The story of youth employment in Toronto is not a happy read.

“My first job was bussing tables.”

“My first job was working cash at Tim Horton’s.”

“Mine was babysitting.”

First-job tales filled the hallways of Centennial College this week. It was all part of Ready, Aim, Hire, an employment conference spearheaded by students, for students. Five panelists led the discussion, each with their own area of expertise: a municipal politician, an entrepreneur, a CEO, an economist, and a current student. There was only one item on the agenda: getting youth into the workplace. So, after a night of venting, brainstorming, and support, here are the five takeaways from the conference:

How do you get experience when the “experience” requires you to have experience?

It’s the timeless chicken-and-egg argument. How can you get experience if you don’t have the experience you need to get the experience? It’s standard these days to see an “entry-level” job demanding a requisite three to five years of experience from applicants. So what’s a new grad to do?

Well, don’t be intimidated by the requirement list. Mandatory criteria are not like the Ten Commandments; they are flexible, and sometimes even negotiable, the political panelist explained. Go into an interview prepared to talk about the strengths you do have—the ones that’ll make up for your lack of experience.

Unemployed vs. underemployed

The youth unemployment rate in Toronto is hovering around 18 percent. But the number of youth employed is about 42 percent. The difference, the economic analyst explained, comes down to how you define employment. It’s one thing to have a job that gives you shift work at minimum wage; it’s another to have a salaried position with benefits and three weeks of vacation every year. The first statistic takes into account the former, and the second does not. Precarious jobs are the bane of university grads’ existence and the greatest gift to politicians looking to cast a better light on youth employment.

Find a way to connect

The common thread with many employment conferences is that they digress into the land of self-help, which can make you feel good at the time, but doesn’t give you a lot of tangible new information to take back to the real world. Inevitably, the conversation at Ready, Aim, Hire veered into Oprah territory, but there were a few solid tips that came out of it.

The most original idea was “The List of 67.” The idea came from a now-CEO who moved to Toronto a few years into her career and needed to make connections. So she started the List of 67: if she focused on making sixty-seven connections in Toronto, that should be enough for her to find a job.

Long story short, she didn’t need to make it to the sixty-seventh person.

Dealing with the dreaded gap

There is no denying that an employment gap is a hard thing to explain away. Sadly, it’s something that’s appearing more and more frequently on youth resumes. It’s not impossible to get over, but it has to be handled in the right way.

First and foremost, said the student panelist, try to do something, anything, during the time you aren’t working. Whether it’s learning a new skill, taking a class, or volunteering, anything you can do during a dry spell helps to mitigate the stigma. Everybody can find something constructive to do. It may not be the job you wanted, or the thing you thought you’d learn, but it’s a talking point for the interview and that’s the whole point.

Write it down

Have you ever noticed how writing a “to-do” list helps to motivate you to get your work done? It’s time to think bigger than groceries. Sometimes, one of the best ways to achieve your goals is to make them tangible. One of the panelists, the entrepreneur, swore by his notebook, a hardcover black Moleskine filled with neat printing and drawings. The entrepreneur has kept a notebook since he was a teenager; he has written down, worked toward, and then crossed off every goal he’s ever had.

Record your goals on paper, keep them somewhere you can look at several times a day—your pocket, car, or wall—and see how long it takes to cross off each item.

The most inspiring moment of the evening was when we watched a video made by students on the stories of youth employment. The young woman on camera, Viktoria, sat talking about the role of youth in the workforce. “Young people have a voice, and it’s pretty strong,” she said.

“And we shouldn’t be afraid to want more than what we are offered.” 

Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute