For Craig Weston and thousands of other university students across Canada still searching for a summer job, now is the time they have to take what they can get. Weston, 22, finished his third year of undergraduate studies in geography at the University of Regina on April 25 and many of his classmates have already been working for several weeks. But last week, Weston was still scanning job boards at the university’s student employment office. Like most students, Weston has heard and read news stories that urge young Canadians to prepare for the economy of the future by finding career-related summer jobs or by starting their own businesses. But Weston has more traditional concerns right now. The university hiked his tuition fees for next year by seven per cent to $2,587. As well, he and his wife, Chris, 21, live in a $462-a-month onebedroom apartment near the university and are struggling to make ends meet on her salary as a food demonstrator in a local supermarket. So the glut of minimum-wage laboring and “salary negotiable” sales jobs on the board last week did not faze him. “I’m not too fussy right now,” Weston said. “I’ll take anything that will get me through the summer.” That resigned attitude is widespread. Although counsellors at many student job placement centres report that overall prospects are slightly better than they were last summer, they are still far from rosy. The national unemployment rate for Canadians aged 15 to 24 was 17.4 per cent in April, slightly lower than the 18-per-cent rate in the same month a year ago, but still well above
the 11.6-per-cent pre-recession level of five years ago. The outlook in some provinces, especially Alberta and British Columbia, is brighter than in others. As well, small businesses have offset some of the reduced hiring by large companies. And the federal government has increased funding for some summer job programs established by the Tories, pending the announcement of a comprehensive youth employment strategy later this year. But in an effort to slash their huge budget deficits, many provinces have cut funding for youth employment programs. And students who have yet to obtain their degrees are competing for summer or part-time jobs with recent graduates unable to find permanent positions.
The biggest cloud darkening the overall job picture for students—and older workers as well—is continuing cutbacks by large employers. Although the recession officially ended in January, 1993, governments and many large corporations are still downsizing. “We’re probably hiring half as many summer students as we did five years ago,” says Jim Johnston, vice president of corporate resources at GreatWest Life Assurance Co. in Winnipeg. “like a lot of other companies, rather than bring in a lot of temporary staff to fill in for people going on vacation, we’ve chosen to do without.”
By contrast, the surge in demand for students in some regions and industries appears to be largely temporary or confined to narrow specialties. At the University of Regina, student employment co-ordinator Linda O’Halloran says that “our summer for geologists has been hot, hot, hot.” She adds that she has
been pleasantly surprised by the healthy number of job requests from booming small oil and mining companies. In British Columbia, staging the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in August will create 5,000 temporary jobs.
But in other provinces, such windfall job opportunities are scarcer. Predictably, many students are bitter. Mary Grande, 23, completed her bachelor’s degree in linguistics at the University of Toronto last month. She had hoped to find a permanent job teaching English as a second language. But employers have told her that she will either have to obtain a master’s degree or take a two-year community college course to enter the field. For now, Grande is working part time as a sales clerk at a department store. “After five years of university, I didn’t expect to be a CEO,” she 5 says. “But I expected better than this.”
Other students say the tight job market is a fact of life they have to accept. Neil Follett, 22, completed his bachelor of commerce degree at McMaster University in Hamilton last month. He is now cutting grass at a small community airport north of Toronto for $10 an hour. This spring, he and four roommates covered one of their living-room walls with rejection letters from employers. ‘We called it our Wall Of Shame,” Follett says.
The flood of university students looking for work is having an impact on even younger students. It is making it more difficult for high-school students like Halifax Grade 12 student Jonelle Rowden, 17, to land a job. Rowden says she feels lucky to have a minimum-wage, part-time job at the snack bar at a local movie theatre. “A lot of my friends are still looking,” she says. “At McDonald’s and Wendy’s, there are a lot more older people working there.”
In Ottawa, officials in Lloyd Axworthy’s ministry of human resources development say they want to revamp the department’s summer job programs and develop a strategy for what they call the “school-to-work transition.” But Bob Thomas, the chief of worker programs in the department’s employment operations branch, says “the new government didn’t want to rush new programming,” so it left in place programs established by the Tories. The biggest is the Summer Employment/Experience Development plan, which pays wage subsidies to employers. The Liberals increased funding for the program by $20 million to $108 million, hoping to create an additional 10,000 summer jobs from last summer’s 50,000.
However, Thomas concedes that it will be tough for students for a while. “Around the year 2000, the youth who are unable to get jobs now are going to be getting them,” he says. “The problem is to keep them from dropping out and not training themselves properly.” And until then, a lot of students, as they always have, will be cutting grass, slinging food and drink, and hoping they will be able to put their education to better use, someday.
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