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Laura McGhie is a fourth-year Arts and Science Program student at McMaster University, working in the university's Office of Public Relations, primarily on their website. (Sheryl Nadler/Sheryl Nadler)
Laura McGhie is a fourth-year Arts and Science Program student at McMaster University, working in the university's Office of Public Relations, primarily on their website. (Sheryl Nadler/Sheryl Nadler)

Education

The summer of student discontent Add to ...

Laura McGhie was pretty certain by last fall that her well-paying summer job was history. For the past two years, the McMaster University student had spent her holiday working on the shop floor of U.S. Steel's Lake Erie works, her dad's employer. The collapse of Ontario's manufacturing sector put an end to that.

Instead, Ms. McGhie is working two jobs on campus this summer and figures she's making less than half the money. Still, she counts herself lucky.

"I have a job," says the 21-year-old. "I'm getting valuable work experience. It's a blessing, really."

Students are coping with the worst summer-job market in more than a decade, leaving many scrambling to find often low-paying jobs. Youth employment rates have tanked since October, falling faster than any other age group. Recent numbers from Statistics Canada offer little hope for improvement. The unemployment rate for students between the ages of 20 and 24 hit 14 per cent in June and rose to 18 per cent for those aged 17 to 19, the highest level since 1998.

The drop in summer earnings, coupled with strained family finances, is expected to leave many students struggling to make ends meet when they return to campus in September. University and student leaders are predicting a rise in demand for student aid, with some schools making financial assistance a top priority for their fundraising efforts and others beefing up the services they offer to help students land jobs.

"It's been really tough," says Voula Cocolakis, director of career services at the University of Calgary, where job listings are down 25 per cent from a year ago. "That's a lot of jobs gone."

This time last year, Ms. Cocolakis says, employers couldn't hire students fast enough and students had their pick of jobs. Beginning in January, she saw a huge shift, with the hiring tap suddenly shut off.

In response, the university is helping students build their résumés and learn interview skills. It's also created new campus jobs, peer-counsellor positions that provide student employment.

"It's a learning experience for them," Ms. Cocolakis says. "Personally, I think it's a good adjustment. They are having to compete for jobs. They are having to work at it."

Still, universities can only do so much. The financial crunch for students is coming at a time when many schools are facing their own budget shortfalls and have less money for bursaries and scholarships because of investment losses in their endowment funds.

At Dalhousie University in Halifax, provost Alan Shaver says most schools have been bracing for a budget crunch since last fall. "We've been seeing this coming. We knew it was going to be a tough summer."

In the short term, Dalhousie, like several other schools, has pledged to maintain bursary levels by making cuts in other areas. Mr. Shaver said the school is looking for money to expand campus job programs this fall and plans to ask donors to direct money to student aid. "It don't think there is any magic bullet here," he says. "We will do what we can."

Student leaders fear the bleak job market will cause undergraduates to go deeper into debt and predict many who do not qualify for government programs will take out bank loans or max out their credit cards.

A report earlier this year by the Educational Policy Institute predicted rising youth unemployment will add more than 105,000 new borrowers to the Canada Student Loan Program in the next three years, based on the experience of past recessions. A 1-per-cent rise in youth unemployment increases the demand for student loans by about 6 per cent, the study found.

"We don't know what types of choices these students will make," says Arati Sharma, national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. "They may not go back to school, they may stay with their parents, they may increase their debt loads. Right now there are just a lot of unknowns."

Andrew Mercier, a B.C. native who is entering his fourth year at the University of New Brunswick, is pretty certain about what this summer's employment drought will mean for him: "More macaroni and cheese," he forecasts.

After pounding the pavement for three months, Mr. Mercier finally found a cook's job two weeks ago. It pays less than the manual labour he has done in other years, but he is relieved to have something.

With his summer job starting three months late, Mr. Mercier is already thinking about the things he won't be having next school year. Forget the cellphone, he says, meals out on weekends and a spring-break trip to see family in Quebec.

"I'll be cutting corners," says Mr. Mercier, who already is using government and bank loans to help cover his costs.

Back at McMaster, Ms. McGhie expects life in the house she shares with six other women will be more frugal next year. She plans to use some money she still has saved from those summers in the steel mill to make it through next year and will work part-time as a teaching assistant. "It will be a juggling act for some," she predicts.

 

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