Work experience has important benefits
by Claudia Wood
Since the public backlash of the Government’s “workfare” plans, the DWP has been on the offensive. Chris Grayling and IDS have been doing the rounds – the Daily Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, Radio 4, Sky News – I’ve probably missed some – all had the ministers furiously explaining that the work experience placements are voluntary, with sanctions (suspension of benefits) only being used if applicants pull out after more than a week. The inspired phrase “job snobs” has been used to describe those who oppose the work experience scheme – alongside ‘sneering elites’, ‘anti-capitalists’ and ‘luddites’.
I thought this counter attack against the concerns being expressed was a bit vitriolic and personal, but on reflection, I understand the Government’s anger. Work experience is a central element of the Work programme, the flagship welfare to work scheme for those who are long term unemployed. An eight week stint of work experience is a vital part of work readiness training, builds skills and self-esteem and, for a significant proportion, can lead to a permanent job with the work experience host. So to have the scheme stymied by a group of commentators who (incorrectly) accuse the scheme of being a form of forced labour must be infuriating. And stymied it will be if the negative press targeted at those involved in the scheme (Tesco’s and others) prompts them to withdraw to avoid the wrath of their customers.
But should Chris Grayling simply attack his critics for being motivated by a political agenda or class prejudice against retail jobs? Is the Government a blameless victim of misinformation? I think they need to take some of the blame for this mess.
First, I would argue that the lack of clarity around the work experience model has encouraged people to assume the worst. Although the placements are voluntary, some sanctions are used against drop-outs, and this scheme operates alongside four week Mandatory Work Activity placements. Moreover, different rules are being applied to ESA claimants, where sanctions (essentially creating a compulsory scheme) seem very much on the table. Having a clear line on each of these variations may have reduced the margin for confusion. Second, the ministers have refused to countenance the possibility that work experience is being implemented inappropriately on the ground. Anecdotal evidence suggests some job seekers at least have been told they have to take the voluntary placement or risk losing their benefits. If the scheme is not being described as intended, and giving itself a bad name, the Government should vow to look into this and tackle concerns with action, rather than simply cast doubt on the motivations of those who are concerned.
Perhaps finally, there is a presentational issue. The sanctions that exist for work placement drop-outs are, according to Chris Grayling, to protect employers from investing in job seekers’ training only to have them stop showing up after a fortnight. I’m sure this rule was well meaning, but it adds to an unfortunate overall impression: that the job seeker is the feckless one, and it is the employer who is doing the government and the jobseeker a service by taking them on. This should be turned on its head. Just as the employer should be protected from drop-outs, so the jobseeker should be protected from a poor quality experience. Their contribution should be given greater value: the employer, after all, is getting eight weeks’ free labour. In return, the employer should be expected to provide a varied and high quality placement, where the job seeker is able to try a few different things, perhaps shadow different people to get the widest range of new skills and experiences. This is not – as the Government is keen to point out – workfare, where people are expected to work in return for their benefits. This is supposed to be a training tool, like a good apprenticeship. To achieve this, the government should forge a ‘responsibility deal’ with employers based on a two-way relationship – work in return for experience. Perhaps if the Government had taken this line from the start, and ensured the scheme was being implemented as such on the ground, then there would have been fewer grey areas for opposition to grow. But it’s certainly not too late – if the Government acts now to tackle the causes of confusion, rather than simply pointing out that people are confused.