Shreyas Rangappa graduated with a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from Dalhousie University in October. He figures he has sent out 600 to 700 résumés across North America since then. He's willing to move, and to work outside his field. So far, though, no luck.
"They all prefer prior experience," Mr. Rangappa, 26, said in an interview from Halifax. "You just sit at home, and all you can think is you need to get a job. And you don't know what you're doing wrong."
Meet the face of youth unemployment in 2011, a legacy of the global economic meltdown that is pressuring governments in North America and helping to feed deep social unrest the world over. Anger in Egypt and Tunisia over youth joblessness represented nothing less than a "ticking time bomb" waiting to explode, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said this week. Around the world, the problem not only hurts the young but threatens growth for decades to come.
It's not only Egypt, where anger over a youth unemployment rate of about 25 per cent helped fuel protests over poverty and repression, where the problem is surfacing. In Spain, almost half of young people are without work. In Canada, the rate is almost 14 per cent, nearly twice the national average. And in the United States, it's 18 per cent.
In a speech on Thursday in Washington, one day before the U.S. and Canadian governments release their employment snapshot for January, U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke gave younger job seekers little hope for optimism. Any recent U.S. job gains have been "barely sufficient to accommodate the inflow of recent graduates and other new entrants to the labour force," he said.
It's a labour force some aren't even bothering to enter. As unemployment spiked through the global recession, young people started giving up the search. About 1.7 million discouraged youth dropped out of or delayed entry into the labour market between 2007 and 2009, a United Nations group said this week.
"This represents a huge waste of human potential, which could have serious long-term repercussions for the affected young people themselves and for societies at large," said the International Labour Organization, which has repeatedly warned of the spectre of a "lost generation."
Long periods of unemployment tend to leave long-lasting scars. Young people left out of the labour market tend to see their skills deteriorate and bargaining power diminish the longer they are out of work. Youth who leave school during recessions typically see a lifetime hit to earnings, academic studies have shown.
The flashpoints this year have been in Tunisia and Egypt. The region of the Middle East and North Africa has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, at about 24 per cent, according to the ILO.
Canada's situation seems a far cry from Egypt's. Youth unemployment, at 13.8 per cent, is lower than that of other countries and the rate has come down in recent months. But the numbers can be misleading. While the rate has fallen, it's largely owing to a drop in the participation rate, which is close to a decade low. In December, 391,000 young people were counted as unemployed, up from 379,500 in November.
"We're seeing elevated demand from all sectors, from those who don't have high school to those who have university degrees. It's taking them all so much longer. We see there's a frustration and a lack of hope," said Nancy Schaefer, president of Youth Employment Services in Toronto.
The ripple effects are numerous: more kids living at home for longer; more in youth shelters or reduced to "couch surfing" at friends' houses; more working in the underground economy without job security or benefits - and more dealing drugs, she said.
She would like to see a new Canadian youth employment strategy - one that includes awareness campaigns and incentives for employers, and funding for entrepreneurship programs to help youth train for small business startups.
Demand for programs that teach skills and help people start their own businesses is growing, said Kathy Murphy, president of the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development, which runs youth employment programs throughout Nova Scotia - which has the country's highest youth unemployment rate, at 18.6 per cent.
Without work, "they're leaving the area, or they sometimes go back to school. Or, in more severe cases, they get into crime or back into poverty because there are not opportunities."
The educated seem disproportionately hit. In Montreal, Juliana Pelaez, who has a degree in international business, and speaks English, French and Spanish, is in a similar boat to Mr. Rangappa. "Trying to look for a job always every day, and not receiving any interviews or calls, it's frustrating. There's not a lot of professional opportunities out there."