Are digital listings really democratizing job searching for young people, or creating new barriers?

The Expert Panel on Youth Employment has been asked to assess the barriers that young workers (aged 15 to 29) face in finding and keeping jobs, and also to propose “innovative practices used by governments, nongovernmental organizations and employers both at home and abroad to improve job opportunities for vulnerable youth.” Some colleagues have gently dismissed the value of this policy exercise, reminding me, as chair of the panel, that historically the youth unemployment rate has always been higher than that of the broader labour force. They wonder what could be different now, and imply that the panel’s work is superficial, symbolic and political.

That narrative is wrong. The labour market today has changed considerably since the mid-1970s. The Statistics Canada presentation Perspectives on the Youth Labour Market of Canada clearly contrasts today’s working world with that of a generation ago. A key finding is that while youth unemployment today is similar to that of the 1970s, job quality appears to have deteriorated for many young people. Young people are less likely to be employed in full-time, standard work, and more likely to be working part time. When they do have full-time jobs, those jobs are now more likely to be temporary. And worst of all, despite rising education levels, real wages for youth grew little during the 1980s and 1990s.

While the panel is focusing on the present, we can’t escape comparisons with the past, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about the future. Apart from the growth of nonstandard work, perhaps the most striking difference between the employment contexts of 1976 and 2016 is that in 2016 the labour market is mostly digitized (this digitization is not captured by the Statistics Canada presentation).

Thanks to the Internet, this generation of youth has more access to information about available work than young people ever had before. That’s pretty novel — you can surf for postings in your sweatpants, and get postings that match your search criteria sent straight to your inbox. But is digitization really helping young people find jobs, or is it hurting their searches? The removal of the barrier of geography increases the number of job postings, leads to a flood of applications for entry-level positions, perhaps making the process seem overwhelming.

While digitization has amplified the network effects of a job search, our panel is concerned that it has further sidelined those who may lack such connections.

For some, our panel has heard, digitization leads to information overload. It also introduces inequities among vulnerable populations that lack information literacy, broadband access or mastery of technology. While digitization has amplified the network effects of a job search, our panel is concerned that it has further sidelined those who may lack such connections.

Some young people are taking a scattershot approach and sending out hundreds of resumes in response to online postings, others are using a personal introduction to land an interview. Leveraging social capital is by no means a new tactic to secure employment. I’m certain that job seekers in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s also mined their networks for useful contacts. What worries me is that we’ve created the illusion that by digitizing job searching we’ve democratized it. By creating visible, tangible job boards with low barriers to entry it may seem as if it is straightforward and easy. In reality, actually landing a job may not be as easy as it seems. Have we really achieved more transparency, or can we make more improvements?

In order to capitalize on the opportunity presented by digitization to truly achieve a more transparent labour market for future generations, we will have to update platforms such as the federal government’s online Job Bank, so that they better serve all Canadians as they search for jobs at all stages of their lives. We could modernize Job Bank so it responds to unconscious bias, by, for example, making applications anonymous, and removing address information to reduce discrimination.

We could host a $100,000 challenge (perhaps structured like challenge.gov, which posts public problems to which innovators can submit solutions to win money) to redesign Job Bank, aimed at youth aged 15 to 29 working in teams.

We could use best-practices in human resources to protect vulnerable youth from being screened out during the matching process. We could launch strategic partnerships; for example, with LinkedIn (it could provide sophisticated analysis of skills, employers by region; as well, people could use their LinkedIn profiles to apply for jobs); and Ryerson University’s Magnet (a collaboration between post-secondary institutions, not-for profits, government, labour and industry, it could smooth the matching process).

The good news is that young people have the ingenuity, creativity and technological skills to innovate in this regard. Employment and Social Development Canada ’s Innovation Lab partnered with Civic Tech Toronto for a Youth Employment Challenge in the fall of 2016. In this way, creative people came together and prototyped tools and platforms that could help young people find work.

We should be able to capture better data about the job search. In theory, the digital tools we are using should be able to smooth the matching between job seeker and employer, reduce search costs and lead to more efficient outcomes. In practice, more often than not job postings — online and offline — masquerade as open employment opportunities with equal access, when in fact they privilege applicants with personal connections. My vision for the future of work offers a job search that is rational, equitable, and merit-based. But we need to build it, and the federal government needs to decide whether it embraces a vision of all jobs being listed digitally.

This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock.com


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