If they want to help young job-seekers, policy-makers must consider how they can improve technological and mental health support.

This article uses information gathered from the Canadian Council for Youth Prosperity and partners in national town halls for youth employment service providers. It is important to note that while the findings over-represented some provinces and under-represented others, the general themes that inform our recommendations were consistent in all regions. For this piece, we partnered with FRAYME, a Canadian youth mental health organization, to provide context, guidance, and the perspectives of youth with lived experience. We also engaged with a youth panel of four individuals on the recommendations

If youth are our future, what does this mean in a post-COVID world?

Youth, those aged 15-29 (7.2 million, or 19 percent of the people in Canada), have been greatly affected by the economic consequences of COVID-19. They have seen their education disrupted, hours cut, and jobs lost. According to Statistics Canada’s July Labour Force Survey, employment for youth aged 15-24 was 17.4 percent lower than in February, equivalent to 445,000 fewer workers.

Seven months into the shutdown, we are not out of the woods and youth are still struggling to find employment. Deliberate planning based on the youth experience must go into the recovery process in the coming months and years, particularly for youth who are furthest from the labour market (such as those not in employment, education or training), and the cohort of new graduates that is now joining them.

The extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) until the end of September and the $37 billion additional funding for the transition of CERB into an EI benefit were important and necessary. However, both the federal and provincial governments must address the needs and anxieties of youth with more than income support. The great effort to expand EI will only succeed in supporting people to find work if it is paired with well thought out employment and support services.

These supplementary supports are significant for youth in particular because it has been shown that those starting their careers during an economic downturn face slower wage growth and career progression when compared with cohorts that start their careers in strong economic times. These numbers do not even take into account the mental health effects of vanishing job opportunities, and the general uncertainties that youth are facing.

Employment service providers indicated to us that the top issues they are struggling with as they serve their youth clients are proper mental health support and flexible technology funding. These are seemingly disparate issues, but given the current need for physical distancing, they are more connected than ever. The importance of these issues has been echoed by our youth panel. We recognize that in order to address these concerns, coordination within and between levels of government is key. It is for these reasons that we call for expedited new program funding for mental health and for technology, with the explicit needs of youth and the effects of COVID in mind.

Funding for mental health and service integration

Issues with mental health for youth are increasingly daunting. In a survey conducted by Statistics Canada in May 2020, 27 percent of youth aged 15-24 reported symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety as a result of COVID-19, compared to 19 percent for core aged workers (25-64), and 10 percent for those aged 65 plus.

Employment service professionals underlined their concerns around youth mental health. During the National Town Halls for employment service providers convened by the Canadian Council for Youth Prosperity in June this year, 27 percent of the 85 service providers who were surveyed cited mental health as a post-COVID recovery challenge when offering services or managing interactions with their clients. In another survey of 260 employment services professionals conducted prior to the town halls, 81 percent said they served youth with mental health issues while also serving other youth client groupings, like those with physical disabilities or newcomer youth.

The employment and mental health needs of youth are closely intertwined. Feelings of helplessness and lack of control are normal during the job-seeking process, particularly when employment prospects vanish into thin air. It is understandable for youth to feel lost in the process and not immediately seek out their next employment opportunity. In these cases, they would rather seek out help with coping with the complexity and stress of what lies ahead.

Besides, uncertainty during COVID has magnified the stress and anxiety felt by youth. As a focus group participant said, “It is important to not invalidate or gaslight the very real anxiety that young people are facing as a result of the conditions that are creating a bleak future for many of us, especially those facing multiple barriers (to gainful employment) due to systemic issues like (racism).” Service delivery must reflect this reality.

These issues can be addressed. So far, there has been a lack of integration between employment and mental health services, often leaving youth unable to seamlessly move between services. In particular, many youth have difficulty finding mental health services that are available, accessible, and affordable. According to a focus group participant: “Therapy sessions are expensive, and free counselling that is consistent is really inaccessible.” So, movement between employment services and mental health services is hindered by unavailability, unaffordability and inadequacy that streamlining and integration of services can resolve.

