Conservatives enabling high youth jobless rate

Canada’s youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. It is nearly double the national rate, at 13.6 per cent, even as 33,000 more young Canadians aged 15-24 found work in March

Canada’s youth unemployment remains stubbornly high.

It is nearly double the national rate, at 13.6 per cent, even as 33,000 more young Canadians aged 15-24 found work in March.

It is sitting at about its historic level over four decades, under Liberal and Conservative governments. It has never dipped below 10 per cent during that time.

The difference now is that the current Conservative government appears to be enablers of youth unemployment, allowing programs that import young foreign workers to spiral out of control at the expense of young Canadians.

Jason Kenney, the country’s employment minister, is enduring a lengthy and deserved roasting over the mushrooming of the country’s temporary foreign worker program, one that is disproportionately being used by employers to find low-wage burger flippers and coffee slingers.

Kenney has slapped a moratorium on the food sector’s use of the program and has publicly called for better wages and job training from the private sector.

But this is also costing him at home in Alberta, where, in some communities, small businesses will now be forced to restrict hours or even close because of labour shortages.

Workers in this country under the program, established originally as a means of importing caregivers and skilled workers — not lunch counter attendants — has ballooned to about 338,000 from 100,000 in the past decade.

The problems with this program have rightly placed a spotlight on other programs that deal with young workers and have morphed from solution to problem out of the public gaze.

Two years ago, the Conservative government shut down hundreds of summer student job centres, ending a program that had been in place for more than four decades.

Instead, the government beefed up its online job search resources, but said closing the centres saved $6.5 million.

In this year’s budget the government promised only to “review’’ its youth employment strategy to better align it with employer needs in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and skilled trades.

Months after shutting down the jobs centres, Kenney, then the immigration minister, made a high-profile trip to Ireland that gave publicity to an obscure program known as International Experience Canada (IEC).

Once a diplomatic initiative and a type of job-swapping, it has now become a source of young foreign workers who are allowed entry to find jobs without any government oversight on the labour market need.

Employers are under no obligation to pay the prevailing market wage.

Kenney did a great job in Ireland.

Irish applicants lined up around the block to hear about Canadian opportunities to work and see the Rockies, or enjoy the West Coast or the big city ambience of Toronto.

He appeared on a popular late night talk show in Dublin to talk up the program.

The number of eligible Irish workers, aged 18-35, was doubled to 10,000 beginning this year. They could stay for two years.

But the IEC program, once meant to be reciprocal — foreign workers from 32 countries can enjoy our country while Canadian youth gain international experience — has tilted badly.

Less than a decade ago, 21,656 Canadian youth travelled abroad while 30,467 foreign youth worked here.

Today, fewer than 18,000 Canadians are working abroad, but there are more than 58,000 foreign workers here.

Cape Breton Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner told the Commons this week that, under the program, there were 753 Polish workers in this country and four Canadians in Poland.

There are more than 300 Croatian workers here, but there are two Canadians working in Croatia.

All 7,700 Irish spots available in Canada were filled by March of this year. In 2013, they were filled in three days.

Despite some improvement, the Irish unemployment rate is five percentage points higher than Canada and, although requests for the number of Canadians working in Ireland under IEC were not answered, this is largely a one-way street.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander defended the international program Thursday by singing the praises of the Canadian economy. But the fruits of this economy painted in such glowing Conservative terms are not being shared with young Canadians.

The old political adage will tell you that governments will respond to voting constituencies that put them in office. Young Canadians do not vote in sufficient numbers to push this government to action. A prime ministerial candidate who can motivate young voters next year will have a powerful voting bloc – and an obligation to ensure that if they vote, they work.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.

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