What do you want to be when you grow up?
We’ve all wrestled with this question.
Some know the answer right away. Others change their minds constantly. A good number of us don't have a clue.
What’s becoming clear is that breaking into the job market is tougher and more complicated for today’s youth.
“At the height of COVID youth unemployment, youth unemployment rose to almost 30 per cent. It was devastating,” said Tim Lang, president and CEO of Youth Employment Services (YES).
He said the pandemic was very hard on businesses that hire a good number of young people. These include the hospitality and retail sectors.
The youth unemployment rate dropped significantly as the economy opened up, said Lang.
“Which is good, but it’s still double the national average, which is concerning when youth are unemployed for long periods of time,” he said. “It can not only hurt their mental health, but the future of the economy as well.”
Lang says YES has been trying to innovate and look at strategies for youth to “upskill and re-skill” in areas of the future like digital literacy and the trades.
Sault Ste. Marie’s youth unemployment rate is fairly close to the national average, said Lang.
The youth unemployment rate in Canada averaged 14 percent from 1976 until 2021, reaching an all time high of 29.10 percent in May of 2020 and a record low of 10.20 percent in May of 2019. (Youth is defined as age 15 to 24.)
One thing that’s notable in Sault Ste Marie’s employment statistics is the lower participation rate, which means fewer people are looking for work locally.
A driving factor is an older population and this could present more opportunities for youth.
There may be fewer opportunities than in Toronto, but there’s also less competition.
Lang said the Sault has a diverse marketplace for job seekers with opportunity in natural resources and administrative roles.
“The big potential we look at in places like the Sault is in digital literacy,” said Lang.
YES just recently started a program called YES 2 Tech which aims to bridge the gap between the rising youth unemployment rate and the job market of the digital age.
“Even at the height of the pandemic overall in Canada there were about 100,000 empty jobs,” said Lang. “So certainly in digital there is great potential.”
“More and more youth are realizing they can upskill and they shouldn’t be afraid of not having any background in the area,” he said, adding that careers in the trades were another good option to look at.
There is a mentality - even within the school system - that doesn’t give trades the due they deserve, said Lang.
He said while youth should never let go of their dreams, they should also try to be realistic.
It’s a tough balancing act.
Lang said picking a career path requires “self reflection and direction from a mentor or a parent who can guide them on a possible career path they might enjoy.”
YES offers mentorship programs which many young people need.
“The difficult part is we deal with a lot of disadvantaged youth who don’t have a lot of mentors,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t know what to do and a lot of parents don’t know what to tell them, but it’s alway good if mentors and parents could help them discover various careers.”
Lang describes one young man he knows who is now a successful baker.
“He never thought he’d be a baker, but now he loves it. There’s more opportunities out there that people don’t even know.”
Covid has thrown many curve balls at youth.
Even a program with the best intentions, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), complicated the job market.
“Help had to be given, but was it too much too long? Obviously, it’s a balancing act,” said Lang.
Lang said there were cases where he had youth who were ready to go back to work and employers ready to take them back, but the potential workers said they were satisfied to continue collecting CERB.
“It was disappointing because it’s better even if you’re making the same money to have a job to pad your resume and learn skills,” said Lang.YES doesn't have a physical presence in Sault Ste. Marie, but youth in the region can participate in YES' online programming. For more support, youth can connect with local organizations, including the YMCA or Sault Community Career Centre.