Work Experience or Slavery?

mechanic 750One of the hot debates of the week has been the government’s planned introduction of compulsory, unpaid work experience for job seekers. Is this a genuine attempt to help people find work or are the big companies involved just taking advantage of the free labour? I have to say I’m sceptical about the system although I do think there has to be more done to support people looking for work than just paying benefits. For a work experience system to work and be sustainable it has to deliver some value to everyone involved.

I had to do a fortnight of work experience when I was 15. At the time I was planning on studying law so I found a firm of solicitors that would take me. I spent quite a lot of the time I was with them making tea, answering the phone, photocopying and filing but in between these riveting tasks I also got to accompany a solicitor on two trips to the Magistrates Court and go with one of the partners when they were appearing in the County Court. I also got to sit in on quite a few interviews with clients and the solicitors were all really happy to chat to me afterwards and answer any questions I had.

They obviously didn’t give me a job at the end of it but I got some experience of a field I wanted to work in, something I could put on my uni applications, some interesting things to talk about in my interviews and a reference I could use while looking for jobs while still in school. In exchange for the time they took to organise it the company got some help with their admin. I’d consider that a pretty fair trade. In fact if anything I got the better deal.

So if that’s a good example of work experience being of benefit to both parties how does this scheme compare?

On the plus side they are saying that roughly 50% of people are offered a job at the end of the period of work experience which is an undeniably impressive success rate. It might also go some way to addressing employer’s concerns about employing someone that is currently unemployed if they can demonstrate they reliably turned up for work everyday for eight weeks.

Most of the companies that I’ve heard are taking part are in retail or fast food so possibly not the areas of most people’s career dreams but both have a variety of corporate and customer service roles and significant opportunities for progression so if people are going to get experience of the different aspects of how these companies run it could be a genuinely interesting opportunity to learn about possible careers.

So young people have an interesting few weeks, prove they can be valuable reliable team members and hopefully get a job at the end. On that basis (and given that people will continue to receive their benefits while on the placement) doing some actual work like stacking some shelves or manning a checkout while they are there doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it? It’s certainly far from slavery as one girl has claimed.

But will that ideal scenario actually be what happens? Will participants get that well thought out programme of experience in different departments or will they just be shoved into a uniform and put to work for free with the minimal amount of training? Will this opportunity be given to those motivated young people who are just lacking work experience or will it be used to weed out those that job centre staff don’t think are really trying to find a job with the hope that they won’t manage to complete the placement so their benefits can then be stopped?

Until there is more clarity around who can be involved, how ‘compulsory’ it will be and what the penalties will be for failure I’m not sure that this programme can possibly be fair.

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