Emira Refai-Gray was working on upgrading her workplace credentials when the pandemic hit, leaving her reliant on emergency benefits and wondering what to do next.
“I just wasn't prepared at all for the pandemic to happen, and I was unemployed, and I wasn't in school, and my confidence was at an all-time low,” the 21-year-old from Etobicoke recalled in a recent video interview.
She needed to take some high school courses required for the move into her preferred post-secondary course and was planning to work for a year to pay down her student loan before taking out another, but the public health restrictions in place for most of the last 16 months threw those plans into disarray.
“The pandemic hit and I was stuck because I didn't have any skills that I could use towards working in an online space,” said Refai-Gray, who had previously sold Blue Jays merchandise at the team's downtown Toronto stadium and worked as a cashier at a Loblaws grocery store.
“That was not the greatest time for me,” she recalled. “I just had to find ways to keep busy, I couldn't see my friends, I could just rely on my family. I stuck to myself, I played video games all the time.”
In the first couple of months of lockdown life, more than six in 10 people aged 15 to 34 said they had experienced a worsening of their mental health, more so than any other age group, according to Statistics Canada research on COVID-19’s impact on youth.
Younger people have also taken much longer to return to work since the pandemic, in part because they often earn their wages in retail and hospitality jobs that can’t be done remotely.
Employment among young women 15 to 24 years old was 14 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in February, compared to decreases of seven per cent for men in the same age range and two per cent for women and men aged 25 to 54. It remains 5.6 per cent below pre-pandemic levels for young women and 4.1 per cent lower for young men.
Such work is only now starting to return as provinces relax restrictions on restaurants, bars, retail stores and other commercial sites, leading to June’s biggest monthly increase in jobs for young workers since last July, according to the latest StatCan employment data (many of the gains were in part-time roles).
Moving on up
Refai-Gray didn’t wait around, and by this time last year, had been accepted into a 15-week technology training program for underserved young people.
“The pandemic hit and I was stuck because I didn't have any skills that I could use towards working in an online space,” says 21-year-old Emira Refai-Gray. #COVID #Jobs
Since completing the course offered by NPower Canada, she has been hired as an e-commerce co-ordinator at Mosaic North America, helping deliver the Digital Main Street initiative to get smaller companies online.
She has also advanced to an alumni program offered by NPower, attending afternoon sessions twice a week for its Google project management program, a fast-track credential the U.S. tech giant created to train people for entry-level tech jobs.
Google backed NPower to the tune of $2.5 million in early 2020, and in May, added to that with funding to deliver three years worth of its Google Career Certificate programs and 5,000 need-based scholarships to access it.
Refai-Gray is now looking beyond the pandemic to a return to campus life, starting a science degree in occupational health and safety in September and continuing her employment part-time.
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer