McQuillan does his research at the U of C school of public policy.
Michael Grondin/the Gauntlet

The state of youth employment

U of C professor outlines some of the challenges youth face in workforce

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University of Calgary professor Kevin McQuillan recently published a paper titled “All the Workers We Need: Debunking Canada’s Labour-Shortage Fallacy.” The paper examines Canada’s controversial temporary foreign workers program, myths surrounding Canada’s current labour market and some troubling information about the current state of youth employment. The Gauntlet recently sat down with McQuillan and asked him about some of the challenges young Canadians face while entering the workforce.

The Gauntlet: How do temporary foreign workers affect youth employment?

Kevin McQuillan: I think there are two possible ways. One, many temporary foreign workers are filling lower-skilled service jobs that are often needed by university students. We’re seeing many more positions in the service industry being filled by temporary foreign workers. That raises the question, will that shut off potential employment that students might be picking up as they are studying or transitioning from one stage of life to another?

It’s hard to know how big of an issue that is. It does strike me that this is not as prominent in Alberta where unemployment is low, but when you look at some other parts of the country, you wonder why we’re importing temporary foreign workers to fill service jobs that young people either in or out of school might be thinking of working at on a part-time basis.

The other part of it is harder to say. Certainly there is evidence that the Royal Bank situation shows temporary foreign workers coming in and taking more high-skilled positions. The question that’s raised is, are there really no qualified young Canadians to take those positions?

The Royal Bank issue focused on information technology and we know that we are turning out computer scientists from universities all across the country. I think we do need to ask ourselves, is there truly this shortage of talented young Canadians who might be able to fill those roles? But they are not being put into those roles for one reason or another. 

G: According to your paper, youth wages have stagnated since 1981. Why is that?

KM: I think part of the answer is that we have had a huge increase in the number of young people with higher levels of education and skill than was true in the past. There has been a lot of competition for available openings. At the same time, the people who are entering the country under the permanent immigration program — opposed to the temporary foreign worker program — tend to be highly educated as well, because to gain admission as an immigrant, education is weighted very highly. What this adds up to is a lot of competition. 

The other part of it is technological and organizational change in our economy. In a lot of areas, companies will eliminate many positions, and they often say, ‘No, we’re not firing anyone. We’re downsizing through attrition.’ This means that when people retire, they’re not replaced, or people may be bought out through packages. Really, what that means is potential entry positions for young people coming into the labour market are eliminated.