Clinton Nellist never really gave much thought to what he wanted to do for a job once he graduated. Not that it worried him; Nellist, like many students, was more interested in following his passions and focusing on his studies.
“I never thought beyond the walls of university,” said the former Kwalikum Secondary School student.
After graduating with a four-year degree in humanities from the University of Victoria, Nellist found himself working a minimum wage job that didn’t utilize any of his skills.
Many of his friends were also in this unfulfilling situation, which he calls “underemployment.”
“You think that piece of paper is enough. Well, it’s not,” he said.
So, in order to figure out how to overcome the transition from school into meaningful work, Nellist and fellow graduate Denis Luchyshyn hopped in a car and interviewed 150 successfully employed graduates, employers and career development professionals across the country. The result was a documentary called Road to Employment (roadtoemployment.ca).
What they found was that many Canadian youth, himself included, weren’t being proactive in the working world. They weren’t exploring career options before heading to post-secondary and they weren’t physically going out and building a professional network.
As a result, youth were ending up in fields that didn’t suit their personality or in which there was little work, or working for companies that didn’t match their values. All of these are examples of underemployment, said Nellist, who uses the term to describe situations in which a worker feel unfulfilled and doesn’t see a happy future in their job.
For the team at the Parksville Career Centre, however, underemployment also has more of an economic definition. Here, the term describes a person who is working under 20 hours a week despite wanting to hold a full-time job.
Less-than-ideal employment hours is also how underemployment is described by the Canadian Labour Congress. In a 2014 report, the CLC said that 15.1 per cent of the nation’s workers were underemployed in 2013. At that time, the Canadian unemployment rate was at 6.9 per cent.
In May 2015, the national unemployment rate given by Statistics Canada rests at 6.8 per cent, which is just above the 6.1 per cent provincial rate reported by B.C. Stats and a bit below the 7.4 per cent rate in the Southern Coastal region presented by Employment and Social Development Canada. The CLC has not released any current statistics of underemployment, which it calls “Canada’s real labour market challenge.”
While the topic of underemployment “definitely isn’t new,” Nellist said the discussion is still relevant. Recognizing underemployment is important as having the wrong job, or no job for that matter, can affect a persons mental and physical health, he said.
Nellist said he thinks one reason why underemployment continues to be an issue is the fact there is a lack of career education in high schools.
For example, students in School District 69 are only obligated to take Planning 10. In this class, Ballenas Secondary School’s career co-ordinator Luc Ouellet said students are introduced to a wide-range of topics, including workers’ rights, resumes and basic finances, as well as having some opportunity to take personality assessments and explore a handful of careers.
After that class, however, SD 69 students have to take the initiative. In their senior years, they have the options to gain work experience for credit, finish a skills certificate program though Head Start or be connected to local employers for informational interviews. They are also encouraged network outside of school and to volunteer in order to gain experience.
Many, however, don’t take advantage of these opportunities, said Stephen Stahley, who is the career co-ordinator for the entire school district.
As a result, many students — like Nellist — graduate with no definite career path.
“How do you know what you love when you don’t know?” asked Stahley. “How do you get exposure? Go out and do stuff.”
Stahley said he thinks one of the reasons why students don’t focus on their future career is because there’s much more of a focus to graduate with core liberal arts courses that lead to university and the promise of finding a good job as opposed to developing skills that lead directly to employment.
Ouellet also said he thinks students aren’t ready to make the commitment to what they see as a life-long a career.
Nellist, however, said students need to realize that the concept of a career is changing. These days, having multiple jobs is more common than getting that one post you’ll work at for the rest of your life, he said.
“People do change careers, but they (the jobs) do have commonalities,” said Ouellet. As such, he thinks students should take a broader view and explore the different employment opportunities a one skill set can bring.
While Road to Employment really focuses on 15-25 year olds who are in or just leaving school, the proactive go-get-’em attitude preached in Nellist’s documentary can be applied to long-time members of the workforce who feel underemployed.
“Stuck is a perspective,” said Susan Rintoul, employment consultant and data quality specialist at the Career Centre in Parksville.
“We’re all really self-employed,” she said, meaning that everyone has the ability to manage the direction of their own working lives.
For example, the Centre’s employer services co-ordinator Diana Jolly said those who make the most out of a situation — such as by working hard, choosing a positive attitude, building networks in their spare time and saving money for a certification program to change careers — can be noticed by employers.
“People are watching,” Cheryl Dill, executive director of the Central Vancouver Island Job Opportunities Building Society, said. “While you’re there (at your current job), don’t burn any bridges.”
In order to support those looking to make a change, the Career Centre’s resource room is open to everyone in the community. Here, people can find self-assessment tools, job postings, computers, information on provincial trades programs, tips on how to write resumes and more.
There are also regular workshops teaching employment skills to empower people to help themselves, said Dill.
For those who work less than 20 hours a week or are unemployed, there is also the opportunity to meet with an employment consultant at the Career Centre, Rintoul said.
Also, if an individual is currently or has recently been on unemployment insurance or has been on maternity/paternity leave in the past few years, they may also be eligible for a number of provincial programs facilitated by the Centre, said Dill. These include skills training courses, wage subsidies for on-job training and living support during self-employment training.
No matter the specific situation of underemployment or unemployment someone finds themselves in, the main message from everyone is that there are options for moving forward. The experts say all a person has to do to start finding the right avenues is to find the self-motivation to do some self-assessment on what they’d like the future to look like.