Youth under-employment: an opportunity to fill skills gaps

By Rebecca Heaney   

Business Operations Industry Operations Production Manufacturing employment manufacturing skills skills gap unemployment

Young people looking for a way out of dead-end employment represent the next generation of skilled workers.

Manufacturing provides unemployed, under-employed youth with opportunities for careers. PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

There is a shortage of skilled and knowledgeable workers in manufacturing and many companies are targeting youth to fill the gaps. But they’re discovering that searching for young applicants by focusing on education and experience is not generating the number of needed candidates. And traditional methods don’t prevent successful applicants from leaving to work elsewhere once their training is complete.

As employers seek motivated young people to lay the foundation for the next generation of skilled workers, many young Canadians struggle with “precarious work” – non-standard employment that’s poorly paid, insecure, unprotected and doesn’t support a household.

According to Statistics Canada, 13.7% of men and women between 15 and 24 were unemployed in 2013, while the Canadian Labour Congress estimates 27.7% are underemployed. Unemployment, underemployment and precarious work go hand-in-hand, trapping young people in a never-ending cycle of uncertainty and dissatisfaction.

To address the gap between youth lacking relevant work experience and the growing number of open skilled positions, the Ontario Manufacturing Learning Consortium (OMLC) applied a different approach to fill positions. It relied on strict screening criteria to identify young individuals with the motivation, abilities and aptitude (rather than experience) that predict success in a skilled role (such as CNC machinist), and a program that offers in-class training, certification, plus on-the-job training.


The OMLC, a non-profit that collaborates with industry on training, needed to attract enough youth to the program to produce successful candidates, so it partnered with Northstar Research Partners to survey youth and discover specifics about skilled positions that would draw youth to the program and ultimately to manufacturing.

Careers, not jobs

Of the many factors important to youth, here are the top ones:

Good pay. Not a surprise. Unemployed and underemployed youth have few opportunities to find and keep high-paying jobs.

Job security and stability. Everything else is irrelevant if young people believe they could be laid off or let go at any time.

Interest and engagement. Enjoying what you do and being engaged is motivating. While most young people don’t expect to feel passionate about their work, nearly all hope to have at least a general interest in the work they do.

Opportunity for growth and advancement. Most young people want some assurance that if they do a good job, there will be opportunities to advance. They also want to learn, accomplish something and make a difference.

Training and mentorship. Many want training to develop a skill and improve at their jobs. Access to training would engender belief that an employer considers them to be worth the investment.

Responsibility and accountability. This links to advancement, pay, trust, respect and improved self-esteem.
Young people want careers, not jobs. Manufacturing is uniquely suited to transfer precarious workers to a skilled, motivated and reliable workforce.

Many unemployed and underemployed typically lack skills, natural aptitude, connections or opportunities to pursue careers in many fields, particularly “white collar” professions. But they enjoy working with their hands and learn by watching others, making them well suited to learn through apprenticeship programs and hands-on training. Working independently and roles that require problem solving and doing different tasks every day appeal to youth. Many roles offer opportunities for advancement as experience and skills grow, while demand for skilled workers suggests employees are less likely to be laid off.

The research suggests a career involving a skilled position in manufacturing inspires young people and is life changing. Given the opportunity, they will rebuild the motivated, committed and lasting workforce manufacturing (and country) so desperately needs.

Rebecca Heaney is senior research associate at Northstar Research Partners Inc., a global insights firm with offices in Toronto. The research, funded by the Government of Ontario, was managed and sponsored by the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters for the OMLC.


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