On youth and the future

If the future is so bright, why does it feel we’re in a fog when it comes to employment opportunities?

It’s that time of year again. The middle class book bag is out and the collective Hello Kitty pencil case is ready to be stuffed with this year’s promise of Protestant work ethic. Post-secondary students are ascending the ivory towers of collegiality and success.

Welcome to the world of soon-to-be happily-employed-young-people; the bettering-themselves-and-working-at-meaningful-jobs young people.

That is, of course, the vision. That everyone will be happy, productive, earning members of society. In Newfoundland and Labrador, this vision was propelled even further by the Smallwoodian dream: a utopian province of paradise.

Thank goodness for Paradise. We are a province justified.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Young people are more highly educated in Newfoundland and Labrador than they ever have been before. I would tip my hat to Mr. Smallwood but the rates are similar in the country as a whole. In 1990, the proportion of the provincial labour force (employed and unemployed) with college certification or a university degree stood at around 33 per cent. In 2013, the rate was around 56 per cent.

Youth unemployment in the province is on the decline. Employed individuals with university degrees are less impacted by the dynamics of unemployment.

Young people previously burdened by student debt and the future prospect of never owning homes in Newfoundland and Labrador because of their inability to secure mortgages (never mind the rising cost of houses), now have hope. Earlier this year, the provincial government announced a revamping of the provincial student loans program, effectively moving from loans to grants. Grants do not require repayment.

It appears as through the recipe for success in our pine-clad hills is unfolding. Our labouring future looks bright (chocolate bars, rubber boots and cucumbers notwithstanding).

So what’s the issue? I offer five points to consider as the wee ones head off to uni, or wherever else they may be going after Labour Day:

1. Economic bifurcation and its effects

It’s no surprise. Newfoundland and Labrador has a bifurcated economy. Where once fishing boats stood, the oil rigs stand. Private and public gains as a result of the oil and gas sector heist are evident. High wages, and a demand for higher and technical skills have ensued. Gentrification has tumbled on to the streets of downtown St. John’s. Suburban sprawl is sprawling along the Avalon, in Lewisporte, in Labrador, in Port-aux-Basques. But at the bottom of the oil barrel and in between the middle and upper class adobe-coloured-driveway-bricks are lower-skilled, comparatively much lower-paying jobs. These are the jobs most typically found in the food and accommodation sector: a sector that, not surprisingly, has boasted growth in the province.

2. Job status

Because of the new found economy, bifurcation exists in labour demand and how that work is looked upon. While thousands of underemployed young people expand the precariat class, the positions they occupy are not necessarily in jobs that they want or desire over the long term. No matter how many degree-holding baristas there are, it will never be looked upon as a “good job”, per se. And while the extent to which driving a piece of heavy equipment over the expanse of the Alberta tar sands constitutes a good job is questionable, the money makes it so. Good jobs mean good money. They can also mean intellectually fulfilling work, as long as that work is remunerated appropriately.

Let it be said that university lecturers and adjunct faculty (a growing group of workers as well) does not fit the ‘good job’ bill. Intellectual? Yes. But tremendously overworked and underpaid in an atmosphere of few job prospects. But back to the point. Middle class dreams of good jobs for everyone are just that — middle class dreams — because someone has to do all that other work that the middle class now refuses to do. So, while you do what you love, or DWYL, on the way to the supposed good jobs, everyone else has to do what’s left or at least what ensures that you can do what you love. I will most certainly tip my hat to Miya Tokumitsu for that Jobian clarity.

3. Gendered employment

Earlier this year labour force survey data indicated that men 25 years and older would be the “main beneficiaries of major project activity in the province”. Women, on the other hand, were seeing fewer full-time employment opportunities but increased part-time opportunities. While the number of women choosing a career in trades is growing, women are still overrepresented in areas of the economy representing “care work”. In Newfoundland and Labrador, many of them can be found in health and social care positions, a sector which has experienced a decline in the province due to austerity measures.

4. Unions

Union coverage is high among workers in Newfoundland and Labrador when compared to the rest of the country and young people’s unionization is on the rise, especially among those who do not have post-secondary qualifications. But recent amendments to the provincial Labour Relations Act have reinstated measures that will make it more difficult, instead of easier, to organize labour in the province. Unions play a critical role both in protecting and fighting for workers’ rights, and in upholding employment standards.

5. Labour market information

Or LMI as it’s known, is the newest, hottest thing on the federal scene. It’s the sexiest thing since Pierre Trudeau. The aftermath of the Temporary Foreign Worker debacle, which apparently festers, has meant renewed interest and a fervent effort on the part of the Federal Government to ensure that the discourse of job shortages is not just that (a myth) and that information about where the jobs are — and aren’t — is accurate. Provinces and territories have been diligently working away at the LMI file in lieu of the fact that Statistics Canada seems to be falling apart at its analytical seams with ever-increasing cuts and a piece-by-piece dismantling. Perhaps most shocking was the directive to obliterate the Census long-form questionnaire, a 20 per cent sample of the populace and one of the most important and reliable sources of administrative labour data at the national level. But, do not worry, I am sure the Feds will continue to collect taxes so we will always have tax-filer data to fall back on.

The reality is that many of us have grown up in a career fog, vaguely remembering some aptitude test we did as part of grade 12 guidance counselling — if we were lucky enough to have one in our schools. No one really talked about the “economy”, or about demand. No one discussed the gendered nature of employment, or the role of class and ethnicity in determining where and what you did. I cannot remember conversations about unions. Perhaps at home but not at high school. I mean really good, riveting discussions about what was happening in the real world. And I went to a good high school with good teachers. Rather than tell us to look at job ads, the message of the day was, in effect, to look inside ourselves.

Hang on, let me grab my pencil case. Wait now, did someone say that Hello Kitty was not a cat?

Ah, the follies of discourse. Only apparent in the rearview mirror.

In lieu of feline misappropriation and career misinformation, I say: for the folks considering their career options, do your homework and let us all implore that the information on file is right. So bureaucrats, do your homework too! Yes, that’s a collective “Get to work!”

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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