At every new publication of the UK job figures unemployment amongst young people of 16-24 seems to be rising. Government schemes to offer work experience to young people on benefits have earned derision in the press with young people working up to 30 hours a week, stacking shelves for places like Tesco and making no money at all. While many rightly deplore the idea that profit-making companies like Tesco, Poundland and Sainsburys should benefit from free labour by young people claiming public benefits the political debate has invariably turned negative, questioning whether young people today ‘know the meaning of work’ or are ‘job snobs’, eschewing perfectly reasonable jobs which are ‘beneath them’ or only a bus ride away.
As a young jobseeker I find it hard to take these comments seriously. I have both volunteered and worked in paid employment and in each domain I noticed how the people of my own age were far better at turning up on time and going the extra mile than the older workers whose positions were either more secure or who were not relying upon the experience gained to propel them into the job-market. To say that today’s youngsters have less of an understanding of work than their parents or grandparents is unthinking and patronising. Unlike their parents or grandparents, many young jobseekers today are in the unfortunate position of being forced to work for no money at all before they can hope of finding a proper job.
With a glut of people on the job-market employers are frequently saying that they don’t just value qualifications but experience. Young people, just out of study, are in the unenviable position of being unable to get a job due to a lack of experience, and being unable to get experience because they can’t get a job. Enter the many-headed beast of ‘Work Experience’.
For the generations of yesteryear work experience might just have meant a week making tea in a local office before they went and sat their GCSEs. For young people today it can mean months of preparation and applications to huge multinationals, trying to find an internship for their university holidays. For others who took part in the government scheme it could once have meant the threat of losing their benefits and only income unless they worked three months for no money at all alongside paid staff. It seems that whatever end of the social spectrum, and whatever level of education, young people are finding that prolonged periods of unpaid work experience are the only way to make themselves employable.
Work experience can be a brilliant thing for a young person. It can provide a fantastic glimpse into their chosen industry, a chance to impress employers, to learn what kind of job they’d like to do and give them an idea of how to get there. Not only have I found it to be a necessary addition to any CV, some work experience can be an absolute godsend, allowing you to take on tasks and responsibilities which you may never have got the chance to do in your first job. For employers it can be a way of finding someone they’d like to hire and for charities it can be a great way of gaining labour and helping young people develop their skills in the workplace.
This doesn’t just apply to internships at investments bank or admin assistance in a charity. Whatever job you do, and whatever you want to end up working at, being able to tell a future employer that you turned up on time every day, worked hard and took a pride in what you did shows that any form of work experience can be a real benefit. If nothing else it allows youngsters to learn about how they work, the transferable skills they can develop and the kind of job they might want to look for. But whether they want to end up in a corporate role, a manufacturing job or just in something with a steady income, young people need employers to somehow give them a chance. So work experience can be a good compromise for both sides: while the employer is under no obligation to provide a full salary or permanent job, young people have the chance to impress, to gain a few lines for their CV and to prove that they are capable of entering the world of work.
But while I would never talk down the benefits of work experience I do feel for those who, like me, have worked hard to get through school or university and now find themselves having to work for free in a harsh job-market. After weeks of job-hunting I wasn’t craving a high powered, careerist position and turning down anything less than that, rather I found that all I wanted was the chance of getting a bit of money in my pocket and to stop living off my savings or relying on my parents for handouts. While work experience is a massive benefit for young people it can also be galling to work for a long time for absolutely nothing.
Perhaps it would be different if each bout of work experience had the promise of a paid job at the end of it, but for those who come to the end of something like the government’s scheme, or who have spent months working in various unpaid internships, this has seldom been the case. And that is where the whole practice of work experience is really letting young people down: work is no longer the way to gain financial independence and give them a sense of worth, it’s something they have to do, for someone else in the hope that eventually someone will pay them.
A few months ago I was lucky enough to get a temporary, paid position. Apart from being a job I enjoy what’s so nice about this fleeting brush with paid work is that I receive some money in my bank account every month. It’s gratifying, not just to be able to work hard at something you enjoy, but to have someone think that it’s good enough to be paid for. What becomes so horrible about work experience after a while is not just that you need a bit of money, but that your time seems worthless, and much less valuable than the time of other people who happen to be in paid jobs.
While these young people on the government’s scheme can at least draw on social benefits they are nonetheless stuck with no more money than they had before, reportedly doing the same job as fully-paid staff. But though I don’t think that the government scheme to offer young people work experience is all bad, it will need refinement if work experience is to be a fair deal for the young people who undertake it. As well as offering them the chance to get a taste of work, companies and the government should recognise the value they can bring and not just see them as slothful husks who need to be ‘taught’ how to work. If a person is to do a proper job for a company who can afford to offer them a daily wage then they deserve to be paid for that, even if it is not anywhere near what the company would offer its proper employees. That is where the balance between the organisation and the volunteer must be redressed: it’s not just about doing a proper day’s work but about being able to earn a proper day’s pay.