Students, young Manitobans say they’re facing challenges finding work during COVID-19

Joyce Clark enrolled in Red River College’s hotel and restaurant management course two years ago, and was confident she would graduate on time.

That was before COVID-19 hit.

“I really had everything planned out before this pandemic,” she said.

Now, in spite of a promise of millions of dollars to help employers hire students this summer, some young Manitobans like Clark say they’re worried about their prospects as they struggle to find work and training.

On Friday, Premier Brian Pallister introduced a wage subsidy program for high school and post-secondary students in private and non-profit sectors. The province has promised up to $120 million to help employers hire students between May and September.

The federal government also announced aid for students last week.

But Clark says right now, she’s struggling to find work in her field.

She was supposed to complete her final co-op placement this summer at a restaurant or hotel, but she’s having trouble getting work as a student, since most businesses in her industry have either shut down or reduced hours and services.

“I know right now the majority of places that are hiring are mostly grocery stores, convenience stores,” said Clark.

“But I just went to school for two years. I really wanted to get a job that I was able to utilize the skills and knowledge that I learned.”

Clark said her program has extended the deadline to finish co-op hours until December. She’s still trying to find a hospitality job to pay her bills and avoid filing for government aid.

Second-year Red River College student Joyce Clark says she’s having trouble finding work for her summer co-op during the pandemic. (Submitted by Joyce Clark)

“It’s my absolute passion to serve people, and it’s something I’m really good at,” she said.

“It’s going to be a real competition to see who can actually secure a job because there are going to be so many students looking.”

And even if businesses do start up again soon, “I don’t know if they’re going to be able to accommodate the amount of students that need jobs,” she said.

Colleges finding new ways to complete co-ops

Red River College is working with students and employers to adjust practicum, co-op and apprenticeship options, said spokesperson Conor Lloyd.

“We’ve found that if any business has been able to shift to an alternative or online delivery model, our students have been able to successfully make that transition and continue to work in their co-op,” he said in an email.

He added some students are doing project-based learning, which allows them to stay home and still stay on track to complete their program.

Assiniboine Community College in Brandon is also adjusting timelines. In an email, a spokesperson explained that as of March 17, students were given the option to continue their practicum, have it waived, or find an alternative.

In programs that absolutely require in-person, on-the-job hours — like the practical nursing program — students either continued their placements or had them delayed, the college said.

With many businesses and services closed due to the pandemic, some Manitoba students are worried about their job prospects this summer. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

But some young Manitobans who aren’t students say they’re struggling to find work, too. 

Many employers are holding interviews over the phone or virtually. That technology wasn’t a problem for 25-year-old Nabeel Khan, who was looking for work at the start of the pandemic — but a miscommunication did present an issue.

“The person [on the phone] was, like, ‘you sound sick,'” said Khan. 

“Then they said, ‘we can’t really let you in for an interview. Maybe reapply in a couple of weeks.’ I smoke cigarettes, so it could be that. It could be my morning voice.

“They’re scared, so I don’t blame them, but it was kind of wrong.”

Eventually, Khan landed a short-term contract at 24-7 Intouch, providing customer service for a call centre in Winnipeg that connects businesses with federal COVID-19 aid programs. It’s a gig he’s very thankful to have through the pandemic.

“I feel like I’m really lucky because a lot of people don’t have a job, and they’re panicking or worrying.”

Employment centres shift gears to training, aid

Not everyone is looking for work during the pandemic, though — some are looking to make the shift to something new.

Youth Employment Services, or YES, normally works to help Manitobans between 16 and 29 years old find jobs, but lately, staff say they’re helping more and more people navigate government benefits or find training.

“People are looking for certifications they can get in the meantime, so it can boost them ahead when they’re job-searching again,” said executive director Charity Leonard.

That training could mean that when businesses do reopen, “they’re ready and prepared and ahead of other candidates.”

But completing that training is proving difficult. Courses that require in-person access, like workplace hazardous materials or CPR training, are on hold.

“Lots of new webinars are available. Unfortunately, not many of them lead to certification, which is what people are looking for,” said Leonard.

Other challenges are coming up, too. Normally, people who don’t have access to computers come into the YES offices to work on their resumes, cover letters and search online for jobs. With distancing requirements in place, that’s no longer an option right now.

Looking ahead, Leonard said she’s preparing for an influx of clients once businesses are allowed to open up again.

“There are going to be so many people who lost jobs, and they’re going to need help getting back to that job,” she said. “Or maybe they’ve realized in all of this that job wasn’t right for them. Or maybe that place has closed.”

When things do start getting back to normal, she says, “things are going to be very, very busy.”

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