Saturday, 27 March 2010

Work experience – vital preparation for future employment or just an inexhaustible source of free labour?

It is a generally accepted fact that in order to secure appropriate employment, and by appropriate I mean a job that doesn’t involve serving burgers to overweight members of the public, one must undertake work experience of some sort. If you haven’t encountered it already, you will almost certainly be subjected to the hopelessness and misery that characterises this seemingly very modern form of exploitation, as indeed I am preparing to be, unless of course your family is incredibly rich and you can swan off and work for a charity or hold a position in your parents’ business with ‘flexible’ working hours. Now in principle, work experience is a fantastic concept, for it allows students, graduates and young adults in general to gain invaluable experience of the working world and the profession they wish to enter, or at least that’s what you put on the emails you send to the companies. The fact is that work experience is for the most part a beneficial experience, at least the first time. However especially in the precarious economic circumstances many people now find themselves, companies tend to see those work experience placements as able to be, shall we say, utilised without providing for them any monetary reward. To put it simply, students emerging from university with a 2:1 degree mark, having worked very hard to obtain said grade, wish for nothing more than to enter the profession of their choice, where generally speaking they would be prepared to put sufficient effort in to ensure they reach their career goals. Now I for one do not see any problem with such desires, in fact it should be the priority of every British government to ensure that this is the case. Instead work placements are a way of taking somebody on for a week, under the pretext of ‘gaining invaluable experience’ in order that they may contribute to the continuing success, or mediocrity in some cases, of the company. There is often no pay offered to those on placements, who it is taken for granted will work simply for the ‘honour’ of working for such an illustrious business establishment. Is this right? Well, unless you happen to be a staunch capitalist who believes trade unions are a bad thing and wishes for Victorian workhouses to make an unexpected comeback, then no. Of course it isn’t.

The scandal doesn’t end at the mere nature of work experience however, with a TUC report revealing that “one in three youngsters on work experience are given tasks for which they should be paid”, and confirming the suspicions of many that bosses are simply “taking on graduates desperate for jobs as interns and using them as free labour.” The above practice has been identified as “exploitation” by TUC boss Brendan Barber, who added "we must crack down on internships that offer hard graft for no reward.” Whilst Mr. Barber’s vision of a brave and fairer new world will strike a chord with many young adult victims of the work experience lottery, they are unlikely to bring about the sweeping changes that are needed to create a just system. This is because big-city or even local bosses are far more concerned with profit margins, the make of car they drive and how often they can get out of the office to play a quick 18 holes, rather than the welfare of their employees and equality of opportunity. The work placement nightmare may induce many graduates to brand their often hard-earned and always expensive degrees pointless, a fact that will surely be of concern to a government for whom educational expansion was a key tenet of the reform programme.

So what can be done then? Well unless a sudden wave of morality were to wash over those who subject innocent, fresh-faced young adults to the demoralising effects of work placements, you can be sure that for years to come the current malaise will sadly continue. Having said this, the effects of the recession upon this particular situation cannot be underestimated. Many companies have been forced to shut branches, factories and warehouses, tens of thousands of employees have been laid off, millions are struggling to make ends meet, and hundreds of CEO’s have seen their annual bonuses tragically cut from seven to six-figures. As such it has not been the prerogative of most companies to provide large numbers of graduates with paid employment, as it may well be during a time of economic prosperity and growth. However something must be done to stop the exploitation of naïve graduates and current students, looking to gain experience initially but eventually just desperate to be afforded the remuneration they deserve for the work they have done. One would hope that the experiences of those responsible for allocating positions to applicants would remember the difficulties they faced in their younger years, attempting to climb the employment ladder and achieve their dreams. A utopian vision I’m sure you’d agree, but one that for the future of our society should be implemented sooner rather than later, unless they really do want us all to be working at McDonalds.

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