There’s evidence that services streamlining and integration can work. Using data from BC, a study from the National Institute of Health (USA) supports the integration of health and social services. The researchers demonstrated that youth-centred employment interventions alongside mental health treatments resulted in sustained and positive employment success for youth with mental illness. Furthermore, there have been a slew of other studies demonstrating that supported employment for individuals with mental health conditions helps to motivate them to begin building a healthier life. Supported employment is an approach to helping individuals find and sustain employment. While this approach covers people with mental health conditions to help sustain employment, a similar process could work for people accessing employment services to allow them to also gain access to mental health services easily if necessary. These types of integrated service models could address bottlenecks in services for youth with mental health and employment issues.

There should be a seamless integration of employment and mental health services targeted at youth, which could mean the consolidation of some services and expansion of others.

Discretionary funding to help provide services online

Almost all the 85 employment service professionals surveyed during our national town halls saw both their deficient technological know-how and their lack of access to it as the most pressing issues they face in supporting youth through the COVID-19 recovery. They expressed concerns about offering services virtually and effectively engaging with their clients using online platforms and devices. This is unsurprising considering that employment services have primarily relied on in-person programming for service delivery.

We learned from our town hall sessions that many youth employment organizations had been improvising virtual service delivery, with little training, experience, software, hardware, and funding. How do we ensure that youth are receiving the employment services they need during these unusual pandemic times?

It is clear that employment service professionals must be allocated more funding for technology expenditures, both in acquisition of hardware and the associated training. Existing funding allocations made to provinces under labour market agreements are clearly inadequate to meet all the challenges of virtual service offerings. As a result, employment service professionals were scrambling to cope with the COVID-induced service delivery changes. In fact, around a third of those 85 service professionals surveyed stated that more technology funding would better prepare them to meet the needs of their clients through the COVID-19 recovery.

However, problems with access to technology are not limited to employment service professionals. We learned from the town halls that these problems extended to clientele, too. Around half of the service professionals (43 of the 85 respondents) indicated that technology was a problem for their youth clients, with 30 service professionals (68 percent) concerned that their more vulnerable clients were having trouble accessing their employment services because they just did not have the technology, such as devices or even an internet connection.

Promoting affordable internet access for all communities must remain a priority as six percent of Canadians do not have access to the internet at home. This time has been particularly difficult when access to public spaces with Wi-Fi such as libraries or community centres remains limited, even now, months into physical distancing measures. This becomes particularly grave when the reasons for a lack of internet connectivity in the home are explained: eight percent of people cite a lack of reliable internet service in their area as the reason, and 28 percent of them cite the cost of internet service as a barrier. There is a realization of this problem, and the expansion of broadband internet access has been a priority for the Government of Canada since the COVID-induced social distancing measures, with plans to accelerate that expansion mentioned in the throne speech in September.

But it is not only the dollar amount of technology funding that is important. Service providers must have more flexibility in how they disburse their funds towards delivery. This means that they must have more autonomy, discretion, and flexibility when deciding how to use those tech funds for their at-risk clients. Such funding would allow organizations to identify and address the technology needs of the individuals they serve, whether by providing laptops to clients, providing clients with free Wi-Fi hotspots, training their own staff, or engaging a new virtual platform for service delivery. This type of flexible technology funding does not currently exist, so provincial governments must work with employment service providers to identify their needs.

Two parts of one whole

The use of technology for service delivery, including mental health services, is the new norm. Services that prioritized in-person service delivery or had never before relied on virtual platforms have been forced to adapt. Youth are keenly aware of their mental health needs, and many do not feel that services are accessible and affordable for them. Employment service professionals are also aware of the challenges youth are facing, and feel tied up by the move to virtual service provision, particularly for their clients with mental health issues and those without access to appropriate technology and connectivity.

Federal, provincial, and territorial governments must recognize the pivotal role that these services will play in the lives of youth navigating these difficult times. There must be a review of provincial funding allocations earmarked for technology and mental health, as well as the integration of employment and mental health services.

Policy-makers need to listen to the current needs of youth and the organizations that serve them. Failing to do so could very well result in widening inequality within and between the youth population and the rest of Canadian society as we move through one of the most economically devastating times in recent memory.

This article is part of the Tackling inequality as part of Canada’s post-pandemic recovery special feature.

Photo: People line up at a Service Canada office in Montreal on March 19, 2020. Statistics Canada says the economy lost jobs in March as the COVID-19 crisis began to take hold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson