Alyssa Hall spent four years studying at Brock University earning her degree in gender studies and political science, but this will be her first summer working in Niagara.
Every spring she’d return to Sarnia. In part because her friends did the same, but also going home gave her the opportunity to live with her parents, work as many hours as possible and save money — and, hopefully, gain experience within her chosen field of study.
Her experience was similar to that of other students, but now as vice-president of external affairs with Brock’s students union (BUSU), she is learning more about barriers facing students in accessing summer employment.
Statistics Canada said the country’s youth unemployment rate in May increased to 10.8 per cent, hitting a seventh-month high, with 77,000 fewer Canadians in the 15 to 24 age group holding a job month-over-month.
Local numbers held fairly steady, but Niagara Workforce Planning Board said youth employment is the one area which that has not yet rebounded from the pandemic.
From the employers’ standpoint, it is not a lack of available positions.
Gary Bruce, manager of Niagara College’s community employment service program — it assists people looking for work — said the demand for workers is clear, as its job board is full every day. But there has been a “significant drop-off” in the number of students entering or applying for work.
“When I first started in the industry, it was a little bit of a different labour market,” said Bruce, who has more than 20 years’ experience. “You put a job posting up and you get lots of resumes … from a job seeker standpoint, it was much more competitive to find work. Today, it’s reverse. Employers are in competition for the people that are job-seeking.”
But the labour shortage is not exclusive to students or summer employment, but rather an extension of the entire labour market. Bruce said signs of struggles were showing up before the pandemic, but were likely amplified following 2020.
“We’ve been hearing from employers for quite some time now, for a few years now, that there’s just such a difficult time with recruiting and hiring, whether it be for summer help or even full-time work,” said Bruce.
It is forcing employers to try different techniques, especially in recruiting summer employment, such as going directly to education institutions.
For Hall, meeting students where they are would be a good step in helping employers meet potential employees. In speaking with students through BUSU, one of the challenges they mentioned is not knowing jobs are available to them.
Other barriers include transportation, unable to get to jobs easily, for example from St. Catharines or Thorold to tourist destinations. A lack of specialized job opportunities in Niagara is another issue, stopping students from getting post-graduation work experience.
Affordability is another large piece. Like Hall, students are returning home in the summer, allowing them to sublet their room and receive financial assistance from their parents.
Not all students have that luxury, and with high cost of tuition — plus growing living expenses — Hall said it is not a students’ lack of desire to work. The reality is they need the employment.
“I think it more so comes from not knowing what’s available to them, where they can apply and things like that,” she said.
It is never one thing, added Hall. Even the post-pandemic learning environment has played a role. More and more students are accessing Brock’s mental health services on campus, struggling with balancing school work and employment, needing money to live and study.
“I definitely don’t think it’s a lack of trying for students having struggles with employment. I think they’re really trying to work through solutions that are personal to them in order to try to find employment opportunities.”
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