“I need previous work experience to be hired”: Ontario Youth Struggle to Get Their First Job
The vicious cycle of unemployment is a challenge resonating with teenagers and young adults across Ontario.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue, propelling the youth unemployment rate in Canada to an unprecedented 28.8% in May 2020, much higher than the overall unemployment rate of 13.7%. As of June 2023, Ontario’s unemployment rate was 13.8% for youth aged 15-24. Youth are at greater risk of unemployment than the rest of the population, and more are employed in temporary, precarious, or part-time jobs.
A common issue young people face is recruitment teams that desire applicants with existing work experience (e.g., “a minimum of 1-year experience working in retail”). When this qualification becomes the norm, an ineliminable barrier is put in place for youth without this experience.
As a young person described, “My thing is, it’s like every employer wants work experience, but how do we give them work experience if no one’s hiring us? It’s always like, ‘I need to be hired to get hired’ but I’m never getting hired.”
Being unable to attain employment status is the central reason why many young people remain unemployed: they are stuck in a cycle of needing to be employed to be employed.
Consequently, in an act of desperation, many youth are fabricating work experiences for their resumes in hopes of a successful hire. That, or the few lucky ones who have insider connections through family, friends, or acquaintances can jump into the hiring process and enter immediately into the workforce.
The Impact of COVID Restrictions
The declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020 triggered widespread lockdowns and closures, which led to unparalleled disruptions to learning, work, and wellbeing for young people in Ontario.
The abrupt shift to remote learning led to inconsistent educational experiences, decreased engagement, and lower attendance rates for many youth. This disruption hampered skill development and limited opportunity, which may have significantly impeded the ability of young people to effectively compete in the job market as restrictions eased and lifted.
The suspension of internships, service sector jobs, and volunteer opportunities during the pandemic also posed a considerable challenge for youth to acquire the skills needed for meaningful future employment.
As another young person shared, “The biggest challenge when job searching in my field is getting experience. Even entry-level jobs sometimes require years of experience, which I think is contradictory. I feel like I have to do more school to be competitive or engage in more volunteer work— which is free labour and not sustainable for someone my age.”
Intersecting Systemic Barriers
Youth experiencing marginalization face even greater challenges to employment due to systemic discrimination and oppression. For example, employment for racialized youth is 44% lower than for non-racialized youth.
Intergenerational socioeconomic struggles can create barriers that hinder youth from establishing a pathway to employment – for example, a lack of awareness regarding skill development opportunities or the ability to build networks. Valuable services and supports might also not be effectively marketed to reach those most in need, further aggravating these challenges.
While valuable experiences gained through volunteering or unpaid internships can be a breakthrough for many struggling to secure their first jobs, many young people may not have the capacity to engage in work that is uncompensated, especially beyond their requirements for high school graduation in Ontario. Unequal access to such opportunities can add another layer of obstacles to a young person’s ability to succeed.
Navigating the Future
In the end, the most effective way to support youth in their employment search is to tailor solutions to their needs.
Given that young people are usually the first to feel the impacts of economic disruptions, and considering the lack of meaningful supports, it’s natural for youth to become disheartened or even abandon their job search journey. Focused support, promotion, and engagement can help alleviate the adverse effects of youth unemployment.
As youth maneuver the post-pandemic employment landscape, it’s critical to integrate experiential learning opportunities into the educational curriculum. Incorporating career exploration and cooperative education opportunities as early as middle school can offer students exposure to potential careers and the chance to cultivate essential skills at an early age. Louisiana’s Fast Forward Program, through which high school students balance core credits with internships, serves as an example of how early exposure can bolster students’ credibility and job readiness. And although volunteerism and internships can give a young person the opportunity to develop valuable work experience, employers must consider that unpaid positions will widen the employment equity gap between youth with economic privilege and those who experience marginalization.
Ultimately, a comprehensive effort involving educators, policymakers, and community stakeholders is necessary to equitably equip Ontario’s youth with the skills and opportunities needed to excel in a transforming job market. By confronting the challenges of youth unemployment head-on, we can empower youth to construct gratifying careers and contribute positively to their communities.
While the future remains uncertain, one undeniable truth stands out: By furnishing youth with the right skills and opportunities, we empower them to be fully prepared for whatever may come.