At 23, brimming with enthusiasm, new university graduate Sophie Bifield hit the ground running in search of a full-time job.
But 18 months later, after contacting more than 300 employers, the Queen's University psychology major was unemployed and disillusioned, her dream of a career in marketing derailed by the global economic crisis.
Ms. Bifield's lengthy bout of joblessness mirrors the predicament facing thousands of young job seekers as another school year ends: surging youth unemployment.
The jobless rate for those in the 15-to-24-year-old age group in 2009 jumped to almost 19 per cent in industrialized countries from about 13 per cent in mid-2008, before the recession hit, according to an April report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It was the largest year-over-year rise in at least 10 years, the group said. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria said youth joblessness is likely to stay high for the next two years, creating the potential for a "lost generation."
In Canada, where the downturn was milder, youth joblessness hit 15.1 per cent in May, a slight improvement over April - but still near an 11-year high.
Such rates don't bode well for young Canadians looking for full- or part-time work this summer and beyond, says Nancy Schaefer, president of Toronto-based Youth Employment Services (YES), one of the largest centres for jobless youth in Canada.
"In my 21 years here, things are as hard for young people as I have ever seen," Ms. Schaefer says. "If this economy doesn't pick up soon, this generation is going to lose hope."
It's not just summer earnings that are at risk. The potential for long-term career "scarring" is significant, experts say, ranging from lower-than-expected salaries to delayed career progression to a lack of overall job satisfaction in ensuing years.
And it's not just the economy that is at fault. A coddled generation that was promised it all - and never imagined or prepared for things to go in the opposite direction - will also need to rein in their expectations, the pros say.
Among the repercussions of high youth unemployment:
Stalled career development
To make ends meet, many young people may be forced to take lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs that don't make use of or develop their talents, says Janice Rudkowski, director of marketing and communications for Career Edge Organization in Toronto, a not-for-profit group that works with employers to arrange internships for graduates.
Given the jobs shortage, keen competition for fewer positions, and baby boomers who are reluctant to retire, younger workers may be stuck on the lower rungs for much longer than in the past, impeding their progress up the career ladder.
As a result, they may "miss out on early career lessons, from how organizations work to how to get along with different types of people," says career expert Barbara Moses, author of What Next? Find the Work That's Right for You. They may also miss out on developing critical skills associated with more senior jobs, Dr. Moses says.
Falling off the radar
If they remain unemployed or underemployed for too long, younger workers may find the skills they learned in college or university gathering dust, and they risk becoming stale in the eyes of employers and being passed over in favour of the next crop of fresh graduates, Ms. Rudkowski says.
"Employers want new talent … so these people are often overlooked, especially if they have been out of school for a year or more," she says.
Slow career advancement
Upward moves that happened within a year in better days now take two to three years, says Adwoa Buahene, managing partner at n-gen People Performance Inc. in Toronto.
"Unless they can figure out what value they have and what the expectations are of companies, they need to understand that progression in a career will be much slower, and they will be frustrated," Ms. Buahene says.
Lower and slower career progress will also mean lower and slower pay increases. Many young people won't bring home what they'd been hoping for early in their careers, says Sean Lyons, an assistant professor of business at the University of Guelph, who co-wrote a recent study on the career expectations and priorities of the generation born in and after 1980.
His research found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed expected to be promoted within the first 18 months in their first job. And they expected their paycheques to climb rapidly within five years of graduation.
"They have absolutely no realistic expectation about what their advancement opportunities are going to be, or what their pay increase possibilities are likely to be," Prof. Lyons says.
Because many are landing in positions they don't want, they will hop from job to job and employer to employer, predicts Lauren Friese, founder of Toronto-based TalentEgg.ca.
And that won't help them look like loyal and desirable employees, she says. "If I am a recruiter, three to five different jobs does not look great on a résumé, and it could impact a person's career path," she says.
All of this could dampen the ambitions of an entire generation, Dr. Moses says. "If this generation is denied, either by being stuck in the wrong entry-level jobs or not being able to get up the ladder, they may become disappointed, which could turn to bitterness and simply giving up," she says.
To avoid such a thing, young people will have to adjust their career expectations, Prof. Lyons says.
"We are hearing that many are going in with the attitude that 'the employer has to convince me that this is the place I should be working,' which is especially off-putting when it is clear the market does not support that kind of attitude," he says.
This generation needs to shift its attitudes and accept the fact that their first job after graduation is likely to be near the bottom of the totem pole, he says.
Dianne Hunnam-Jones, president of the Toronto district of staffing and placement firm Robert Half International, agrees, saying they should start with a "head check."
"They need to be flexible and adjust their expectations to reflect what is available and what they are qualified for. They should be prepared to pay their dues with entry-level jobs. … Once they get a foot in the door, the opportunities will eventually come," Ms. Hunnam-Jones says.
There are no magic wands. Getting jobs will involve following time-tested job-search basics, from cold calling to networking to drafting error-free résumés to being well-prepared for interviews, Ms. Schaefer says. Young workers will also need to take some more novel approaches, such as creating their own internships and developing their own jobs, she says.
