At 24 years old, Joshua Leonard is getting used to being unemployed.
He lives in Edmonton with his parents. He graduated with a diploma in IT more than three years ago but hasn’t been able to find work in the field, despite applying to more than 100 positions. He’s worked restaurant jobs on and off to keep afloat, but currently isn’t working.
“Honestly, it’s not as bad as it used to be, because I’ve just kind of gotten over it,” he said. “It’s been so hard to find work all this time, I’m going to have to think of different routes to take in my life.”
Leonard is one of an estimated 33,000 young men in Alberta looking for work but not finding it. That number has doubled in the span of seven months, according to Statistics Canada, putting the unemployment rate for males under the age of 25 in the province at nearly 20 per cent, roughly twice the rate among women the same age.
Alberta hasn’t seen these levels of joblessness among young men since 1983, when the province was in the grips of a deep recession. Today, the economy isn’t great, but by most indicators, it’s better than it’s been in recent years, which makes this sudden spike in unemployment — the sharpest the province has seen, outside of a recession — harder to explain.
That doesn’t make it any less real.
For the tens of thousands of young men who are struggling to make ends meet, support a family, or forge an identity as they enter adulthood, it’s a reality they face every day.
‘Every man in my family … was some kind of tradesman’
Sean Schell is from Fort McMurray. He’s 24 and has always dreamed of becoming an electrician.
“Every man in my family, going back to my great-grandfather, was some kind of tradesman, so that was only natural,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 2013, he entered into an apprenticeship. The following year, he was laid off, along with half of his company’s workforce.
His apprenticeship was put on hold and he spent the next five years taking work wherever he could find it. The job hunt brought him west to B.C., where he did steel framing, and east to Saskatchewan, where he installed security systems.
“I just went all over the place, trying to find whatever opportunity I could. And the reality was those jobs were mostly contracts, and they almost never lasted long enough to receive benefits.”
Today, he’s back in Alberta but still struggling to find a steady job. On a good week, he says he’ll get 35 hours of work, but he’s earning about $3 per hour below the poverty line. He’s putting off having children because he can’t “in good conscience” make that decision until he has a more stable income.
On top of it all, he’s troubled by an accusation that is sometimes is lobbed toward young men in his position — that they’re entitled authors of their own destiny.
There’s a stereotype of the unemployed Alberta man as a high school dropout who took a job in the oilpatch, spent recklessly during the boom times, had no plan for the inevitable bust and is now unwilling to work the jobs that are available to him at a fraction of the salary he used to earn.
But that’s not the situation Schell sees — in his own life or those of his peers.
“I don’t understand how we can be looked at as asking for too much when we can’t afford to have a house,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
‘There’s a lot of guys like me’
Tyler Palma is from Warner, Alta., a small village southwest of Lethbridge.
He’s a 24-year-old apprentice carpenter and a father of two. After being laid off in January, he struggled for months to find work, until eventually landing a job in Calgary, a three-hour drive away.
“So I was paying my mortgage in Warner, as well as paying rent in Calgary, just trying to make money to survive.”
He recently found work closer to home, but says finances are still a struggle.
It’s really hard. I’m trying to raise two girls and I just try to make money to make ends meet.– Tyler Palma
“It’s really hard. I’m trying to raise two girls and I just try to make money to make ends meet.”
He, too, has heard the stereotypes about the entitled Albertan who expects great pay for little work and feels they’re unfair.
“I expected nothing, and I worked my butt off, and I got nothing,” he said.
Still, if he has one regret, it’s not finishing university. He now sees the consequences of that decision both in his own life and those of people around him.
“There’s a lot of guys like me,” he said. “Our schooling, I don’t think it prepares us, even if we do finish high school. Because I did, and I was not prepared for university whatsoever. I dropped out because I couldn’t handle it. I was not prepared for the workload.”
‘No simple solution’
Richard Bucher, a Calgary-based career coach, doesn’t want to sugarcoat the situation facing many young men in Alberta today, or offer the same advice they’ve likely already heard over and over.
“I’m sure everybody in this population has heard from almost everyone in their life: ‘Hey, why don’t you look at the trades?'” he said. “Like it’s the magic pill to solve all our problems.”
The reality, for many, is more complicated than that. Retraining is a good option, of course, but hard to afford if you’re already struggling to make ends meet.
But Bucher said there are numerous programs at various colleges in Alberta that are publicly funded and aimed at retraining people in fields looking for workers.
In addition, he said, there are ways to earn an income at the same time.
“Often those kinds of jobs have support roles that may not require as much training,” he said. “I’d be talking to companies that employ those kinds of people to see if there are more junior positions I could potentially compete for with the experience I already have.
“There is hope,” he added. “But this is going to be work. It’s not easy. There’s no simple solution to this problem.”
‘It just feels pretty dire’
For Leonard, the plan of building a career in IT seems more and more like a pipe dream. He, too, looks back on his education and feels it didn’t prepare him for the realities of adulthood.
“I wish, growing up, in high school or even junior high school, maybe we could have had a much more comprehensive look at this sort of stuff.”
He’s considering a return to post-secondary education, but wonders if it will be worth the time and expense. The alternative of working in a job he hates but that pays the bills doesn’t feel particularly appealing to him either. As he looks to the future, he doesn’t see any obvious path toward the type of life he hopes to build.
“It just feels pretty dire,” Leonard said.
But he’s not giving up.
“Where I go from here is, honestly, I’m just going to try to keep improving my skills … just, you know, keep working on myself, keep trying to improve myself day by day, until I can at least find a sort of life that works for me.”