A government bent on lowering the living standard of Canada’s next generation couldn’t do a much better job than Stephen Harper and his colleagues have done.
The Prime Minister and his high-octane employment minister, Jason Kenney , have thrown one barrier after the next in front of young job seekers. Canada’s youth unemployment rate (15-24 years of age, both sexes) was 12.2 per cent when the Conservatives took power in 2006. Today, it is 13.6 per cent . But the numbers tell only part of the story. Hundreds of thousands of young people have given up their job search and gone back to school. Others have simply disappeared from the head count.
Even young people Ottawa counts as “employed” are struggling. Almost half work part-time and don’t earn enough to live on. They’re not using the skills they acquired at great personal expense. Their contracts may or may not be renewed.
The millennial generation — born between 1980 and 2000 — was already facing strong economic headwinds, corporate cost-cutting and the curse of being born in the long shadow of the baby boomers when it reached adolescence. These young job seekers needed a government that was on their side. Instead, they got one that systematically obstructed them.
It would be unfair to blame Harper for globalization, outsourcing, demographics or the 2008-09 recession that affected most of the world. What can be laid at his feet are choices his government made, the policies it implemented and the issues it failed to address:
First there was the massive expansion of the once-modest foreign temporary workers program. When the Conservatives took power, it was a stopgap designed to address isolated labour shortages in the oilpatch and allow employers to hire highly specialized workers with skills no Canadian could offer.
Eight years later, it has become a high-speed causeway into the Canadian job market. Hundreds of thousands of workers — most of them low-skilled — pour into the country every year bypassing young Canadians. In the past 12 months, there have been several high-profile cases of employers turning away Canadian applicants and bringing foreign workers whose immigration status is dependent on their job performance. Whenever one of these embarrassments makes headlines, Kenney vows to crack down. “Our message to employers is clear and unequivocal: Canadians must always be first in line for available jobs,” Kenney affirmed this week after CBC reported that a McDonald’s franchise in Victoria was bringing in workers from the Philippines and cutting the hours of its Canadian staff.
But as soon as the publicity fades, the pace of foreign admissions picks up. Last year Ottawa approved approximately 240,000 temporary foreign workers.
Second, there was the government’s single-minded crackdown on young offenders. Former public safety minister Vic Toews, with the full backing of his boss, spent $5 billion (on top of the existing $15 billion) on law enforcement. The provinces, who handle most drug offences, were required to ante up an additional $14.8 billion.
If even half that money had gone to providing young people who stayed in school with marketable skills, they wouldn’t be stuck in minimum-wage retail and fast food jobs. Moreover, they wouldn’t be tarred with an unfair reputation.
In other ways, big and small, the Tories have undercut young Canadians:
- They let companies off the hook for providing on-the-job training. That was once the employer’s responsibility. Today human resources screeners complain that job applicants don’t have skills perfectly tailored to the job they seek.
- They allowed — indeed encouraged — the provinces to jack up tuition fees, forcing students to take on onerous debt loads. In Ontario tuition fees have risen by 70 per cent since Harper became Prime Minister.
- .They restricted employment insurance benefits so severely that most workers — certainly most young workers — have no hope of getting benefits. Without a safety net, they dare not take time off to retrain or upgrade their skills.
And now Finance Minister Joe Oliver has declared there will be no “spending sprees”when the deficit is eliminated next year. “Our priority will be to provide tax relief for hard-working Canadian families,” he announced this week. That appears to rule out help for jobless young people.
It would be hard to come up with a better prescription for intergenerational inequity than this. It is hard to believe the result was intended.
Correction- April 11, 2014: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly said Statistics Canada considers unpaid internships as jobs.
Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.