Summer jobs: an important part of skills and training

Ted Hsu
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It’s often useful to look south of the border for examples to learn from and apply in Canada.

A recent article in the on-line journal Five Thirty Eight highlighted how summer jobs have been disappearing in the United States over decades. Research indicated that, “In the 1970s, more than half of teens ages 16 to 19 — and nearly two-thirds of boys in that age range — worked in the summer, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2014, less than a third did so. The drop has been even more dramatic for 16- and 17-year-olds: Just 20 percent of them worked this summer, down from about 45 percent in the 1970s.”

Does the dramatic decrease in youth summer employment matter? Yes it does. The article goes on to note that, “teenagers — and especially teenage boys — who work are more likely to graduate high school, more likely to go to college and less likely to get into trouble with the law. They also gain valuable work experience that can make it easier to get a job and get promoted more quickly in adulthood. But for a variety of reasons — fewer job opportunities, more emphasis on schooling, changing societal expectations — fewer young people are getting summer jobs”.

What about Canada?

In Canada, the trend is not as severe. Over the last 45 years or so, according to Statistics Canada, summer employment rates for teenagers has not decreased as much as observed in the United States, although in the last five years, Canadian youth employment has not recovered from the 2008-2009 recession to the extent that adult employment has. There is evidence that older adults are being forced to take jobs that otherwise might have been entry level jobs for youth. We have been fortunate that a significant part of the federal government’s Youth Employment Strategy has been the Canada Summer Jobs program, a program that partners with small employers, spending about $100 million to create about 30,000 jobs each summer. But we have also heard in recent years about the increasing instances of students taking un-paid internships, as they desperately try to obtain the work experience they need to get a foot in the door of an employment opportunity.

What we observe most dramatically in the United States is one of many aspects of the changing job narrative for young people as they train for, try to enter, and even try to stay in the workforce at a time of technological disruption and demographic shifts.

What to do about it?

For young people, certainly staying in school and acquiring the skills needed for the future is one thing that can be done, but this does not address the ‘job experience’ problem. Expanded co-op (even at the high school level) opportunities and support for apprenticeships can go a long way.

As far as the federal government goes, the Liberal Party is a strong supporter of the Youth Employment Strategy, which includes the Canada Summer Jobs program. But the Youth Employment Strategy is spread out over 11 departments and it has been hard for MPs to find comprehensive information about it. Within this strategy we need to constantly monitor its effectiveness, re-evaluate and innovate so that it remains relevant and effective in challenging and changing economic times.

(with thanks to Bill Cowie for his contribution)