When Ismail Mohamud graduated from York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering last year with a degree in electrical engineering, he was optimistic about his chances of securing a job in line with his qualifications. But even with those credentials, he struggled to get interviews for entry-level positions in his field.
“The most frustrating thing about my initial job search was the unnecessary requirements for new grad positions,” he says. “Entry-level should mean you need zero experience to apply.”
Even when Mohamud looked outside his area of specialization at more general posts — in product design and management, for instance — he was frustrated by the obstacles he faced. “I thought the reason to go to school was to get a degree that will allow you to get a job. But it’s as hard — or harder — to get a job as it is to get a degree.”
While Canada’s labour market has shown signs of precarity across all demographics and sectors, with inflation and population growth overshadowing robust post-COVID job gains, employment conditions for youth are particularly strained. In May, Statistics Canada reported an overall loss of 17,000 jobs across the country. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story: In fact, employment among individuals between the ages of 25 and 54 increased by 63,000 — but that growth was offset by a significant dip for job-seekers between 15 and 24, who saw a decline of 77,000 jobs compared to the previous month. This downswing happened at a particularly unfortunate time, just as students were wrapping up the 2022/23 academic year and hunting for summer jobs to bolster their savings and CVs — or, in the case of post-grads, figuring out how to kick-start their careers.
It’s clear that as a group, young Canadians are not being served by the current job market. In theory, there are hundreds of thousands of entry-level jobs available, but as Mohamud notes, if you need an entry-level job to get an entry-level job, then your prospects are grim.
A dearth of contacts — especially for those under 24, who missed out on forging IRL connections at summer jobs as a result of pandemic-era isolation — creates another barrier. Moreover, algorithm-driven hiring tools like LinkedIn and Indeed present additional challenges: without the benefit of experience, young candidates may not realize they need to include essential keywords in their applications, which means they fail to meet baseline criteria and get automatically filtered out. And in many instances, algorithm-driven platforms include a disproportionate number of bogus opportunities.
“Another frustrating element of job searching was the ‘fake’ job posts, which companies might use to meet HR application quotas, or to gather data and insights,” says Mohamud. In some instances, these listings are a means for employers to gather prospects to keep on file for future openings — which is of little use to applicants in search of immediate opportunities. And because the posts are essentially fishing expeditions, there is no urgency for organizations to reply to hopeful contenders — the job site Indeed reported that 77 per cent of job applications in 2020 never received a response.
That lack of human contact is particularly demoralizing, according to focus group feedback responses collected by MyStartr, a national coalition that aims to break down the barriers between young workers and employers. “A 21-year-old diploma holder today is better prepared for the workplace than any other 21-year-old in history,” says Angela Simo Brown, the executive director of MyStartr. “They have innate technological, multitasking and problem-solving skills to go with their education, as well as co-op and fellowship work experience.”
While Canada and other G7 countries are looking to drive economic momentum by bolstering skills among mid-career workers, the specific challenges faced by younger cohorts are often overlooked. As Simo Brown puts it: “What about people between 18 and 30, who already have the intuition and skills to thrive in a tech-oriented economy and just need a little help accessing opportunity?”
In Canada, the overall unemployment rate among youth is 10.2 per cent — nearly double the 5.5 per cent joblessness rate within the overall population. It’s even higher for Indigenous, racialized and Black youth — such as Mohamud, who is a first-generation Somali Canadian — who face additional barriers. Entrenched institutional and technological biases in the hiring process mean many capable candidates are overlooked. To bridge this gap, young people — especially members of marginalized and equity-seeking groups, who often miss out on the connections and access afforded by privilege — need better tools.
Those tools are part of what organizations like MyStartr look to provide. Its approach includes virtual and in-person hiring events, mentorship opportunities, design labs and skill-building workshops — all guided by youth input. The organization says it has assisted 24,000 young people in finding employment; its goal is to help 40,000 by 2025.
Mohamud can attest to the ways in which these kinds of targeted programs help young workers find their footing in an often bewildering employment landscape. His connection to MyStartr dates back to 2020, midway through his engineering studies (and during the most intensive phase of COVID lockdowns). He joined its Youth Innovation Council, a six-month incubator, went on to complete a summer internship and, later, was hired for a contract that wrapped up in March this year. At a time when his prospects of securing an engineering position seemed fruitless, he appreciated having the opportunity to harness his interest in product design and parlay that into real work experience.
“It’s led by youth, which is a big part of why it’s so effective,” Mohamud says. “The mentorship program is also great, and the fact that they help people through the interview process.” Mohamud can make a direct link between his experience with MyStartr and his current role as a platform engineer at the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism.
The rapid expansion of AI and automation means young workers are navigating an employment landscape that is very different from the one their parents faced — and is changing at a breakneck pace. Despite the hope that more systemized processes can combat the weaknesses that have dogged traditional hiring practices, there is a risk that current biases will actually be programmed into recruitment algorithms.
“Employers are still finding it difficult to fill jobs,” says Simo Brown. “They need to talk to young people to understand barriers in their hiring processes and then remove them to build a better system for all.”
She adds that targeted support, such as mentoring from peers and employers, is particularly important for job-seekers who don’t have the connections to get a foot in the door.
Mohamud agrees that helping youth land good opportunities to build foundational experiences is vital. “Once you have that — not just odd jobs, but professional early-career positions under your belt, it makes taking the next steps a little easier.”
Update October 2023: MyStartr, the program launched by MaRS to help youth who face barriers to employment find meaningful early work, has joined the Diversity Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University where it can further amplify and accelerate its impact.
Photography: Courtesy of MyStartr