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Tanya Forrest, a metallurgist, is pursuing a nursing degree after being laid off from Stelco. (Sheryl Nadler)
Tanya Forrest, a metallurgist, is pursuing a nursing degree after being laid off from Stelco. (Sheryl Nadler)

Labour Market

Out of work and going public Add to ...

Like thousands of young Canadians, Tanya Forrest is charting a new career path in this recession.

The 31-year-old engineer has abandoned her chosen field - in extractive metallurgy with mining and steel companies - and hopes to find stable employment in nursing. That's why the Hamilton resident is heading back to school.

"It was a big decision because I had already completed five years of university. And to face down the barrel of another four years … is quite depressing, financially," she says of her decision, made after she was laid off at Stelco Inc.

The worst labour market in a decade is causing young workers to radically revisit their career plans. In many cases, they're tilting to the perceived stability of the public sector, such as health care and community services, according to enrolment data compiled by community colleges and universities.

"I have to look at long-term job security. And nursing absolutely has better job prospects," Ms. Forrest explained, adding that in nursing, "you're really making a difference."

Her view exemplifies a sea change for a generation who grew up in the longest economic expansion on record - a group that hasn't exactly viewed "reliable" and "stable" as prized job attributes.

Until last year, labour shortages meant people in their 20s and 30s could have their pick of jobs, wrangle higher salaries and hop from one position to another. Now, a deteriorating job market for young people is forcing a major rethink.

Nursing, paramedics, police foundations training, early childhood education, social work and fish-and-wildlife conservation are seeing the biggest jump in applications for fall terms in Ontario schools, according to Ontario College Application Service data.

"The public sector definitely seems stronger; people are seeing it as a growing area," said John Curtis, registrar for Centennial College in Toronto. "We've got an aging population, so people are seeing it as a place to go."

Some of the training shift began just before the economy unravelled. For the 2007-08 school year, the biggest jump in university enrolment was in health, parks, recreation and fitness fields, Statistics Canada reported this week. Enrolment fell in mathematics, computer and information sciences, and communication technologies.

Conversations with school registrars across the country suggest many young Canadians are targeting health care - specifically nursing - in the coming term. At the University of Manitoba, nursing applicants rose 15 per cent for this fall. At George Brown College in Toronto, it rose 10 per cent.

It's little wonder that nursing is seen as a safe harbour: An aging population and retiring work force mean the profession faces a shortfall of 60,000 nurses by 2022, the Canadian Nurses Association predicts.

The other hot area is community services. Centennial College has seen applications double this spring for personal support worker programs - people who want to provide care to the elderly, the disabled and to those with chronic illnesses. Other schools report heightened interest in early childhood education, social work, and housing and children's services.

Several factors explain the widespread shift to the public sector, said Elizabeth Holland, managing partner at Career Council, a career advice firm that has recorded a 12-per-cent increase in young people moving into the public sector over the past year.

"One is the economy. Two is the change in the attitude of young people. They're looking not just at money as their main focus - they want to give back to the community," Ms. Holland said.

"Young people have seen their parents laid off, their families go through change and stress, and whether they're conscious of that or not, they're looking for more security," she said. "And that's often in the public sector."

For many young people, that means hitting the books. Others are moving into unexpected self-employment.

Amit Bhalla, 29, is an MBA grad from Queen's University in Kingston, who saw opportunities for full-time work at banks and consulting companies evaporate last fall. Rather than endure a low-paying part-time summer job, he and two friends are starting a bio-pharmaceutical company aimed at developing cancer treatments.

"It's easier to accept there's no cash flow when your friends don't have that either," said Toronto-based Mr. Bhalla, who's logging 80-hour weeks and has just returned from China as part of the venture.

Youth entrepreneurship is growing across Canada, according to statistics from the Toronto-based Canadian Youth Business Foundation. It has recorded a 42-per-cent surge in applications and startups this year.

Elspeth Murray, director of the Queen's Centre for Business Venturing, lists several reasons why: "No paying jobs, more requirement to be socially responsible and - the hallmark of this generation - they're more aware and widely travelled, and they believe they can control things at a very young age."

Another burgeoning area, one that has been steadily growing for the past few years, is so-called green jobs.

Lauren Friese, founder of Canadian online student job site TalentEgg.ca, reports a wave of interest in green technology and services, though she said there are still "more that want to work … than actual opportunities."

Nicole Smith is one would-be green worker. The 27-year-old spent the past five years in finance, recently on the equity desk of a Bay Street investment management firm, where she hoped to specialize in trading complex derivatives.

With the collapse of Lehman Brothers last September, and the ensuing financial crisis, she realized "this was not a cool area to be in any more."

Ms. Smith agonized about her job, her pay and her career choice. "And then, I just had a dawning realization - which a lot of people my age and in my position had - which is: Is this really what I want to be doing anyway?"

She quit her job last month and is now searching for work in Toronto as a research analyst on the environmental side - in clean technology or food production.

"The recession has given me a clearer view of what I want. I've always been interested in green issues, and I'm looking for reliable work in the future. And that means staying very far away from complex derivatives."

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