Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The past year has destroyed everyone’s sense of time. So I won’t blame you if you haven’t realized this just yet, but less than a month from now, a second year of post-secondary graduates will leave school behind and enter a workforce that is mostly not hiring, definitely not meeting in person, a workforce that has any number of businesses just trying to survive the end of this pandemic, and not really so concerned with recruiting their next generation. And besides, even if many of these businesses were recruiting, what do these students have that can help them stand out? Mentorships have been virtual at best, non-existent at worst. Extra curricular activities– I don’t know if you listened to our episode about life on campus during a pandemic, but it was basically a long prison metaphor. So grades? Grades is what these kids have. Grades handed out virtually by many professors who have never met their students face to face, who have never formed a relationship with them, and don’t know frankly, whether or not to recommend them in their industry. So it’s bleak if you’re graduating this year. What do the kids need as they enter the workforce? Well, they need jobs, a lot of jobs. A chance to impress doing whatever when there are so few jobs and so much economic distress going around. Well, there is actually a blueprint for that. We have done it before. And it could benefit all of us if it’s done right. The question is, can we afford it? Or can we afford not to do it? And the answer will determine these kids’ futures. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Store Karim Bardeesy is the executive director and a co-founder of the Ryerson Leadership Lab. He’s also worked as a journalist, and importantly for our conversation, as a policymaker in government. Hello, Karim.
Karim Bardeesy: Good day, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I want to ask you, before we get into numbers and an op-ed you wrote that puts forward a really interesting suggestion, and all of that, just as somebody who works closely with them, what is the atmosphere around students who are graduating from post-secondary education? Whether that’s last spring in the middle of this pandemic or this spring is we’re still kind of in the middle of it?
Karim Bardeesy: They’re concerned. They’re trepidatious. I think it’s always a pivot point in a young person’s life. Generally young people, when they’re leaving the safety or the world they know of a structured, a university or college education, and going into a more unknown space. But it’s more unknown for more of the students I’m dealing with, for sure. A lot of the students I would have had in previous years would have had a sense of what their summer job was, or maybe even their first professional career job at this point in mid-March. And very few of them have that have that knowledge right now.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about among the faculty? Because again, you know, I went to Ryerson, I know the process of leaving school for the real world. You’re relying a lot on faculty members and people in the department to kind of make you those connections that could lead to that summer job that could turn into a career. And, you know, what kinds of opportunities are the faculty seeing out there for these kids?
Karim Bardeesy: Absolutely. In some cases they’re seeing fewer opportunities. In some cases, in other cases, they might have an awareness of the opportunity, but they were never able to make that strong connection between the student and that opportunity. We know from some of the statistics that co-op placements, which are really important, or other work integrated learning placements are truly important to facilitate those connections between students and future jobs, often supported by faculty members. We know that those opportunities have been reduced during the pandemic. We know even the student connections to profs and other people who support them in their job search generally is down. They’re not able to have the in-person experience. They’re not even, they’re not able to have those free-flowing conversations, which might reveal, oh, actually, I’m really interested in this job. I’m in this degree or in this major, but what I really want to do is this. And in this two dimensional world those kinds of free-flowing conversations are less likely to happen. I have them with my students in office hours. But not all professors are able to have them to the same extent.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You mentioned statistics there. Do we have any idea of the scale of recent graduates who have been shut out or prevented, or just haven’t been able to make that connection to find a job?
Karim Bardeesy: Yeah. Yeah. So we know that, according to survey evidence anyway, in Ontario, 85% of Ontario students say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their ability to participate in extracurricular activities. Which makes sense. Extracurricular activities like clubs and sports, there’s a social aspect, you might get together to pitch a case in a case competition, you might hear from an interesting guest speaker, you might have your own club elections and parties. Almost none of those have been able to happen in the usual way. And those extracurricular activities, we know, are the things that differentiate students from each other on their CVs. Otherwise what do they have to differentiate themselves? Well, they have their marks and they might have their job experience. But two of those three things, the extracurriculars and the job experience, have already been impacted. So the only place they have to where they can kind of control something and show themselves are there marks. On the other hand, we know that employers– some employers are interested in marks, but a lot more employers are interested in other measures. Can this person work well on a team? Is this person a good writer? Does this person have the technical knowledge on this particular thing that I’m going to need in my job? All those statistics show that our young people are especially disadvantaged, and I would say what’s concerning to me is that they don’t have an ability to show what they can do in relation to their peers, with whom they’re competing for what are right now, scarce jobs.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What do you tell them, when they talk to you in office hours, about how they can differentiate themselves when they enter the job market? And also just, what do you tell them about the job market? Cause I imagine extracurriculars are no, that’s not super positive either right now.
