Investing in services is investing in economy

April 25, 2011

This afternoon, a young, unemployed Canadian will come to two conclusions while navigating the depths of daytime television.

The first is that the producers of Judge Judy are the only people profiting from the recession. The second is that they’re using those profits to keep any discussion of youth unemployment off the airwaves during the federal election campaign.

Okay, maybe not. But there’s no disputing the fact that young people are among those hit hardest by the economic downturn, and the least courted by Canadian politicians.

Last week, the OECD released a report detailing the folly in this thinking.

The international economic organization said countries facing persistent and high unemployment risk seeing their population’s skills decline if they are not used, particularly among young people.

At 14.4 per cent, youth unemployment in Canada sits roughly double that of general population. While stimulus packages or tax cuts target overall economic growth, the OECD challenged world governments to prevent those facing long-term unemployment from becoming a burden on social safety nets.

How do we do that? Well, we can start by looking to our southern neighbour for more than just daytime TV to pass the time.

Since 1993, the United States has invested in volunteerism through a robust, national service program called Americorps. A Canadian equivalent could harness the potential of unemployed youth and prepare them to lead our future job markets.

Each year, 75,000 young people enlist in Americorps. The volunteers commit to 10 months of service, fulfilling needs in under-resourced communities. This includes critical work like tutoring children, building homes and conducting HIV tests.

On the community level, the gains are huge. Americorps has increased the organizational capacity of respected charities like Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross and Teach for America. In Florida, volunteers poured more than four million hours into a tutoring program at state-wide elementary schools. As a result, 75 per cent of students showed “significant reading improvement.”

But, while Americorps’ primary goal is “serving community and country,” today it’s tackling an economic problem.

When it comes to skills, the OECD says if you don’t use them, you lose them. When it comes to young people, a 2003 study by Yale University supports the sentiment, saying unemployment caused frustrated young people to choose low-skill or contract jobs over investments in their education, such as training.

When the economy recovers, they return to the job market out-of-practice and sometimes out-of-date. Catching-up can take upwards of a decade.

This would be devastating for Canada, a country that currently faces a looming skills shortage as boomers begin to retire. But, the opportunities for training are minimal and financial burdens too big for many young people.

That’s where volunteer service comes in.

Americorps volunteers get 1,700 hours worth of on-the-job training in a variety of sectors like education, construction and healthcare. To ease the financial burden working for free brings, they receive a modest living allowance, can apply for interest forbearance on student loans and, upon successful completion, receive an educational grant.

In Canada, such a program could be difficult to realize in a minority government dealing with economic uncertainty. But volunteerism has a way crossing partisan lines.

Started by former President Bill Clinton, Americorps saw its funding increase by 50 per cent under George W. Bush. Earlier this year, when threatened by U.S. federal budget cuts, over 200 business leaders wrote Congress stating its elimination would cause “the loss of nearly 150,000 jobs and five million volunteer positions.”

As a result, an agreement was reached between President Barack Obama and House Republicans and Democrats to renew funding.

The idea for a service corps is not new to Ottawa. Katimavik was started by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to bridge the English-French divide through service. And, the Liberal campaign platform includes a promise for a Canada Service Corps.

Katimavik remains focused on cultural understanding as opposed to career development. The Liberal program, which promises to forgive $1,500 in student debt in exchange for 150 volunteer hours, seems like a paltry summer job creation scheme compared Americorps’ required 1,700 hours.

Volunteerism can’t alone solve economic uncertainty. But, an investment in a country’s human capital will always produce long-term gains.

That’s why, when Parliament resumes, we need to stop inadvertently financing the retirement fund of Judge Judy and start realizing the potential of our unemployed youth through the creation of a national volunteer corps.

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