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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 1997

Minister Unveils New Federal Youth Employment Strategy

Tahirah Shadforth

Feds aim to get more young people working

In what has been called a major Liberal drive to get more young Canadians employed in the economy, Human Resources Development Minister Pierre Pettigrew unveiled on Feb. 12 his much-awaited new federal Youth Employment Strategy. In an opening speech to an audience of fellow Cabinet ministers, youth initiative advocates, and secondary and post-secondary students, Minister Pettigrew declared, "Many people look at the situation facing Canada's young people today and they see a problem. That's not surprising. The facts of youth employment are clear ... It's called no experience, no job — no job, no experience."

Focussing on accessibility, youth employment and internships, Pettigrew offers a plan consisting of six different programs: Youth Summer Employment/Experience Development (SEED), Business Drive for Jobs, Student Business Loans, Native Internship Programs, Canada Employment Centres for Students, and Work Orientation Workshops. Funded with a budget of $315 million, these programs are tailored to provide young Canadians with career-related summer employment and internships, access to work-related information and resources, realistic student business loans and specific internships for First Nations and Inuit students on reserves and in northern communities. In such a way, the federal government, in partnership with the private sector, not-for-profit organizations and community agencies, hopes to provide work-experience opportunities for over 110,000 young Canadians.

Although Pettigrew's plan appears to be a propitious opportunity for Canada's young people, many student groups, including the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) and the youth affairs division of the Assembly of First Nations, have all voiced concern over the federal plan's limited funding and inherent inequities. "There's a big difference between the goal of the government's strategy, job creation, and what they're actually putting into place. Training and transition are essential, but they don't amount to much if there is no plan to kick-start our stagnant economy. The labour market is flooded with people who are already well-trained and eager to work," cautions Brad Lavigne, National Chairperson of CFS.

Pointing to the underfunding of the student employment program, Denise Doherty-Delorme, a researcher with CFS, argues that under the 1985 Conservative government, 94,115 student positions and $149.3 million a year in funding were allocated to summer youth employment. In the new federal youth plan, however, these figures have been drastically cut, with only 45,000 student positions to be made available and a budget of $120 million to be distributed over a period of two years. Clearly, in an economic climate where the youth unemployment rate has remained nearly twice the national average and where 247,000 students search for work each summer, this underfunding raises questions about the future employment of young Canadians.

The First Nations and Inuit initiatives mentioned in Pettigrew's plan are of little comfort to Assembly of First Nations youth spokesperson, Christian Garrow. He states that the youth employment strategy is directed, as were its predecessors, towards non-Aboriginal students. And in response to internships for Aboriginal youth on reserves and in northern communities, Garrow replies, "the federal plan certainly won't help at a community level."

Expressing similar concerns on behalf of Canadian disabled students is Frank Smith, spokesperson for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, "It is our hope that the new youth employment strategy will assist post-secondary students, but it remains to be seen that it will be of help to our members." Smith notes that disabled students as a group have consistently held the lowest employment percentages among students. There is little to indicate in the new youth plan that these figures will change for the better.

Pettigrew's youth plan has naturally drawn the interest of the federal political parties, namely the Reform Party and the NDP. Ian McClelland, Reform Party parliamentary critic for Human Resources Development and MP for Edmonton Southwest, points out that existing government expenditures on summer employment and youth internships have had little effect on youth unemployment rates. With this in mind, McClelland argues, "The government is prepared to spend $255 million of taxpayers' money in a vote-getting strategy which subsidizes business, and does little to assist youth in the longer term." Taking a similar stance is NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, who calls the Liberal efforts 'misdirected and cynical.' She adds, "After shunting young people to the side for three years, the sudden pre-election fanfare for this rehashed, confused program shows the Liberal MPs are more interested in keeping their own jobs than opening up jobs for young Canadians."

In the concluding remarks of his speech, Pettigrew declares, "I firmly believe this is a wonderful time to be young." In light of the mixed reviews his federal Youth Employment Strategy plan has received, only the passing of another summer will tell.

Tahirah Shadforth is a research consultant in Ottawa.