Karim Bardeesy: Absolutely. And one of the things– one of the messages I try to send to them, in particular through the class that I teach with them at the Faculty of Arts, which is called Making the Future, which is a class about the public policy responses to the pandemic, and which help inspired the the piece that I wrote recently in the Toronto Star that we’re talking a bit about here, is that one of the things that they need is agency. They need to know that the input that they’re making will have some output or some response. What does that look like right now? It may not mean applying for a job and getting the job. But it might mean advocating or activating around some of these issues, being in touch with policymakers. During the pandemic, getting engaged on the issues, whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s on the issue of youth jobs, whether it’s on the issue of mental health, and actually engaging their political leaders. Which might sound a little far from the job market, but bear with me for a moment. It actually is a way to practice those skills, and it’s a way to, to gain some control over your life, even if you don’t get the response you want. Because you’re asserting– you, with others– that desire to have a better future. And some of that is going to involve the job market, yes. Some of this actually can lead to a job. So the idea that students aren’t gonna necessarily slot into existing jobs, but through their advocacy, through their activation around issues– in my case, a special interest in public policy issues– they can actually develop those skills and knowledge that make them attractive candidates for jobs. We’ve also, through the Ryerson Leadership Lab, had a partnership with a group called Future Majority. And so in my case, in my class, I’m able to offer students, supported by a federal government funding, an opportunity to have a work integrated learning experience with Future Majority, which is a young person civic engagement group. And they have paid placements for six weeks. It’s not everything, but there’s an opportunity there for those students who are interested in that work. For other students who are pretty sure where they want to go, I ask them, you might be slotting into a job as it’s understood right now. If you’re in a real estate management course or a hospitality course, you’re learning how that industry is working pre pandemic, and then you’re learning a bit about how it needs to change. The great thing about being on the– learning about how it needs to change is, a lot of people, including the people in authority positions, a lot of the employers themselves, they don’t have the answers either.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Karim Bardeesy: And so what I say to students who are in professions or in programs that seem to have a path, but where that path is now a bit more cloudy is, you can be part of the solution. You can go into these interviews and say, I think we’re going to have to reimagine some of this work. We’re going to have to reimagine some of this sector, we’re going to have to reimagine some of this business. So that’s another set of messages I have for a different group of students. And then there’s another, there’s a third group of students who luckily are in professions are in the places where there is going to be job demand. We know that the health professions have considerable demand. We know that education and social work and the helping professions, the caring professions, are going to be more in demand. They’re more in demand now, and they’re going to continue to be after the pandemic. Or growth sectors like green energy. And so to them, I just try to encourage them and say keep going, learn as much as possible, which is hard right now. And those opportunities that hopefully will come. But yeah, the thing that’s really important I think for all students, all young people to understand, is they need that social capital. They need that connection that’s not just applying blindly to a LinkedIn posting, to actually get going in the job market.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you talk about seeking out engagement and things that produce output, what have students been doing– or young people, I guess in general– been doing during this time to get that response? Your piece connected a bunch of sort of seemingly unrelated things, all seeking the same answer. Can you sketch that out a bit for us?
