(Cet article a été traduit en français.)

Canada has one of the highest rates of social mobility in the world. Thanks in part to our strong public education system and post-secondary institutions, young Canadians have more opportunities to advance in the workplace than youth in many other countries.

Extensive research shows how the decks are stacked against Black and Indigenous youth at multiple levels. Socio-economic factors, family context, experiences of trauma and systemic discrimination, which are baked into educational institutions and processes, and the continued lack of necessary social, academic and professional supports, are some of the ways that bias creates barriers.

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While post-secondary graduates fare better than others, education does not, however, provide a level playing field for diverse youth. For example, university graduates with severe disabilities have worse employment rates than non-disabled youth who dropped out of high school. Gender inequities continue to persist as well. For example, a 2016 census analysis by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers found that one-in-three female engineers get paid less than their male counterparts.

Innovative programs at some universities which have set targets, created intentional outreach and customized programs to be more appealing to women hold some promise to chip away at those barriers, but the representation of women in engineering programs, for example, still varies wildly from 15 per cent at some institutions to 30 per cent at others. Overall, the dial has barely moved in three decades.

Impact of COVID

A recent survey by the Environics Institute, the Diversity Institute and Future Skills Centre confirms that the pandemic’s effect has been felt more acutely and more persistently among adults aged 18 to 34. The greater insecurity of younger workers also translated into a greater likelihood of youth losing their jobs, having their work hours reduced or seeing their incomes cut. While recent months have seen some recovery, many large employers cut back dramatically on their entry-level positions, outsourced to platform and services providers, and scaled up technology solutions to reduce entry levels roles in, for example, sales and marketing.

Educational plans were disrupted as well. Among those aged 18 to 20, one-quarter stopped or postponed their post-secondary studies due to COVID-19. Among post-secondary students, those who identify as Black, Indigenous or persons with disabilities were much more likely to have stopped or postponed their education due to the pandemic.

The separate disruption of K-12 education has affected already marginalized youth and the impact will be felt for decades to come. Learning shifted online several times throughout the pandemic, and 39 per cent of racialized families reported that their children were doing their homework on smart phones. The cost of internet access and devices, as well as the digital skills needed to succeed in an online learning environment, are significant issues. The problem is most acute in some Indigenous communities which lack access to basic infrastructure including the internet. Governments at all levels are investing in broadband connectivity in rural and northern communities, but policies and investment must also include urban areas with lower-income and racialized populations.

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While post-secondary graduates historically have fared better than others in terms of employment, the pandemic created a topsy-turvy world. Those with higher levels of education face worse outcomes because employers put their hiring for entry-level positions on hold. Those who are lucky enough to get jobs lack the supports they would normally have in terms of coaching and mentoring, and are vulnerable to last-in-first-out in terms of layoffs and employment practices.

Innovative pathways to education, training and employment

Innovative support programs are ameliorating the worst economic effects of COVID for some. Individualized supports and tutoring may be one of the most important interventions in terms of helping compensate for learning loss for K-12 students and particularly those facing barriers.

While it does not reach everyone, for example, free online tutoring and mentoring in programs such as the Diversity Institute’s Study Buddy have produced significant results for Black families. Other programs such as the Lifelong Leadership Institute’s SummerUp program helps keep high-performing Black youth engaged.

As school boards scramble to adapt, they have few resources to provide the targeted support many students need. Other countries have implemented national strategies but most of the heavy lifting in Canada has been done by school boards, community organizations and post-secondary institutions. Research from the Diversity Institute shows urgent investments are needed upstream to help students complete high school and have a fighting chance at getting a post-secondary education.

Post-secondary students have also faced interruptions and barriers to completing their studies, even as institutions have scrambled to put in place additional supports while pivoting to online learning.. Work-integrated learning programs for post-secondary students have provided online opportunities and have helped ensure youth get a needed foot in the door.

One of the largest – the federal Student Workplace Placement Program (SWPP) – has supported work placements for thousands of students during COVID in various sectors ranging from technology to tourism, agriculture, biotech trucking and more. In addition to supporting students, the wage subsidy for employers can result in more available positions, longer-term or permanent employment for young people.

Other programs target a wider range of youth by providing supports such as mentoring and coaching, life-skills development, personal development and career counselling. The programs focus on potential rather than previous academic performance.

For example, NPower Canada has placed more than 90 per cent of the predominantly racialized youth in its program in high-demand, entry-level information communications and technology (ICT) jobs. Similarly, Cybersecure Catalyst has developed targeted training for young, racialized women to help transition them into high-demand cybersecurity roles.

Ensuring inclusive employment opportunities for youth means more than job ads, and it’s clearly not a level-playing field. While youth with parents who have extensive professional networks may also face challenges, they still have a leg up over those without those privileges. The most significant determinant of post-secondary access and success is parental education because it provides the social capital road map.

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Career guidance, mentoring and sponsorship for marginalized youth that recognizes their experiences is critically needed. However, research suggests high school career-counselling programs often reinforce stereotypes and bias as well as promote “streaming”— guiding students into programs below their abilities.  Of course, current and accessible labour market information is important to inform decisions but even more important is understanding the career path journey – especially for marginalized youth – as well as the important factors shaping knowledge, attitudes and decisions related to careers. Providing access to role models is critical as because “if you can’t see it, you cannot be it.” Too many programs are designed without taking into account the barriers facing those youth who most need experience and support.

Promising results have emerged from new public-private partnerships with employers tailored to help young job seekers with opportunities – for example the online platform Magnet, which links one million post-secondary students with work-integrated learning opportunities. While employers are often connected to post-secondary institutions, engagement needs to occur earlier, because aspirations are shaped, decisions are made and career-shaping work experiences often begin much earlier.

Measures are also needed to protect youth from exploitative and predatory practices. Better disaggregated data on diverse youth outcomes is also critical to help policy-makers and to invest wisely in “what works.” Few organizations and programs collect demographic data (such as race-based data) to track how well they are serving marginalized youth.

An inclusive pandemic recovery strategy should include better career support for youth facing barriers. Targeted approaches to designing education and training – coupled with essential wraparound supports which recognize the importance of confidence-building and positive mental health – are critical. Supporting young people with promising new and expanded programs, investments and policies to make up for the lost learning time and career-training experiences is critical. Now is the time for educational institutions, governments and employers to come together to support youth – especially those with significant barriers to advancement – to ensure the success of our future workforce and our economic pandemic recovery.

This article is part of the Future of Work and Skills Training special feature series.

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Mohamed Elmi
Mohamed Elmi is the director of research at the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University. He holds a PhD in commerce (information systems). Twitter @RyersonDI
Fiona Deller
Fiona Deller is chief operating officer of the Future Skills Centre and a specialist in education policy and initiatives, including student equity initiatives and skills development. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @fsc_ccf_en

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