Worker bee or job snob? Both suffer.

Job snob  –  Cait Reilly a year down the line

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.

Complex messages

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.

Inflated expectations

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.

Job snob

But many don’t want to compromise in this way, sitting tight for the right opportunity.  Follow your passion is the celebrity soundbite of the day. 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?

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9 thoughts on “Worker bee or job snob? Both suffer.

  1. Louise Altman @ The Intentional Workplace

    A very valuable post on a very underreported, widespread problem with soaring global youth unemployment. In the U.S. student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt.

    There is much to address in your rich post but I’ll just highlight a few points.
    Like many other areas, there appears to be no real systemic approach to education and the employment “track.” It is utterly distressing to me that we would consider tailoring the human spirit to fill job tracks by narrowing education to employable slots.

    One problem is the limitation of thinking by business of what is “valuable.” and applicable knowledge. For example, relationships skills, the lifeblood of a thriving future global economy, are still largely de-valued in most business settings. So part of this problem is how business “sees” the knowledge afforded by such “luxurious” or “frivolous” learning.

    Another problem are the practices that reflect a lack of reality about the challenging, often dire, economic conditions that many graduates face as a result of the Great Disruption and what is now, the new normal. Penalizing a young person who wants to gain experience from their intended career goals or takes any employment to pay the bills should be valued and respected by a prospective employment.

    Or perhaps it’s my naivete….?

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi there – well there probably is a solution but it’s not short term I’m afraid and needs the powers that be to come up with a strategy that brings together education specialists and business.

  2. Judy

    My son majored in History and Political Science. I wish I had a dollar for everyone who asked “What kind of job will he get with that?” My response was “He’s getting an education, not job training.” After almost 3 years in the workforce, he’s now found out what he enjoys doing and what he’s good at and will shortly be heading back to college for a diploma as “job training.” As Louise so rightly points out, we seem to have forgotten the meaning (and purpose) of education.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Judy – I agree that the purpose of going to unviversity is to receive an education and at some point organisations have to accept when hiring young graduates what they have is raw talent. They can’t expect them to enter the workforce trained good to go with the experience they are looking for. They have to provide that.

  3. Judy

    And by the same token, students need to understand that they may not be “job-ready” when leaving university if they choose a liberal arts degree. My son went into his degree course well aware that he would probably need further training afterwards. The blame is not necessarily with companies. In North America, at least, an undergraduate degree is the new high school certificate in my opinion.

  4. Wendy Mason

    Great post Dorothy – thank you. Yes, it is a complex subject. For every employer who sees a confused and inconsistent CV, I suspect there is another who will be grateful for the habit of work. This was a misjudged scheme born of desperation. Taking a job at a lower level and outside your sector, doesn’t have to put stop to your job search. Artists, writers and actors have done that for years and it has provided much source material for them in their later careers. But it does take resilience resource and creativity to take the mundane and turn it into an experience that adds rather than detracts from academic achievement.

  5. Melissa Langeman (@MelissaLangeman)

    This is an interesting issue. I have an undergraduate degree which is not useful outside of a few select fields. At least law enforcement is one of them, but that is not the way I went. You could say I was a Worker Bee, but really biding my time for the right opportunity while I worked and figured out what to do with myself.

    Now, after an MBA, you could say I’m a bit of a job snob, but not by choice. Its because of my worker bee background that I have extra difficulty in Europe. In Canada, a worker bee is less punished if you can argue for your skills. Not so in Europe, where a clear progression is expected from a generation of HR and hiring managers who came up in a completely different era. I’m a snob because I want to work for a company that can look at the worker bee and see the skills, not just the job title.

    And this is where I think your comments about a disconnect are extremely valid. The recession has been with everyone now for more than 4 years. It’ is disturbing that middle managers do not seem to read the news. Graduates need experience, there’s no way to for them to get it, so one has to take that into account when looking at CV’s from recent graduates.

    Basically, a big mess all around.

  6. Wendy Mason (@WWisewolf)

    Great post Dorothy on a provocative subject. In our family, the kids have worked their way through uni on all kinds of work and been prepared to look at a range of options afterwards. But then they have surprised me with their ingenuity and persistence in pursuing their longer-term career goals. I heard one person in the UK government describe experience in Poundland as the short sharp shock to get people into taking the need to find work seriously. That in itself I suspect reflects job snobbery. Poundland in the present climate can certainly afford to pay all its workers and in my view should do so


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