Unpaid ‘work experience’ is a depressing solution to youth unemployment
Is it really fair for Tesco to get free workers?
I was relatively lucky when I graduated. I only worked unpaid for around six weeks – four weeks at a think tank and two weeks here – before a newspaper started paying me to write. Lucky, because that was near enough as long as I could afford to stay in London. Had I been forced to wait much longer, I would probably have gone home to Birmingham to find a job in a bar to save money. Most likely, I would have given up on my hopes of working in journalism to go into a well-paying job in management consultancy or law, as many of my friends have.
“Diddums” would no doubt be the reaction of many readers to that predicament, and they’re right – City jobs are hardly so bad. But the reason I would have taken one of those jobs is that big City employers, unlike most, still take untrained, inexperienced graduates, at least if you have the right degree. But if you want to find a job in the media, in politics, in the charitable sector, or in essentially anything else, up to and including serving in a bar, you need experience. It’s the classic Catch-22 situation: to get experience, you need a job, but to get a job, you need experience. The solution, inevitably, is that people end up working for free.
Until recently, this practice was at least limited to relatively affluent young graduates, but as the furore over welfare reform this week has demonstrated, it now extends to all young people – indeed, it is now Government policy to help people to find unpaid work. On the Today Programme this morning, John Humphrys interviewed a 20-year-old man, Iain Irving, who got a job after working for two months for free at a furniture-making store. “It worked out well, I got a job out of it at the end, two months they took me on, and after that, they were pleased with my work, so they took me,” he said. “This is my first real job, and before this, I wasn’t really able to get a job”.
Irving’s experience of unpaid work experience was clearly a good one, like mine was, and countless others of our generation. Given an opportunity, he proved himself worthy of a position. Now, when nearly a quarter of our contemporaries are unemployed, and more still hiding from the labour market by taking unwanted university courses, he is a productive member of society.
But the man who followed him on the radio clearly also had a point: there is something uncomfortable about asking people to work for free, even if (perhaps especially if) they are claiming benefits as they do it. Big companies like Tesco get essentially free labour, subsidised by the taxpayer. Meanwhile, workers are paid a wage equivalent to far less than the minimum wage to get experience that previous generations would have been learned on the job.
Based on his piece in today’s Mail, Iain Duncan Smith would no doubt say that I’m a “job snob” for saying that. As he writes, Sir Terry Leahy, formerly the CEO of Tesco, “started life scrubbing floors at a Tesco store in his school holidays.” But my problem is not with people who want to work scrubbing floors in Tesco – it is with people who think that they should do it for free. It is deeply depressing that work which isn’t particularly rewarding to do shouldn’t even be rewarding financially either. Even if you think that work experience is better than no work experience, it’s still an awful conclusion.
As I wrote earlier this month, raw economics is driving this. The market value of unskilled labour is falling fast, as sheer brawn has to compete with ever-cleverer computers and badly paid Chinese or Indian workers. But there is another problem specific to this country which makes things worse. Employers have little incentive to take on inexperienced staff and train them, because as soon as they are experienced, they can leave and find work elsewhere. In a recession, when businesses are shrinking, it is particularly difficult for the inexperienced, as there are so many more experienced workers floating around.
The solution our Government proposes is a combination of job subsidies, a minimum wage freeze and ever more “work experience”. In straitened times, perhaps those are the only options. But a better solution would involve real training. Elsewhere, Conservatives attack the “levelling down” mentality – I would like to hear more about how we are levelling up young workers to jobs, rather than levelling down the jobs to their skills.
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