On Unemployment

Youth Unemployment: All About Youth Education?

On September 18, 2014, the London Youth Advisory Council sat down to talk about youth unemployment.  While we started out talking about the lack of investment in training in Canada and the problem with dismissing young people as lazy or unwilling to take jobs they don’t want, the conversation quickly turned to questions of education: why we go to school, what we want to learn, and what we expect to learn.

Who Should Read This

  • People who are unemployed or underemployed
  • People interested in different approaches to education
  • People who felt that their education set them up for a rewarding career, and people who felt that theirs didn’t
  • People who are interested in youth perspectives on education
  • Administrators in the Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board

A Note About Our Reports 

LYAC reports are a different kind of report. They are conversational, friendly and honest. These reports don’t try to trick you by using complicated language or pretend to be based on the opinions of experts. They are based on the best information that the Youth Councillors have at the time of each discussion. We hope that the reports make you think, make you act and challenge you to consider things that you haven’t considered before. Share your opinions with us so that we can represent you better!

What’s Changed About the Way We See Work?

We started off by noting that young people today don’t expect to stay in one job for 10 years, let alone their entire careers. This is a pretty big shift from our parents, some of whom have worked in the same company for 20 years or longer. Almost immediately, this turned to a question of education: maybe young people are over-educated. One councillor pointed out that some jobs that today required a bachelor’s degree used to require a high school diploma.

Another thing that’s changed for young people is the way they tend to perceive work, and how others perceive the way they work. The rise of ‘no collar’ work, or people who work from home, has a kind of stigma attached to it.  There’s a sense that people who work from home don’t work as hard as people who go to an office or worksite every day, or that their job isn’t a ‘real’ job. We observed a tendency among younger people to believe that the number of hours you put in to your job doesn’t always match up with how productive you actually are. There was also a definite sense that younger people are more innovative in their approach to work.

So Why Are We Going to School?

If we’re over-educated and lacking in some practical skills, why are we going to school? A short (and pretty comprehensive) list of ideas:

  • Parents: because they expect us to; some are more influential than others
  • Friends: because they’re going too
  • To get a job
  • Intellectual pursuits: education for the sake of education

We really focused in on these last two points: do we go to school to get a job, or for the sake of learning? Does it have to be an either/or question? Some said yes, others said there should be ways to combine the two. It seems like right now, people go to university to get an education, and they go to college to get a job.  Colleges seem almost stigmatized, and a couple of people said that in their high schools, college was almost never discussed as an option for post-secondary study.

How Important Is High School?

Once we started talking about high school, the conversation took a different direction.  Some people felt strongly that they wished they’d taken different courses, or that someone had told them to.  Notably, people wished they’d taken more business and communications courses.  They’ve never been taught to properly make a Powerpoint presentation, or basic Excel formulas, and they feel like they’ve missed something important. Others who are still in high school or recently finished thought that this was less of a concern for them, and felt strongly that they should have more say over their education and course selection, not less. It’s really hard to balance people who have a lot of self-motivation and people who don’t (and people who are somewhere in between) when thinking about how many rules or how much structure people need to help them choose courses.

One thing that came up through this conversation was the wish for better guidance counselors.  Hindsight is 20-20, and we can wish that we’d made different choices, but some of us wondered if we’d have made those choices if we’d had a little more help and support. The problem is, some people want to find jobs, and others want education that’s about fostering the mind, and some people want to balance both. In the end, it comes down to a question of what education is supposed to do, and how we’re supposed to use it, and that’s a tough question to answer.

What Do You Want from Work?

We closed out this discussion by talking about what young people wanted from work. Part way through we switched focus slightly, to talk more about what we as individuals wanted from work.  It’s too hard (and not entirely fair) to say what all young people want; it’s much easier (and more accurate) to speak for ourselves. These are a few of the things we came up with:

  • Money, experience itself; to be able to take responsibility for self, work
  • A sense of belonging and a sense of community
  • Meaningful work
  • Finding work that suits your lifestyle
  • Loyalty
  • Sustainable lifestyle and money to sustain their lifestyle
  • More work-life balance than past generations; more willing to accept non-monetary compensation (vacation time, flexible work hours/locations)
  • Stuff, especially technology
  • Networking: it’s not about what you know but who you know
  • Good corporate culture and with it, the incentive to go to work
  • To make a difference and have an impact; too often we work because we’re told that we need to, without really knowing why

Personal Stories

Melissa told us about hearing a reporter on CNN talk about young people today as ‘mediocre’, and how frustrating that was. She pointed out that this was based on a lot of unfair assumptions, and that young people faced a lot of pressure that might be interfering with their academics.

She also told us about her parents’ experience working in the US after moving from Colombia. After talking about temporary foreign workers in low paying jobs, she pointed out that some people don’t have a choice.  Her parents held much different positions in Colombia, but in the US there weren’t the same options.

Nicole told us about a work placement she did over the summer with 7 students to highlight the differences among young people and their approach to work.  Some want to save money for school, some want experience, and some want money to spend. She told us that, by the end of the summer, 5 of the students had run out of money.

Big Questions

These are the things we’re still thinking about:

  1. What is the point of education?  Why do we make the choices we do when it comes to school?
  2. Have the reasons we work, and the things we want from work, changed so very much from the reasons our parents work? How?
  3. Why are employers reluctant to invest in training?

Recorder’s Notes

One of the things I was thinking about through the discussion around high school education was the way courses are divided between academic/applied, or university/college level courses.  The material was different in each class, and when I was in high school I wished that I could take a mix because the things they were learning in applied math, for example, seemed much more applicable to me and my life than the things in academic math (I was more interested in business math than quadratic equations). I’ve always kind of wondered what the point of splitting the two in such a rigid way was, and if it didn’t create some problems (in terms of setting up a kind of hierarchy) that it never seemed to address.

The other thing I’m interested in, which came up early in the conversation but was more of a sidebar, is why employers are investing less in training, and whether they should/how they could be convinced. Quebec, for example, has a training tax in place that means that companies with over a certain number of employees have to invest a minimum of 1% of their payroll in training, or pay a tax. The funds from that tax go into a common pot that companies that did invest the minimum can apply to for further training funds.  I’d really like to know how it works, if it works, and if it’s a viable model for elsewhere in the country.

What We Still Need to Learn

  1. Why do other young people go to school? How do they decide between college and university?
  2. How could we change high school to make it work better for more people?

What We Missed the First Time

  • We see a need for more targeted help for high school students and new grads on job hunting
  • Networking is important to job hunting, probably more so than applying to ads
  • We think it is important to note that this conversation is really just an introduction to the huge issue that is unemployment; this really just starts to explore the reasons Ontario has such a high rate of youth unemployment (16-17.1% for youth between 15 and 24 in Ontario, while the statistics for Canada put youth unemployment across the country between 13.5-14.5%)
  • We added some groups to the people who should read this, including administrators from local school boards
  • There was some discussion about the language and ideas in the first paragraph: turning to education as a reason youth are unemployed came across as pompous or aggressive to some. We kept it in, but it’s important to note that it was a concern and we want to represent the differences within the council.