Too posh to shelve?

‘What a snotty so-and-so. She seemed to say that she shouldn’t stack shelves because she was too intelligent.’

That was the reaction of Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, to one of the critics of his ‘work experience scheme’. Ministers and others have been out across the media in the last few days pushing this view. When I asked a question about this back in November I got a similar brush off.

The government has backed off a bit by saying that in the ‘Get Britain Working Work Experience Scheme’ sanctions will no longer be applied to those dropping out. Some employers too are moving towards making their schemes more of a ‘work trial’ scheme and/or offering payment.

So it was disappointing to see some of the comments from the left – like Peter Watt in Labour Uncut and Paul Richards on LabourList – claiming that by criticising such schemes we were, in Paul’s words at least  condemning thousands to a life on the dole.

Is work experience always a bad thing – absolutely not! But what we have to get back to is the purpose of all of this. Work experience is supposed to help people become more employable. At its basic level it can be a ‘taster’ of what it is like to work, to come in at a fixed time and follow a routine, for those who’ve never worked or have not done so for a very long time. It can be an introduction to different types of workplace to give people ideas of where they might be able to find jobs (much school ‘work experience’ is of the latter kind – a week in a work not school environment).

But going back to the critic lambasted by Iain Duncan Smith, she had done shopwork on several previous occasions, as holiday jobs etc. She didn’t need a four-week shelf stacking experience to tell her what to do. She would be immediately ‘qualified’ for any ‘proper’ shop jobs going – although perhaps as a university graduate she might find herself being turned down on the grounds of being overqualified by firms who fear such employees won’t stick around long. Now one can argue the separate issue of whether she should have been applying for such paid employment (should people on benefit apply for any job not just those they are qualified for?) but it is highly doubtful that four weeks of ‘work experience’ of this kind was going to add to her employability.

Then there is the big question mark over large, and highly profitable firms potentially being able to use the unpaid work of successive ‘work experience’ people to do jobs others would normally be paid for. There are only so many shelves that can be filled and labels stuck on, so if there are these extra pairs of hands around who is now ‘surplus’ to requirements? People on ‘zero hours’ or ‘low hours’ contracts who would like extra hours if available may well be missing out.

The government keeps asserting that this scheme has been successful in placing half the participants in jobs. But despite the scheme running for a year no actual statistics have been published on outcomes. Tesco have said that of 1,400 participants 400 got jobs. Of course some might have got jobs elsewhere. But without real data we have no means of knowing. I’ve just submitted a written parliamentary question asking for figures.

There can be very useful work experience. In Edinburgh, initially at Gracemount High School and later in others we devised a scheme (called JET) for pupils likely to reach schoool leaving age with no qualifications (often due to very poor attendance). The school curriculum was reduced to three days in the week, with one day of work experience across the whole school year and one day in college doing training relevant to the work placement.

For people with health issues or disabilities a ‘work experience’ placement can help build confidence – and at the same time overcome employer hesitations about employing people with additional needs. There are specialist employment organisations who have very good programmes in place, but they need to be well structured and supported.

And above all else in the current economic climate let’s not forget that no matter how good the training there just aren’t the jobs out there. The government’s emphasis on schemes like this as being ‘the answer’ to unemployment neatly shift the responsibility onto the unemployed themselves.

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Sheila Gilmore is MP for Edinburgh East

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Photo: Kate Boydell

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