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Shuruthi Sivadas, a student who's looking for summer employment, seen outside her home in Toronto, Ont., on Friday, May 21, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Liz Weston has had a tough time finding work.

The Dalhousie University student was let go from a campus library when COVID-19 struck last year. She picked up a short-term gig in January but didn’t log enough hours to qualify for Employment Insurance. She applied for summer jobs at various places but never heard back.

Making things tougher, Ms. Weston has severe asthma and her immune system hasn’t fully recovered from cancer treatment in 2019. She can’t take just any job in a pandemic because her doctor recommends that she limit her potential exposure to the virus, so she wants something with little public interaction.

Now her hope is to get into summer classes – she’s on a wait list – in part because that would allow her to access more student loans to help her financial situation.

“I don’t really know why there’s not more discussion about what students are supposed to do this summer,” she said. “There’s a void in the conversation.”

Once again, students are heading into a summer of dicey job prospects. Fifteen months into the pandemic, the workplaces where young people traditionally break into the labour market – restaurants, tourism, recreation – remain highly restricted, perhaps for a while longer.

To be sure, there is reason for optimism. Canada’s vaccination push has accelerated, and provincial reopening plans have begun to trickle out. The job market is much healthier than it was, with many companies hiring again.

But the clock is ticking. Many students work only in the summer. It’s a time to get out of the house, gain work experience and, crucially, earn some money. That window of opportunity is down to three months. And after several waves of infection, reopenings will have to be done cautiously.

Postsecondary students could lose summer work placements due to delayed federal funding extension

It all adds up to another challenging summer for students. Research shows their mental health has deteriorated. Their résumés are thin. And some are in financial distress, forced to take on more debt to pay for their studies – especially when they fall through the cracks of Ottawa’s pandemic response.

“Things aren’t back to normal yet,” said Brendon Bernard, senior economist at hiring site Indeed Canada. “We’ve got areas of the summer job market that are hinging on big policy decisions.”

Young workers were dealt a relatively tough hand in the pandemic. As of April, Canadians aged 15 to 24 accounted for roughly half the country’s drop in employment since COVID-19 arrived. About 130,000 young people have dropped out of the labour force entirely, most of them women.

Young Canadians had the misfortune of working in precisely the hardest-hit sectors. It’s especially glaring for seasonal work; in the summer of 2019, about two-thirds of employed students worked in three industries – retail, hospitality and culture and recreation – according to Statistics Canada.

Last May, summer employment for students plummeted 40 per cent from the previous year. Graduation dates lined up with the worst shock to labour markets in modern history.

This year, there are more opportunities. As a share of all job postings on Indeed, those with “summer” in their titles had increased from last year, though the percentage was still weaker than in 2019.

Brooklynn Taylor-Clark of Winnipeg is working a lot more this summer. An electrical engineering student at the University of Manitoba, she has cobbled together a full schedule, working as a research assistant and virtual tutor – even picking up shifts at Dairy Queen.

“I’m probably making more money than I’ve ever made in my life,” she said. “I feel very fortunate because I see lots of people – like peers and friends – who have been struggling much more.”

Shuruthi Sivadas is still looking. Weeks away from finishing high school in Toronto, she hasn’t spotted many suitable openings.

“It’s been super difficult because a lot of the places hiring were looking for a university summer, so May to August,” she said. “A lot of the things that are open to teenagers aren’t necessarily going to operate.”

Ms. Sivadas, who starts at McMaster University in the fall, said her motivation for working is less about money than getting out of the house. “At this point, I would honestly do anything,” she said. “Last summer, there really wasn’t much to do.”

To help out, the federal government brought in the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, allowing postsecondary students and recent graduates who were unable to work because of COVID-19 to claim $1,250 in pretax cash as many as four times (or $2,000 for people with a disability or dependents). More than 700,000 people claimed a total of $3-billion. Some students have qualified for other income assistance programs as well.

This summer, the benefit is not available, despite continuing challenges in the labour market.

The federal government has unveiled a variety of other supports. They include an extra $448-million for the Canada Summer Jobs program this year, with the goal of backing an additional 94,000 job placements. The spring budget also proposed $5.7-billion for youth and student initiatives over five years.

In a statement, Samuelle Carbonneau, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada, did not address why the Canada Emergency Student Benefit wasn’t renewed but said other government supports “will provide job opportunities and financial assistance for postsecondary education.”

Still, plenty of students are taking matters into their own hands.

Moe Almabhouh of London, Ont., started a landscaping business with his little brother last summer. The 16-year-old went door to door with business cards and built a website. He saw self-employment as a chance to build his marketing and communication skills.

“It’s a good way to start your life if you want to be a businessman when you grow up,” he said. “The motivation is not the money, really. We like the job. It’s not too hard. And it’s pretty fun.”

For others – particularly in university – it is about the money, as finances can be a major concern.

Shortly after COVID-19 hit, Statscan conducted a survey of more than 100,000 postsecondary students. (The student benefit was announced shortly into the survey period.) Seventy-seven per cent were very or extremely concerned about their finances, with clear majorities worried about using up their savings or adding to their student debt.

To make some extra cash this year, Claire posted bikini shots on OnlyFans, a subscriber service that’s known for its adult content. (The Globe and Mail is not using her full name to protect her privacy.) The student at St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, N.S., made about $1,000 over three months, usually posting one photo a day. She stopped doing it because she didn’t want her dad to notice any unusual income when filing her taxes.

“I know a lot of students that have created OnlyFans accounts as a way to make money, because they can’t find jobs here,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how normalized that is for students.”

After months of searching, Claire found a part-time job at the grocery store, earning minimum wage. But it’s tough to live off that level of income.

“I went grocery shopping this morning, and what I thought was gonna be a solid three weeks’ worth of groceries ended up being $400,” she said. “And I get paid about $200 every paycheque. So it’s definitely hard.”

Tough as the labour market is right now, it’s vastly better than it was. Canada has recovered about 83 per cent of its pandemic job losses, and during times of looser restrictions, the country’s employers have shown a remarkable ability to quickly ramp up hiring.

Tim Good is basically waiting for the green light. The executive director of Camp Kadesh in Christopher Lake, Sask., is fairly confident that overnight camps will be allowed this summer. For now, he has committed to 15 core staffers, but would need a lot more if the camp becomes fully operational.

Things are different at Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours in Victoria. The company is projecting another rough year, with revenue down 70 per cent from 2019, said general manager Nathan Bird. Staffing won’t be anywhere near normal, even if restrictions ease significantly.

“We can’t just flip the switch on when the borders open up,” Mr. Bird said. “We’re going to have two lost summers under our belts, and floating tourism businesses over a winter is very difficult.”

Young people are starting to get a better sense of what jobs could be available.

Recent guidance from Ontario suggests that non-essential retail – a major source of employment for students, especially young women – could return for indoor shopping by mid-June. Overnight camps, amusement parks and personal services could be back in July. Opening dates for certain indoor activities, such as restaurant dining, are still further out and depend on hitting vaccination goals.

In some cases, students will be able to salvage their summers. But for others, reopening won’t come soon enough, Mr. Bernard said.

“When it comes to the summer job market, there is a question about timing.”

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