By Fabio Crespin

A job matching system is just a Band-Aid. We need to move to an integrated workforce development model that supports youth facing multiple barriers

I believe the solution comprises two main pillars: acknowledging specific barriers and targeting them accordingly (moving away from generic approaches), and investing heavily in meaningful and lasting interventions (moving away from Band-Aid, superficial programs and activities).

For almost three years, I have been managing a portfolio of workforce development initiatives in Toronto and York Region that aim to transition youth (in our case, 17-29) facing multiple barriers (YFMB) into the labour market.

And who are YFMB?

According to a recent study from the Conference Board of Canada, more than one in seven Canadian children live in poverty. To put that into perspective, that’s 1,334,930 Canadian children in need.

In 2011, youth 15-24 represented 13% of the total population in Toronto and 26.1%[i] of them (a bit more than one in four) lived in poverty / low-income households (a low-income household yearly income is $35.500 or less – half of the Canadian $71,000 annual median income).

YFMB are primarily from this economic extract of our society.

It is also true that although poverty and its associated barriers to employment could indeed impact any youth in our country, some youth populations are far more affected by barriers then others including[ii]: youth from low-income backgrounds and living in poverty, Indigenous youth, racialized youth, youth in conflict with the law, newcomer youth, youth in and leaving the care system, LGBTTQ2 (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit and queer) youth, and youth with disabilities or special needs.

Several indicators support the fact above including higher (than average) unemployment rates for youth from these populations, lower levels of educational attainment, higher levels of incarceration rates, higher levels of young age pregnancy, higher incidence of substance abuse and mental health challenges and others.

There is no doubt that some of the barriers faced by these populations are systemic and, for some people, a trap that it is very difficult to overcome.

I believe the solution comprises two main pillars: acknowledging specific barriers and targeting them accordingly (moving away from generic approaches), and investing heavily in meaningful and lasting interventions (moving away from Band-Aid, superficial programs and activities).

During these past years, I had the privilege of learning from different sources that included brilliant colleagues, conferences and training opportunities (courtesy of an extremely supportive workplace), directly from field experts, researchers and practitioners and especially from our own portfolio of initiatives and experiences.

And what are some of the most valuable learnings that I could share?

The full spectrum of youth facing barriers

It is fundamental that we keep paying attention and supporting the transition of those youth completing post-secondary education as some of them are facing relevant barriers to entering the labour market such as lack of work-related networks, disconnect from what was learned in school and the reality of the industry, poorly developed soft skills and a far more competitive job market in general.

That said, it is also fundamental that we start investing much more strongly in equipping and supporting those youth who are even further from the shore and who in most cases, are not pursuing any form of post-secondary education (in 2011, 29.1% of Toronto District School Board high school graduates did not apply to any form of post-secondary education).

Low educational attainment is increasingly becoming the largest barrier to employment.

Although there are certainly trends that impact all youth populations (such as employment precarity, automation and late retirement), if we don’t differentiate needs and develop interventions accordingly, we perpetuate a system that primarily serves those who are closer to the labour market leaving those who are further away, bouncing from one program to another.

It is also fundamental that our society becomes even more supportive and conscious of the need for interventions that will not necessarily lead to employment in the short run.

Some youth require other more intense interventions (before employment / training preparation) that will help them advance their “employability status” but this process will take time and deep investments.

Some individuals who have experienced foundational challenges including food and house insecurity, dysfunctional families, history of mental health and substance abuse, lack of at least one caring adult in their lives and other severe life circumstances (fleeing a war zone, experiencing challenges with the justice system and others), may require longer and more intense interventions in order to become “job ready”.

Very doable but it must have the correct and right dosage of supports.

We need to continue evolving our collective vision for even better supporting, equipping and transitioning to the labour market those young people who are not finding success in the existing model; from those who are completing post-secondary education and still struggling, all the way to those who are leaving the prison system.

The employment support system

We need to continue evolving our model from a job matching system (helping jobseekers to find jobs) to an integrated workforce development model (supporting jobseekers in their career development process).

