Local youth have edge on bleak employment front

A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives holds up Hamilton as a model of how to fight youth unemployment. To some, particularly jobless and underemployed youth, this might seem a cruel joke. They know too well that underemployment and unemployment can be like cancer, sapping hope.

Many of our area’s young people are engaged in uphill slogs to find work. To them, it can only be cold comfort to hear: “Well, your prospects are better here than elsewhere.”

Simultaneously, youth unemployment is tamer in Hamilton than in other Ontario regions.

In 2012, 16.9 per cent of Ontarians aged 15-24 were jobless. (The national percentage of unemployed youth, in 2011 was 14.1 per cent.) By contrast, only 13.2 per cent of Hamiltonians aged 15-24 are jobless — 3.7 per cent fewer than the provincial average.

In some ways, the difference is slight. But that bare-sounding statistic, 3.7 per cent, reflects a good thing — or rather, many good things: the lives of many employed Hamilton youth, literally enriched by jobs they would not have if they lived in a different region.

Sean Geobey is the author of the report and a PhD candidate in Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. He credits research intensive industries for the lower youth unemployment rate in Hamilton. (In our case, the relevant research intensive industries are bioscience and biotechnology, largely connected to McMaster University.) That sector does not directly employ young people. But it has created a large number of adult jobs, often at quite good rates of pay. In turn, those employed adults employ youth in service industries.

The cities with higher youth unemployment rates, such as London and Windsor, have not done as well as Hamilton at developing research intensive sectors. Their jobless youth numbers are higher in part due to a phenomenon that particularly afflicted Hamilton in the 1980s and 1990s: not only the hollowing-out of the manufacturing sector, but a general failure to replace lost manufacturing jobs with what Geobey calls advanced manufacturing — factory jobs requiring some degree of advanced education in computers, or basic principles of engineering.

Geobey does not address what is probably the key reason Hamilton has developed more numerous alternatives to our lost basic-level manufacturing jobs: the fact that we had a head start. Our steel industry began to hit a crisis in the era of the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We started thinking and planning at a relatively early moment. Windsor and London are latecomers. In economics, it can pay to be the first to fall: One can then be the first to rise.

Despite its praise for Hamilton, Geobey’s verdict is not all roses. The analyst pays particular attention to the jobs problem of our area’s young university grads: “Although positions that require education tend to provide greater stability than those that do not, more than one in five people in the GTA-Hamilton with university degrees are precariously employed.” This precariousness is the crisis of underemployment: a bleak, economic manifestation of the painful phrase, “not enough”.

The title of Geobey’s report, The Young and The Jobless, may strike some as glib. (We can be thankful that the researcher did not give his concluding recommendations the title A Guiding Light.)

Youth unemployment is not a soap opera. And yet, it is. The crisis is a saga of broken hearts and promises, rarely marked by beauty.

The good news is that Hamiltonians at least know our strengths. We can build on those.

Also, it is lucky that the way to fix youth unemployment is linked to fixing joblessness among adults: youth can profit (by accident) from the economic policies that many adults, serving their own self-interest, are perhaps most likely to pursue.

No way forward is easy. But for “the young and the jobless” in our region there is hope at least.

Aidan Johnson is a Hamilton-area community activist and lawyer.