There were times Alkiie Froman skipped a meal in order to pay the bus fare to get to a professional development event, and the chair of First Work’s youth council is grateful that COVID-19-era youth don’t have to make the same sacrifice.

But Froman also acknowledges what the young people who attend the youth employment service provider's Aspire virtual jobs summit next week will miss out on: the direct interactions and bad coffee of real-world experiences the pandemic has made impossible.

“In one aspect, it is doing away with limitations,” Froman said. “If this was a brick-and-mortar-type setting in a conference hall, there are so many youth that have a disadvantage in getting there.”

While the roughly 250 young participants will not be able to grab some minutes with a speaker by the side of the podium for an introduction and a word of advice, Froman is confident the online version will provide direction in uncertain times.

“We are all stuck in limbo,” she said in a phone interview, adding that front-line colleagues say youth they work with are feeling fatigued and frustrated by more than seven months of restrictions and uncertainty.

“They don't know where to go, they don't know who to ask or what to ask,” she said. “There’s a little bit of fear when it comes to ‘What do we do next with our future?’

“Nobody wants to go to school for years and graduate and be told that your job that you chose has now dissipated and no longer exists because of the pandemic,” she said.

Young people are finding it much harder than older workers to regain jobs lost to COVID-19 or find new ones, Statistics Canada data shows, and the tightening restrictions the provincial Doug Ford government is enforcing to address a second wave of infections will likely also hit them especially hard.

Froman said it seemed self-evident that Canada would want to encourage young workers to join the health sector and get into trades and construction, and that she personally thinks more support should be made available for social services and education workers.

The schedule for the Oct. 28 event for Ontario youth includes breakout sessions on getting into a trade, seeking out grants, the value of volunteering for career advancement and how to replicate mentorship online.

“In our experience growing up, we would get those simple part-time jobs,” says the 29-year-old Froman, who returned to Canada from studying global economics in Ireland at the start of the pandemic. “We are starting to see those part-time jobs disappear or become too much of a burden, so we're advocating for volunteering.”

First Work’s virtual jobs conference next week aims to provide the tools to help marginalized youth navigate the already perilous path to finding meaningful work, a task upended by COVID-19.

Froman said the goal is to expose young people to networking opportunities to which they may not otherwise have access.

“We have a lot of people who are second-generation Canadians, a lot of people who are refugees and asylum seekers, a lot of Indigenous youth, and other minority and marginalized groups, LGBTQ,” she said of the target audience for the summit. “A lot of the people that have a hard time manoeuvring to begin with because of social barriers that have been in place for them for so long.”

Alkiie Froman, the chair of First Work's youth council, says young people are eager to learn how they can best prepare for work in the wake of COVID-19. Photo via First Work

Speakers will include representatives from trade groups for the homebuilding and automotive industries along with one of the small number of women working in the trades and federal Liberal MP and former Olympian Adam van Koeverden.

“We want them to be engaged, to ask questions,” Froman says of the workshop format. “We can't read minds, especially through a computer.”

She expects many will want to know how companies and industries are adapting to the pandemic, what safety net they have created and what they are doing to confront the climate crisis.

It is programming led by young people and designed to empower youth to see themselves through this ongoing economic, health, climate and social justice crisis, First Work says.

“We're trying to help them out as much as we can, even though we are still figuring it out,” Froman said.

Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer