What am I going to do next? Part 5

Work and Work Experience

Dave Gardner

The biggest difficulty in getting employed lies in getting work experience to show an employer that you are able to work effectively. Evidence suggests that young people’s entry into employment is often complicated, characterised by part time and temporary jobs, volunteering and internships as a way of getting a foothold in the labour market. Almost by definition, young people at school are unable to do this unless they have had some work experience. This is why, in the first article in this series, I stressed the importance of providing a job guarantee to every young person. But such work will be unskilled or semiskilled and although having worked is invaluable in getting further employment, young people also need qualifications and know-how if they are to build careers or even to get well-paid and satisfying work. Well-connected and wealthy young people can get internships (sometimes very well paid), but that is not an option for the great majority of young people.

There are different routes into employment, but nearly all of them involve some experience of the workplace. Apprentices are basically junior employees with limited responsibilities who are also learning on and off the job. Other kinds of vocational qualifications involve work placements with less responsibility, but the young people are students not employees. Internships are like apprenticeships but without any structured learning, and emergency schemes to provide work experience, like Kickstart, run the danger of leaving young people as dogsbodies at the beck and call of employers and other employees with little meaningful to do in the workplace and thus a poor preparation for a working life. What is more, the current Kickstart work experience programme has a very low take-up, illustrating the importance of creating new jobs for young people. 

It is evident that there are different kinds of work experience, some good, some bad and some indifferent. What do young people get out of work experience? In some cases they get paid, in some cases they get paid and learn to practice a well thought of occupation. Good apprenticeships are popular but often hard to come by in the area where people live. Working without learning can provide the experience of the adult world and its disciplines and satisfaction that gives young people dignity and a sense of responsibility and so is a great deal better than nothing. Some young people, who have never had responsibilities and have not worked at school for some years and are not used to taking orders, find work or an apprenticeship too much of a challenge. They need some acclimatising experience of the workplace before they can engage with the responsibility of an apprenticeship. 

So what does work experience offer? It offers at least the following:

Basic self-discipline in a working environment

An entry into adult life and responsibility 

A sense of dignity, worth and respect by others

Intergenerational companionship

The possibility of putting theory gained in a classroom into practice in the workplace

Encountering significant experiences and being able to learn from them.

For an inexperienced young man or woman lacking in confidence, good work experience can be like gold dust, setting them up for life. No or bad work experience can have long term scarring effects leading to long spells of unemployment, dissatisfaction in the workplace, the inability to build a career and a general cynicism about employers and employment. Even an adherent to ‘household economics’ should recognise the long term economic cost of failing to provide work and good quality vocational education and training that includes work experience. The ‘household economist’ might consider loss of taxes, expenditure on benefits and longterm expenses of poor health, unemployment and encounters with the law. This is something that Labour should advocate ‘throwing the kitchen sink’ at, so important is it for the future lives of young people. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge in providing work experience for young people is the shortage of opportunities that employers are able or willing to provide. It is not possible to provide apprenticeships or the new-fangled T level qualification (which I will discuss in a future article)  if there is no quality work or work experience to go with it. But it would be a mistake to just blame employers for this. When you take a young person on in your workplace you take on a lot of responsibility at the same time and that can be a distraction from your business. If the government is going to rely on a major increase in work experience as a means of transition into adulthood and the workplace it is going to have to do a lot more than it currently does to ensure that employers can support young people. Money is part of but by no means the whole answer. 

Employers, especially in smaller firms and organisations, do not often have the resources, staff or expertise to provide a good experience for young people, even if they have the best of intentions. The government is very keen on promoting work experience so it is only right that they should provide firms with the support that they need to give young people good experiences. This would include helping to deal with administration, advice on safety and above all how to mentor young people  as well as to providing them with opportunities to learn and to socialise with older and more experienced workers. It doesn’t look as if those behind the Tory reforms (see part 3 of this series) really appreciate this, so it is something that Labour needs to look at closely.

As for apprenticeships, they are daunting to offer, especially for small and medium sized businesses and far too many of them are currently being used to enhance the qualifications of already highly qualified employees. They are very far from being an option for the great mass of young people who do not wish to go to university and will continue to be a fairly remote option unless government does a great deal more to offer businesses support, and not just in terms of money but with administration, mentoring and liaison with the Colleges that support the apprenticeship.

National Military Service was abolished in 1960. One of the arguments of its advocates was that it eased the transition into adult life by developing attitudes suitable for working life and promoted social mixing. One may have a degree of scepticism about that, but the idea that the state takes some responsibility for helping young people make the transition to adulthood is not that stupid. But in any case, there should be opportunities for employment for any young person should they want it and they should be properly supported and mentored. Part of any job guarantee that Labour advocates should include special provision for young people so that they are properly looked after and guided. The work need not be especially skilled, but it should be meaningful and provide the confidence and experience to embark on the next stage, whether it be an apprenticeship, another job or a course of some kind. As argued in Part One of this series there is plenty of work that needs to be done. The government and local authorities need to make an inventory of it and to ensure that there is a ready ‘buffer stock’ of jobs for this purpose.

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