I have followed with interest the story of Cait Reilly , the Geology graduate who instigated a judicial review for contravention of her human rights. She was made to work unpaid at Poundland, a discount store, stacking shelves and cleaning floors, or otherwise be obliged to forfeit her government benefits of £53 per week job seekers allowance. This scheme , followed by an interview for a permanent position is supposed to funnel young people into the workplace, although in Cait’s case the interview never materialised. She was already working as a volunteer in a museum which she believed would support her chosen career path. The issue for her was not working for free, but not being paid by an organisation which could afford her to give her a salary. Also significant was that the fact that the placement would not support the pursuit of her career goals. A year after this post was originally written Cait has now won her court case.
There are lots of complex messages here aren’t there? This contravention of a human right is hardly in the same category as a resident of Homs being bombarded by his/her own government, or a detainee being tortured and walked around naked on a dog leash in the Abu Ghraib prison. So the backlash against the seeming preciousness of Cait’s case and accusations of job snobbery were in many ways understandable. However, it was an effective and timely move, with many companies withdrawing from the discredited scheme, where unpaid graduates filled positions which should be offered on a full-time paid basis.
As you know I have been an early champion of the exploitation of Gen Y and unpaid internships. But we are observing what seems to be a massive disconnect in global economies with the training of a whole generation of young people in national education systems, leaving not only a huge number with simply nowhere to go when they graduate, but with inflated expectations. Youth unemployment is shockingly high in many countries not just in Europe and the US, but globally. But it is also happening at higher levels with graduate MBAs encountering the same dilemma.
Worker bee Many deal with this situation by accepting any position they can get, simply to gain some type of experience, or merely to pay their bills. I spoke to John who graduated in 2009 at the height of the recession with a degree in Art. After working in a number of unpaid internships and a paid job where he was pretty ruthlessly exploited, he accepted a position in the hospitality sector gaining invaluable basic management and HR skills. The rub? In applying for jobs in his chosen area he is now told that he lacks the necessary targeted experience and effectively has “wasted” his 2.5 post graduate years. Manon, with her global MBA accepted a low-level position to start paying off her debts when she graduated in 2008 and now faces the stigma of having a ” confused and inconsistent” career history.
But many don’t want to compromise in this way, sitting tight for the right opportunity. Enter now the job snob. This is a category of worker whose expectations have been increased by the culture in which they were raised and the education systems that have spewed them out. We have a group who rightly or wrongly, believe they are entitled to work in the field for which they have been educated, at the level they believe they deserve and which meets the abilities they think they have, to pay off the debts they have probably accrued in the process. They hold out for the right job, in the right sector, financially supported by their parents, government or both. This group is penalised for having gaps in their resumés.
Education systems and business organisations both play a role in this mismatch of expectations and opportunities. The business sector has to understand that the plug and play days are mainly over and many of the old assessment benchmarks are not appropriate for the times we live in.
It would seem that the only alternative would be a utilitarian approach and to cut university courses for which there are no foreseeable employment opportunities. Now the latter route would open up a serious hornets nest debate about the philosophical role of education in our advanced civilised societies. Should the best universities be measured by the employability of their graduates?
However, perhaps it’s just me but a key question seems to be left unanswered in the Cait Reilly case. Why should an individual be supported by benefits paid for by the taxpayer, work for nothing in a profit making organisation that could afford to pay them a salary?
What do you think?