This would include:

  1. Adopting a sector-based approach where service providers become even more specialized in economic sectors and occupations (rather than serving all sectors) allowing them to apply perhaps the most important shift of all: to work much more directly with employers, from better identifying labour market gaps and opportunities to equipping young jobseekers accordingly. The agents preparing the future workforce (schools, colleges and universities) and supporting the current jobseekers (the employment support system) need to start working with employers more closely, much earlier and much beyond the hiring process itself. In my opinion, we need to adopt a dual clientele service model where our clients are the students and jobseekers but, equally important, the employers.


  1. A co-ordinated system that better defines industry-recognized competencies and credentials that have real value for students, workers and employers. A system that more clearly identifies and articulates the knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviours and credentials that lead to career success.
  2. A comprehensive retention and advancement support system. As hard as it is to land a job, it is even harder to retain the one and advance accordingly.
  3. Evaluation tools and metrics that encourage greater collaboration between service providers could monitor long-term outcomes (long-term job retention and income / career advancement).

Impact of artificial intelligence and automation

Articles and studies about automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and disruptive businesses are in general not conclusive about the “net impact” (jobs created minus jobs eliminated) of such new technologies and innovations.

The fact is that the exact impact of such novelties in the workforce, is indeed unknown.

But one thing for sure, as a result of AI and automation, most entry-level positions that require minimum or no technical skills will continue to disappear.

The gap between those who have poorly developed / no technical skills and the labour market itself will continue to widen.

Capacity building and training

We need far more “learn and earn” type of workforce development initiatives.

We need to continue developing, diversifying and strengthening other more accessible, compact and faster avenues for capacity building and training other than the college, university and trades training options.

There is a need for a radical increase in the number of capacity building and training pathways that could more efficiently equip and integrate youth into the labour market and this would include:

  1. Adapting existing curriculums to different learning styles, making the ones more dynamic, concise and relevant to specific occupations.
  2. Developing more experiential learning opportunities, which are in several cases the best way for some to learn. When “in-class” technical training is also needed, a hybrid between faster “in-class” training and “hands-on” experiences is proving to be very efficient in providing those who are further from the labour market with good jobs.
  3. Increasing career laddering opportunities when training and work is interposed creates a system that allows a steady, monitored and supported career growth path. It also speaks to a relatively new concept of micro credentialing when credentials are obtained slowly and are carried on after the jobseeker transition into the first job is completed.
  4. Introducing / strengthening workforce development pathways that are sensitive and responsive to more specific needs, that is to say training models that are gender-conscious and also more sensitive to different populations (youth with disabilities, LGBTTQ2 youth, Indigenous youth, racialized youth and others).

The use of technology

Although technology can play a big role in increasing access to education and training, evidence shows that animated online training (by an instructor / trainer) in a modified classroom (community setting for example) can be far more effective for those who are experiencing barriers than studying in isolation.

Animating online curriculum allows instructors to create group dynamics and activities that facilitate learning and nurture peer support and healthy competition.

Technology can indeed be a great ally but can’t substitute a dedicated and invested instructor / teacher, the possibility of using classroom’s activities to “mimic the real world” and our need to develop connections and caring relationships, even while learning.

The collective approach

All the successful workforce development interventions (that measure the transition and long-term retention into the labour market) for young people facing barriers are multi-sectoral partnerships that involve different levels of governments, employers, the community services sector, educational institutions, workforce development agents and funders.

Unquestionably, the size and complexity of the youth unemployment issue deeply depends on a collaborative approach to gathering and applying evidence.

To summarize, we need to continue evolving towards a workforce development approach that challenges a system that relies on subsidies and other incentives for youth employment to a system that closes the gap between employers with real labour market opportunities and talented youth equipped with the skills and training required by job providers and ready to thrive in an ever-competitive labour market.

I would also like to acknowledge that although this article covers the issue of youth unemployment only, the same subject for adults in general is equally a critical challenge for our society.


Fabio Crespin is the Manager of Youth Initiatives at United Way Toronto & York Region. With a business administration degree, Crespin initially worked for an Austrian / Brazilian investment bank. Since 2001, he has been working in various capacities related to public and privately funded socio-economic development programs in areas such as entrepreneurship and business education, employment, immigrant and youth services.


[i] Toronto Community Data Program, 2011, National Household Survey City of Toronto.

[ii] As described in the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services’ strategic framework on youth and includes the populations who are most impacted by the barriers.