“Have you ever swept a floor before?” asked my new superior, a unibrowed high school student proudly wearing a shirt that read “I pwn noobs.” He was in charge of my training at the latest of a string of minimum wage jobs. “Because you obviously don’t know how to do it the right way,” he continued. “Do you have any work experience?”
I’m 22 years old, and I have a Bachelors of Arts Honours degree from the University of Toronto, where I majored in English Literature and German History. In the past four years I’ve worked in offices and restaurants, and garnered four Dean’s List certificates. Yet I’ve been in the trenches of job searching for a few months now. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Graduating from university is scary; graduating into a recession is even scarier. But all the warnings that I overheard during my university years didn’t even begin to prepare me for the reality of the job market. My advice to current students: lower your expectations. It’s all downhill from here.
Us university graduates are often from middle-class families, where we were born into privilege and viewed education as a given. But we’re a generation that has to face the daunting possibility that we will never achieve the financial or economic security that we grew accustomed to as children. While many of our baby-boomer parents jumped up an economic class from their families, it’s quite possible that we’ll have to abandon the upper and middle classes for a working class existence.
The past few months on the job search have taught me to take less for granted while simultaneously being more wary. There’s a lot of shadiness out there, from illegal unpaid training shifts to temp agencies that demand commission before placing you in a job. The best defence is a good offence, and that’s gained by knowing your rights and deciding what you will and won’t settle for.
Just by browsing through the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s website, I’ve realized that a fair number of the employment opportunities I’ve been offered have been illegal. Even simple laws such as a mandatory 30-minute break for every five consecutive hours worked are often violated in the service industry. And if you work more than 44 hours in a work week, you qualify for overtime—meaning all subsequent hours are time and a half.
Temporary employment placement agencies are another risky business. A great number of office or administrative positions are filtered through temp agencies, and joining one is a helpful way to get a leg up on the competition. But know your rights—there are some sketchy-ass agencies out there. It’s illegal for a temp agency to charge you for joining their organization, and they can charge commission only once they have placed you in an employment opportunity. They are also not allowed to charge you for providing you with information about a company or for prepping you for a job interview—places will actually try to do this! By law, a temp agent has to inform you of the salary of the position, including benefits, hours of work, pay period, and complete contact information of the position of employment so you can contact them if you have any further questions.
Minimum wage in Ontario right now is $9.50, but it’s going up on March 31 to $10.25. The minimum wage for alcohol servers is $8.25, and is rising to $8.90. Make sure you remind prospective employers about the increase, because many will be conveniently ignorant of the change. When you come across an employment violation, confront the employer about it and report it to the Ministry of Labour.