The Montreal Gazette by Nobina Robinson 12 March 2017

It’s not easy being young these days — especially where employment is concerned.

A recent report from Statistics Canada found that full-time employment among young people (17-24 years of age, excluding full-time students) has declined significantly since the late 1970s. This is not just the result of a bumpy economy. Youth are more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the employable population, regardless of the business cycle.

The 15-year span between 1990 and 2015, saw an average youth unemployment rate of almost 12 per cent — well above national averages for adults. And youth under-employment is estimated at 27 to 33 per cent.

The youth of today are often decried as entitled or lazy, but these stereotypes don’t reflect the realities of current employment opportunities. Increasingly, the jobs offered to youth are temporary, contract, unstable and part-time — reflecting a trend present across other OECD countries.

The federal Liberals have committed to doing better, promising “more jobs and better opportunities for young Canadians.” That’s why Ottawa launched an Expert Panel on Youth Employment, which will soon issue a final report with suggestions for tackling the issue.

So, what can be done to tackle the employment obstacles facing Canada’s youth? Plenty.

The good news is that we don’t have to look too far to find successful models for youth skills development and employment — the solution is in our own backyard. Too often, government reports and media accounts wax poetic over our fine universities as a source for solutions to our youth employment challenges. Our equally impressive polytechnics get lost in the discussion.

Many might be surprised to hear that graduates from Polytechnics Canada member schools (2014-2015) enjoyed an employment rate of 86 per cent within six to nine months of graduation.

How is this possible?

Polytechnics are distinct from universities because of their close relationships with industry to design program content, to meet labour market demands and for their R&D and innovation solutions.

Don’t be misled by those who might paint such a discussion as an either-or debate between polytechnics and other post-secondary forms of education. In fact, an increasing number of university students are turning to polytechnics as “finishing schools” to ease transition into the labour force. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 14 per cent of full-time polytechnic students had already completed a university bachelor’s degree.

Polytechnics help youth, and others, launch their careers by prioritizing work-integrated models of learning.

There are four key ingredients we’d like to see in a federal solution to youth employment.

First, the federal government must invest in better labour market information from Statistics Canada. Youth cannot make informed career choices without data on skills in demand, employment outcomes by education type, or the earning power of specific credentials.

Second, new youth employment initiatives should take advantage of the existing resources at polytechnic and college employment centres.

Third, apprenticeships need a jump-start with secure funding, public awareness, and programs to connect apprentices with employers. Canada needs a culture shift wherein apprenticeships are valued with the same esteem as other credentials. Those in the skilled trades are truly some of Canada’s best and brightest. The contribution the skilled trades make to our economy and their necessity in growing it, must be acknowledged. The federal government should promote the new Canada Apprentice Loan — a recent pilot program which gives apprentices support similar to the Canada Student Loan Program.

Finally, there needs to be an overhaul of the federal Youth Employment Strategy. A federal work-integrated learning strategy could enable field placements, internships and professional practice. An improved strategy should include career counselling, interview preparation and the inclusion of part-time and newly graduated students.

If the government wants to tackle the problem of youth unemployment in Canada, looking to how polytechnics offer youth direct pathways to the labour market might be a good place to start.

Nobina Robinson is the chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada.