Young workers in British Columbia are bearing the brunt of pandemic job losses. Even as employment opportunities are starting to rebound, there is a real danger that the province’s economic recovery may leave them behind.
Kero Daowd learned in March that his regular summer employment had been cancelled because of COVID-19. For the past four summers, he worked at the District of North Vancouver, earning enough to help fund his studies at the University of B.C.’s faculty of medicine, where he is working on his master’s in public health.
It was not a surprise, he said, but a bitter disappointment. “Our generation had it tough before COVID started,” he said. The high cost of living, especially in Metro Vancouver where he lives and studies, was already punishing for those just entering the job market. But at least there were jobs before the pandemic.
The province shed roughly 400,000 jobs this spring, including many entry-level opportunities in retail and hospitality. “Now, the future isn’t looking friendlier," he said.
On Friday, Statistics Canada released the results of its latest labour-force survey. There was good news for B.C. – a surprising rebound, with 43,000 new jobs in the period between mid-April and mid-May. That’s just one-10th of the jobs lost earlier this spring, but those new jobs were created before the province began its official restart that allowed many businesses and services to resume operations.
Ken Peacock, chief economist of the Business Council of B.C., said he expects the next monthly labour update will be even better. “It’s going to be another positive, and it has a very good chance of being a bigger number next month, so I take this as a pretty good indication,” he said.
More troubling, he said, was the fine print. The labour survey found that workers between the ages of 15 and 24 are facing unemployment rates of almost 29 per cent – far more than any other age cohort. (The findings were echoed across the country.) That’s worse than in the recession of the early 1980s, where overall unemployment rates were actually higher than they are now.
“Young people tend to work in those sectors that are hard hit," Mr. Peacock said. “They are feeling the pain more than others.” And, he doesn’t expect that pain to end quickly. “The potential for long-term unemployment is something I’m concerned about.”
The province’s hospitality and tourism sectors were flattened in March, when the province declared a state of emergency over the pandemic. Many retailers closed and are only cautiously reopening. Young workers with little job experience often rely on those jobs, not just for a paycheque, but for work experience, too.
While the province has given restaurants the green light to reopen for dining in, and it has promised to promote “staycations” to help offset the losses of international tourism this summer, it is unlikely those sectors will fully recover any time soon.
“The hard reality is that the international tourism spend, it’s just too big to be replaced by domestic tourism activity,” Mr. Peacock said. Consumers, also, have been tentative in their return to shops and restaurants.
B.C. Finance Minister Carole James was likely bracing for bad news on Friday morning when the Statistics Canada report was released. Instead, it was a rare bit of good news. “We are beginning to see some glimmers of increased confidence,” she told reporters.
“I’m confident, as we see B.C. start to adjust to the restart and move into economic recovery.” Even the increase in the overall unemployment rate, to 13.4 per cent, is an indication that people are returning to the job market instead of relying on government income support.
But she was quick to note the uneven recovery for job seekers. “Young people had been severely impacted.”
She said the numbers show that B.C. may have to adjust its plans for economic recovery. “It really shows as we move to recovery in the economy that we will need to take a different kind of focus, we’ll need to look at where the largest job losses are," she said.
"We need to look to the future, to how we provide support for youth, through job training and other areas, to be able to really see our economy fully recover.”
Mr. Daowd was fortunate: He was able to secure a practicum through his university that will keep him busy through the summer. Many of his friends have not been so lucky, and he sees an uncertain future ahead.
“It’s scary but it’s also exciting. I want to do more school after this,” he said. “But for the rest of my cohort, they are exhausted about worrying for the future.”
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