Karim Bardeesy: Yeah, I found really interesting– and again, this was in part canvassing my students and looking at some of the evidence that Wealthsimple and other trading platforms were putting out there around what was happening in the stock market recently. We wouldn’t think of young people being stock market engaged necessarily, especially during a pandemic. And some of the findings out there is that in fact through Reddit trading boards and tip boards, there are some stocks that were getting exciting to folks for a variety of reasons, including maybe pushing back against the old powers that be. And young people started attaching onto these trading platforms with the limited money they had, some of them commission-free platforms. And so Wealthsimple, for instance, reported that 30% of the people attached to a recent set of trades were from Generation Z, and you wouldn’t think of Generation Z as the people– early twenties right now– to be trading stock. And so, they didn’t have raw numbers, but the proportion was remarkable. You’ve also had a renewed kind of outbreak in activist moments, in-person activist moments. So you’ve got all these kinds of expressions where young people are trying to find a way to show her that they matter, and to have some impact in the world. Because the usual ways of having a degree that connects you to friends and connects you to a social life or where you’re deeply connected in your home community, all those opportunities for connection are gone and all those opportunities to do something that gets a response are gone. I see a generation of people who are trying to find meaning in more unlikely places. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it’s incumbent on institutions, including the private sector, to show that there are paths available, that they don’t all have to go off and hustle and, you know, show their brands off online, that there’s going to be a community, there’s going to be a sector, there’s going to be employers who are waiting for them. And you frankly haven’t seen that message yet. And we haven’t seen that as a commitment by our political leaders, that yes, you as a generation matter, that you’ve had it especially hard, that we will be there for you with all the resources we have available to you, collectively, private and public. They haven’t had that message. And it’s part of a general perhaps you know, substandard response to the pandemic that we’ve had in Canada, where we haven’t been able to make the right commitments to the right people. Whether it’s people in congregate care and long-term homes, or young people who are wanting that first job and not seeing any path.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What would that message from government, and maybe from the private sector, actually look like? Because I assume here that you’re not talking about a nicely worded speech, reassuring people that they matter. We’re talking about something to send that message. And what form would it take? And what kind of historical precedents are there for helping a generation like this?
Karim Bardeesy: So it’s not that there’s not activity. There is activity. Governments in particular are putting lots of money into job readiness programs, internships, there’s money in that program I just mentioned with future majority that we got funded through a group called well that I believe has federal government funding behind it. So there are programs, there’s money. I think there’s a lot more money on the table. There’s a lot of private capital on the table that hasn’t really been deployed to employing young people in the proportions, or the promise of employing young people in the proportions that we need. So I’m looking for a more collective message around commitments that we can measure and track that private sector entities, whether at the sector level, individual business level, at the chamber of commerce level, there’s lots of ways that employers can come together and say, we’re not going to leave these young people behind. And in fact, we need them to help us re-imagine our work, because our work is going to change after this pandemic. So I think the message that needs to be uttered is, here’s the number of jobs we want to create. And here’s my commitment, here’s my institutions, my employer’s commitment to the number of jobs we need to create. And then to your earlier– the other part of your question around what have we done in the past, well in the past we’ve had major projects of national reimagining based on young people. We had the Company of Young Canadians that was created in the sixties to go off and do civic projects around Canada. We had Canada World Youth, which was an international placement program in the United States, they had a number in– during the Great Depression and coming out of it, a number of major civic reconstruction projects, whether it was employing writers or artists, the conservation Corps around tree planting and other forms of environmental remediation. We have these national project needs now. In fact, we had them during the pandemic, we had people volunteering to sign up for a contact tracing system that was never deployed. We had– volunteer Canada set up a portal, which had 50,000, almost 50,000 people sign up to be contact tracers. And that never– that work never happened. So we have people who are ready to step in to work. And we have big national projects, some of which are more public, some of which more private. And so what I’m looking for, and what I think the recent graduates deserve is an articulation of what those projects would be, and some numbers attached to them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And presumably they would be in all sorts of things, not necessarily the graduate’s field of choice, maybe but allowing them to practice some of these skills. And somebody would have to pay for it, whether that’s private business or government. And I know just about every business is hurting right now, and government’s spent billions over the past year. Can we afford this and can we afford not to do it? It seems like a paradox with the current conditions.
Karim Bardeesy: Absolutely. So if you don’t do it, and we’re talking mostly right now is about young graduates who have– who are more– in general more employable, people who have only graduated from high school or don’t have a high school diploma and don’t have a college and university certification are even farther from some of these conversations. So we have to be really attentive to that group as well. And also within this, the evidence shows that younger women students are facing higher unemployment and younger racialized students are facing higher unemployment than younger male students and younger white students. So we have to bring all those considerations to bear. If we don’t do this, we risk a generation that’s more distant from the labour market, a generation that is growing ever more frustrated, at home longer, which creates a generation that doesn’t get to grow up properly, that has experienced a trauma, that had no lift out of that trauma, and they’re going to look for more radical solutions. And those radical solutions, even if they’re the right ones in those young people’s minds, they definitely won’t be the right ones in the eyes of the employers who didn’t step up when they needed to. If you want more conversation around wealth taxes, if you want more conversation around a more “socialist approach” to things, then leave people out to dry now, and you will get that conversation, and it will not be as pretty, and you’ll have created the conditions for it by not responding to the very basic needs that young people have. I think there’s a really good public policy conversation around how much longer the massive public support programs need to continue. But the conversation that we’re not having enough of is just how much private capital is on the table, how much private savings is on the table. In a previous piece that CIBC put out, an estimate of $170 billion sitting on private balance sheets, which is a record high. Wealth accumulation at very high levels, mostly tied up in real estate. There is a very easy, but difficult for some people way, of unlocking private investment towards these needs by maybe delaying some of those real estate speculation and redirecting some of that borrowing towards investment in young people. And it won’t all pay off. So if we do it, there’s going to be some inefficiency. There’s going to be some jobs that don’t work out if we had a massive youth employment program. But the societal gains will be a lot higher than the way we’re currently proceeding, which is bidding up assets on the stock market and bidding up real estate and not really generating wealth.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what would be the actual first step in getting this ball rolling? Is it the government that needs to take the lead and call on the private sector to work with them and begin this program? Like, what’s the next step on this path?
