Unpaid work is not the solution to chronic youth unemployment

Earlier this month, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said that young people who can't find work should volunteer or work for free in order to "get some real life experience" and avoid falling into long-term unemployment.

Instead of acknowledging the multitude of factors behind the incredibly bleak job market facing young graduates, or talking about what corporations and our elected officials can do to solve the youth unemployment crisis, Poloz seemed to imply that it is up to young people to improve their dire job prospects, and that young Canadians "living in (their parents') basement" are at least partly responsible for the country's high youth jobless rate.

Student groups, labour unions, and outraged youth responded to Poloz's comments by noting that, in a market economy, unpaid work is only a realistic option for those who can afford to work for free (read: young people with wealthy parents), and that unpaid internships are not only exploitative but also provide no guarantee of future employment (among other issues).

Perhaps more importantly, Poloz failed to consider or mention what – if anything – governments, businesses, and post-secondary institutions are doing to address youth unemployment in the long term. And the answer is, "not much."

Although the federal government spends roughly $270 million per year on its Youth Employment Strategy, a majority of the funds are dedicated to creating minimum wage summer jobs at non-profit organization and small businesses. There is little in the way of government programs that foster long-lasting and meaningful jobs for youth.

Corporate Canada, meanwhile, is currently sitting on more than $600 billion in surplus cash, but refuses to use any of that money to guarantee the availability of jobs to young people and ease students' transition into the workforce.

For their part, post secondary institutions consistently acknowledge the need to expand apprenticeship initiatives, better inform students and graduates of available job opportunities, and provide students with hands-on skills that enable them to "hit the ground running" in their first job. But, in reality, little progress has been made in these areas over the last few years.   

We know that Canada's youth unemployment rate is over double the adult rate, that one in four university graduates between the ages of 25 and 29 are underemployed, and that, if left unchecked, high youth joblessness and underemployment will lead to skills erosion and reduced productivity. In other words, we know why youth unemployment is a pressing issue, and why it needs to be addressed.

Likewise, many governments, businesses, and post-secondary institutions are aware of the solutions identified above, and are cognizant of the fact that these measures would go a long way toward reducing youth joblessness. What is missing is a will among our elected officials, corporations, and higher education institutions to ACT on the solutions that are available to them, and to cooperate with each other to tackle youth unemployment in a serious way.

In the absence of this will and approach, we will continue to see non-solutions – such as working for free – touted as potential antidotes to the very real and persistent problem of chronic youth joblessness.