Brandon Rheal Amyot was sweating while perusing summer job opportunities in February, realizing that opportunities weren't abundant.
The Lakehead University student watched something similar happen last year when job opportunities dried up as Canada went through its first summer of COVID-19.
Now, provinces are set to reopen economic activity and economists expect a hiring boom, but all that comes too late for students, Amyot said, noting employers have mostly filled positions, while other sectors just aren't hiring students as normal.
Student groups say that raises concerns about the ability for young people to earn enough to help cover tuition in the fall, or get a first job.
"This summer, unemployment is not quite as high as it was, but it's still an issue," said Amyot, with the Ontario wing of the Canadian Federation of Students.
"If you don't already have a co-op, or a placement that is paid, you're probably pretty strapped right now."
Amyot added the situation is acute for youth who typically face barriers to employment, such as Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community and recent immigrants.
Statistics Canada's latest jobs report said the unemployment rate for students returning to classes in the fall stood at 23.1 per cent in May, typically the month when post-secondary students start into summer work after wrapping their studies for the school year.
The data agency's report noted the unemployment rate last month for returning students was just over half of the 40 per cent recorded in the same month last year, but higher than the 13.7 per cent recorded in May 2019.
Behnoush Amery, a senior economist with the Labour Market Information Council, said youth aged 15 to 24 accounted for about two-fifths of the employment drop last month, marking yet another hit for a cohort nicknamed the "lockdown generation."
Young workers are generally the first to be laid off when times get tough, but often not the first to be rehired as they compete for fewer opportunities with more experienced workers, Amery said.
Many of the positions students occupy this time of year are in retail, tourism and other industries still affected by the pandemic, said Marley Gillies, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
She said federal funding to expand the summer jobs programs should help cushion the blow, but noted the need to expand eligibility criteria to capture older and international students.
May's employment report noted the situation was more dire for visible minority youth. Statistics Canada said their unemployment rate hit 24.8 per cent in May compared to the 14.9 per cent for non-visible minorities, not adjusted for seasonal variations.
Visible minority groups often face hurdles to finding work that are heightened by the economic situation in which the country finds itself, said Marie Dolcetti-Koros, national treasurer for the Canadian Federation of Students. She also said the jobs figures don't detail the quality of jobs marginalized youth often take on.
"Marginalized students and youth have survived the past year by working front-line jobs, which has also increased their exposure to COVID-19, just to stay afloat," she said.
A review of one now-scrapped federal program aimed at helping improve employment outcomes for those youth found that participants were more often able to find work, but they ended up earning less than peers who didn't go through the "skills link" program.
That contrasted to another program for recent graduates that showed higher incomes five years post-program, and a federal financial benefit in the form of more tax revenues and less spending on social supports.
"Being unemployed or unskilled in a high-income country such as Canada where labour demand is skill-intensive, puts youth at a distinct disadvantage," officials from Employment and Social Development Canada noted in "skills link" review.
The federal government overhauled the strategy in 2019, tying funding to groups on outcomes. A spokeswoman for Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the revamped strategy aims to be more flexible and enhanced, and tailored supports for youth facing barriers to employment.
Behind the immediate concerns about work for this summer are concerns far into the future. Studies have shown that graduates entering the labour market full time in a recession often have a long-term impacts on their careers and lifetime earnings.
"Not providing opportunities, not making investments in young people and in our communities will impact people's livelihood, health, well-being and have generational effects that will create additional barriers to obtaining post-secondary education and additional barriers to entering a job market," Dolcetti-Koros said.