How to make work experience work
by Claudia Wood
I read with interest the response to Boris Johnson's latest workfare scheme, where unemployed 18-24 year old Londoners are given mandatory work experience to keep their benefits. In a nutshell, it was: 'if we insist on unpaid work experience, let jobseekers choose their placement'.
This idea is attempting to resolve the standard criticism of any government work placement scheme - they are poor quality, exploitative, and provide no real experience for participants to improve their employability. The usual example - as was used in the Guardian yesterday - was stacking shelves in Poundland.
Perhaps it's just an emotive example, but in reality stacking shelves in M&S wouldn't be much more fulfilling. And this is the point - doing any one task repetitively (stacking a shelf, filling a vending machine, giving an injection) doesn't give you a broad range of transferable skills to boost your employability.
As such, the latest idea to fix the poor quality problem - getting young people to find their own placement (as if they have a better chance of finding an employer willing to give them a good experience than the DWP) - isn't going to resolve the issue.
Also, more importantly, it wouldn't be fair. Getting decent work experience is often about who you know, not what you know, and those with the contacts or wherewithal to find a placement could end up sitting behind the counter at their mate's community café - their benefits secured, but getting no better experience (perhaps even less so) than in Poundland.
The least well connected, in need of the greatest help to find a job, are left with the bargain basement placements assigned to them by the DWP. A lose-lose situation. And one would argue that those able to secure a plum placement with a good range of experience on their own are unlikely to need the help this scheme is offering.
We need, in fact, not a demand side solution, but a supply side one. Responsibility for the quality of work placements should not be passed to the individual. It should remain firmly the responsibility of the DWP, brokering high quality placements with employers.
Let's be clear - I don't agree with making benefits dependent on mandatory work experience. But I do agree with voluntary work experience for job seekers to help them boost their CVs. However, the only way this can be achieved is if work experience placements can be of a guaranteed quality.
And by quality, I mean offering a taster of a range of different experiences, some job shadowing, mentoring and training. With placements like that on offer, mandated work experience shouldn't even be necessary. Exploitation claims wouldn't ring true as employers would be giving back as much as they were getting, and providing something specific, rather than filling gaps in their staff rota. At the end of the scheme they might well get an employee they themselves could hire, rather than an avalanche of negative press.
More importantly, quality placements would actually succeed in boosting someone's employability. And let's not be snobby about where the placements are. A supermarket is capable of provide a range of different retail, HR, technical and customer facing experiences, transferable to many different types of job, just as a law firm is capable of providing 13 weeks of photocopying.
If the government is serious about work experience as a tool for employability, rather than a source of low cost and low value labour for employers, then it must do two things. First, articulate what a work placement should deliver, perhaps with a quality mark and second, only place jobseekers with employers willing to meet that benchmark. Adult education and training is accredited. So are apprenticeships. Shouldn't work experience, another tool in the government's welfare to work arsenal, be given similar status?