Some companies have set up programs especially targeted at helping young people get those precious first jobs. Last year, for instance, Toronto-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd. launched its national grad@Loblaw program, which provides recent postsecondary grads with full-time jobs and the opportunity to kick-start their careers.
Kraft Canada Inc. is hiring students through its summer internship program. Designed for students still in university, it offers work in the summer months and often links them with full-time jobs after graduation, at the same time helping the company find new talent.
Toronto-based Career Edge Organization, a national not-for-profit, has worked with more than 1,000 employers across Canada to place approximately 9,800 young people in paid internships.
For Ms. Bifield, the route to full-time work came in creating her own job.
When her lengthy job search failed to land a position in marketing or advertising, Ms. Bifield decided to put her self-taught social media skills to work. Early last year, she began pounding on the doors of companies that wanted to use social-networking sites in their own recruiting efforts and, in a matter of weeks, she lined up several short-term contracts. She soon made a name for herself as a social networking consultant.
In April, she landed a full-time job with Toronto advertising and communications agency TMP Worldwide as a digital strategist, helping TMP clients with their use of social networking tools for their own recruiting.
"Once I established myself around my social networking skills, people came to me," Ms. Bifield says. "In the end, I realized that companies … want to hire you for something you know and are good at."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Here are snapshots of two corporate programs aimed at young workers:
Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
Launched: April, 2009
What it does: Provides recent postsecondary graduates with full-time jobs and the opportunity to kick-start their careers. This month, a third batch of 100 students will begin; over five years, a total of 1,000 students will have gone through the program.
How it works: During the 18-month program, graduates rotate through three areas of the company, beginning with six months in a store to gain firsthand retail experience, followed by three months in merchandising. The final phase is a nine-month placement in an area for which the graduate was hired, such as store management, marketing, merchandising, supply chain management, information technology, human resources or finance.
Once the program is complete, graduates are offered jobs at Loblaw's head office in Brampton, Ont., or in supermarkets across Canada, says Kathy Martin, senior vice-president of human resources.
Snagging a position in the Grad@Loblaw program isn't easy: There were more than 3,500 applications for the latest 100 positions.
"In many cases, this is a graduate's first full-time job," Ms. Martin says. "They come in wet behind the ears and are not necessarily used to big, formal organizations like we are. We spend 18 months getting them acclimatized to what a big organization operates like and, whether they stay with us or not, that will be with them for the rest of their career."
Kraft Canada Inc.
Summer internship program
What it does: Designed for students still in university, it offers work in the summer months and often links them with full-time jobs after graduation, at the same time as helping the company find new talent.
How it works: The program employs 30 students in marketing, finance, sales, consumer relations and supply chain management, mostly in Toronto. Projects assigned to students include creating in-store promotions, executing the launch of new products and working on financial analysis. "Students are not doing fluff work. They are given real work assignments," recruitment manager Lori Pitre says.
Each student has a mentor who sets objectives and provides feedback and support. At the end of the summer, students must put together a report on their work and help organize a community event for interns.
"We see them in action and they try us on for size," Ms. Pitre says.
Including this year, about 190 students will have been through the program. About 2,000 students applied for the 2010 program, 700 more than last summer, a reflection of the tough economy and the increased number of schools Kraft's recruiters visited, Ms. Pitre says.
"Part of our recruiting strategy is to build a talent pipeline," Ms. Pitre says. "Through the program, we are linked to students with fresh ideas and from diverse schools and backgrounds, and those that work out have the advantage of being offered positions next summer, and full-time permanent jobs when they graduate."
INCREASE THE ODDS
A handful of time-tested rules apply when hunting for a job - from putting together a polished résumé to researching potential employers to dressing sharply for interviews. Here are additional tips from the experts to increase your odds:
Pay your dues: Don't rule out any position. Let prospective employers know you will take a job a notch lower than the one you wanted. Demonstrate your work ethic and commitment. You may have been top of the class at university but accept your new, humbleR role in the workplace as a team player.
Lower your expectations: It's an employer's market, which means starting salaries and positions are less than in the good old days. Be prepared to ask for less and agree to less.
Create your own spot: Fashion your own internship or job. Research companies, look for gaps that you could fill and pitch how you might be of use.
Use your tech know-how: Use social media sites to connect with contacts, advise of your availability and ferret out prospects. And make sure you make yourself look like an enticing candidate in all of your on-line endeavours, from your own website to a blog to twittering to online applications.
Widen your net: Use your university contacts, join professional associations, and think about prospects broadly - a permanent job in your field of study may be your goal, but don't rule out internships, part-time positions, and co-ops. Think about the skills and other qualifications you can acquire that can be transferred to the career you hope for.
Master your field: Most successful people are perceived to be experts in a field. Find something you are good at or for which you have an aptitude and develop it further.
Toot your own horn: If you're an expert in an area or have significant experience, such as a past internship, let potential employers know. A U.S. survey says three-quarters of employers polled consider internships a sign of a well-rounded, motivated candidate.
Turn nothing into something: Interviewers often ask you to tell them something about yourself. Be prepared with a story that will engage their attention and show how your past experience will benefit the organization.
Follow up: As soon as possible after an interview, send a follow-up e-mail or handwritten note including relevant work samples that will make you stand out from numerous other applicants.