Karim Bardeesy: Yeah, because there’s been so much in particular federal government leadership supporting incomes during the pandemic, I think that that’s going to be a natural place to kind of start the conversation. If it’s only starting there, then it’s not enough. I think people are waiting for federal and provincial budgets to be tabled to see kind of what’s on the table. If private sector players, if individual companies are waiting to invest, they want to know– they might credibly want to know, well what’s the matching dollar here on a youth employment program? Or what’s the fiscal policy the government going to be generally that gives me confidence that I can invest the extra cash on my balance sheet or I can go into debt for some of these major reforms I need in my business that might involve some more youth employment? So I think it’s fair for the private sector to be waiting a bit in the wings. But they’d better be fast followers. A lot of our regulated industries in Canada are enjoying fairly comfortable profits in largely backstopped by federal policy. So I think we’ve got to direct some of our political energy to our public and elected officials a bit more to the private sector and start to make some requests of them, and again, what are their job commitments? That’s a pretty– it’s something that I think Canadians can generally understand. How many people are you going to hire? And when? And you know, we’re not seeing that in the amount that we need to hear that from them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question. You’ve been a policymaker. You talk to people who work in public policy. Those people talk to people in government, if not work with them. What is your sense– and maybe not among the top politicians, but among the bureaucracy that supports them and crafts their policy– what’s the appetite for something like this? We’ve just done a ton of huge programs in the last year to help Canadians.
Karim Bardeesy: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s an assumption that there’ll be sort of a reordering of the economic forces, that once the pandemic starts to be alleviated through vaccinations and once we can reopen the economy, the natural forces will alleviate the recession, there’ll be more consumer spending, the government’s role can recede, and that the private sector will sort of naturally step up. That’s probably one of the prevailing thoughts in some government departments and ministries. But there’s another current of thoughts that’ll say something like, well during this pandemic, it exposed the real vulnerabilities that people had in their healthcare. The real vulnerabilities people had in terms of their personal financial situation. And it exacerbated the inequalities that already existed, that we know through the relative wealth accumulation in the stock market versus other places. So those who had wealth did better to hang on to, or increase their wealth on average. And so there’s going to be a competing conversation that says, well, we’re going to need to policy response to this. And it can’t all be through redistribution. It has to be through growth. And the growth isn’t going to just naturally come from increased retail spending and a return to economic activity as normal, because we’ve incurred some damage in the economy, and so we can need to be more intentional. What I hope is that governments will not take all of the responsibility though, to articulate all the things that need to be done and only use fiscal or monetary policy, but that they really use other forms of policy and other forms of moralsuasion, of partnerships with private sector employers, so that they don’t feel– so the governments don’t feel it’s only on them. And they need that political cover from Canadians to know that Canadians are going to, you know, make asks of the private sector as well as the public sector. Public sector, public policy, public spending is going to have a key role in this. But it can’t be the only role.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Karim, thank you so much for this discussion. And we’ll check in with you maybe in six to eight months when hopefully enough people are vaccinated to get a sense of where employment for grads has.
Karim Bardeesy: Okay. Thank you so much, Jordan,
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Karim Bardeesy of the Ryerson Leadership Lab. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN or at @frequencypods. You can talk to us anytime via email firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, we are in your podcast player, we would appreciate a follow, a rating, a review, some word of mouth. Tell your friends, let them know we’re here every morning. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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