was working on two contracts that employed her a total of four days a week. Those came only after a long and difficult job search, a process she was girding herself for once again. One of the part-time jobs was about to end because the grant money was running out.
Of course, young adults make the best of the situation. Precarious work can be a way of trying out different occupations and work settings. They use their spare time for their passion projects.
They make a virtue out of the shabby chic lifestyle. If they have no dependents, they can survive on less. But that wears thin after a time. One twentysomething told me, “When do I get to stop living like a student?”
For employers, this no-commitment world of flexibility is a dream come true. It is their version of “friends with benefits,” but without health and dental if you’re the temp. This is cost-efficient for the boss. But long-term, it may be self-defeating.
“At the beginning there is nothing particularly wrong with hiring people on a temporary contract basis,” Stefano Scarpetta told me. He is a senior labour economist for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. “The risk is when temporary contracts become the norm. It becomes a vicious circle.
“Firms are less eager to invest in training for those who work on temporary contracts. There’s no way the investment would be worth it because the young person might leave.”
In fact, investment in employee training is declining in this country. According to a 2011 study by the Conference Board of Canada, spending per employee on on-the-job training has declined 40 per cent since 1993.
“The worker involved in a temporary contract may be less eager to invest in specific training because he might not be able to stay in the company,” Scarpetta says. “It’s not a path to building a career.”
Nor is it a path to building the skilled labour force that corporate Canada yearns for.
While serving diners at Sapore, Katie Daniels continued to aspire to something better.
A few months after we met, she wrote the Ontario civil service exams in a room with 3,000 other hopefuls. It was a reality check.
After searching for that elusive public policy job for two years, she was ready to give up.
In November 2011, she decided to act on an offer that a regular patron of Sapore had made a few months earlier, if it was still available. It was, and Daniels wnt to work in sales for a Brampton-based document and services outsourcing company, Formost mediaOne.
Eleven months into the new job, she earns less than she did as a waitress. But Katie Daniels, now 28, feels like she’s building a future.
But what is to become of the young who remain jobless or underemployed and frustrated? What can we do to change things?
I spent a year in the field looking for answers. Sadly, there is no magic bullet. And yet, I found all kinds of hopeful ideas and inspiring examples. I’ll be telling you about them in the days ahead.
Who is Neil Sandell?
Neil Sandell was the 2011 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. The sought after award is given to one Canadian journalist every year. It allows the winner to devote a year to research, travel, and writing about a social policy issue, this case youth unemployment.
Neil Sandell is a senior producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto. He has worked in journalism for over 25 years, and has won over 16 national and international radio awards.