Student summer job opportunities at Crown corporations dry up due to COVID-19

By | June 8, 2020

While the Manitoba government tries to create summer jobs in a pandemic with a $120 million fund, its own Crown corporations have eliminated nearly every opportunity for young people to find work within their organizations. 

Manitoba Hydro normally boasts a roster of 200 summer students, but only 11 people are lined up with work. 

The utility says it simply isn’t possible to run a robust summer program when employees are working from their own home, and the students are elsewhere.

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries chopped its summer program — which usually hires eight to 25 students — as it focuses on hiring back the workers it laid off.

And Manitoba Public Insurance ended six jobs for students who normally were tasked with promoting road safety at community events.

Career pathway severed

A summer job can be the ticket to a long career, said Victor Diduch, acting president of Unifor Local 681, which represents more than 300 workers at Manitoba Hydro.

“I know that the cuts [of] these kinds of programs are going to hurt Manitobans,” he said.

“A lot of people’s first job before they got into Hydro was a summer student … Now those opportunities are lost. Those are future employees that we might never get back.”

Premier Brian Pallister has spoken to the importance of summer jobs throughout the pandemic.

In announcing $120 million in funding to help businesses hire summer students, Pallister said he couldn’t have afforded university if not for jobs like being a farm labourer and working at the local recreation department.

In a statement, the province didn’t address the loss of summer employment at Crown corporations, but said the government is committed to helping the economy bounce back after closures.

Provincial employers have applied for a wage subsidy for more than 2,300 student positions, the government said.

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said the utility wishes it could offer summer jobs, but its hands are tied.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a challenge to summer student employment this year. Many summer student positions require direct supervision, physical presence at facilities, and direct interaction with mentors and employees,” he said in an email.

Students could have found work in engineering, technology, accounting, marketing, information technology, administration and general labour, according to Hydro’s website.

Mentorship from home lost

Mike Espenell, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034, which represents almost 2,300 Hydro workers, said the summer postings help the utility plan for the future. 

“We’re disappointed [to lose that this year], but I think I understand that it’s going to be very difficult to provide some of those students’ meaningful work and supervision,” considering the need for physical distancing.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said it was initially told Hydro’s summer employment program would have a reduced 160 students, but that number dropped significantly once the government told Hydro to cut back on labour costs.

Hydro said the cut to the summer employment program, however, was strictly due to the risks posed by COVID-19.

Last week, the utility announced 200 workers would be temporarily laid off, while more employee groups approved three unpaid days to stave off any layoffs.

Since many Manitoba Hydro employees have abandoned the utility’s downtown Winnipeg headquarters for their homes, there are fewer opportunities for the face-to-face contact of training and mentoring summer students. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Owing to the pandemic, the Crown corporation is also no longer accepting applications for the awards, bursaries and scholarships it hands out.

Neither is Hydro seeking candidates for its co-op program or funding awards supporting Indigenous students interested in a career with the utility.

The corporation didn’t answer last week whether these programs are still operating during the pandemic, only that new applications are barred “as we work through methods of handling applications in light of current work process changes.”

Liquor and Lotteries has paused co-op placements as well as various diversity programs, including Indigenous partnerships, because working from home isn’t conducive to training and mentorship, a spokesperson said. 

“This year, our focus is on trying to get Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries employees back into the workplace. At this time, we still have over 1,200 staff members laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds more working from home.”

Manitoba Public Insurance has saved $75,000 in salaries and expenses by cancelling the summer jobs that promoted road safety at community events.

MPI also put a stop to its internship program. Interns are normally mentored in person but now most staff are working from home, the insurer said.

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