By Colin Borland
So the controversy – complete with protests, crisis talks, questions in the House and corporate casualties – about whether or not the long-term unemployed should be offered unpaid work experience continues into another week.
If nothing else, it has at least focused minds on some of the really difficult calls we are going to have make if we are to avoid losing another generation to mass unemployment.
On the one hand, I’m uncomfortable with the principle of anyone working for free – especially if it denies paid employment to someone else. On the other hand, when there are still people in proper bonded labour across the world right now, labelling this initiative “slave labour” is hyperbolic and insensitive.
In my experience, you’re always better off with a line on your CV than with a blank space. I also know that it’s an employers’ market out there at the moment and we can be very particular about the experience candidates for vacancies need to have.
And this isn’t just my experience. A few weeks ago, I took part in a fascinating event, run by some young unemployed people who were sharing their reflections on the UK government’s flagship Work Programme.
These were keen, bright young people deeply frustrated that they were wasting their best years on the dole. Time and again they spelt out the catch-22: no experience, no job; no job, no experience.
How did they get into this mess? Well, a frustration at never being given a chance wasn’t all that united them. What came through from almost every individual’s story was that, when they had to make the key decisions earlier in life, neither they, nor anyone who was advising them, possessed enough information about the world of work to make the smart choice. It was only now, after learning from people with a real knowledge of the jobs marketplace, that they had a better understanding of their options.
This isn’t an easy problem to solve. Children are not born with an understanding of the world of work. Parents’ knowledge might only ever have been sketchy at best – and could be 15 years out-of-date by now anyway. Many teachers will have been shielded from the job market for some time – and, without up-to-date information to hand, may not be able to advise their students appropriately.
This, of course, is what politicians call inequality of opportunity, and expanding the horizons of children not born to lawyers, top civil servants or business people has to be a long-term priority if social mobility is to become a reality in Scotland.
Today, though, we have a problem which is reaching critical proportions. Innovative short-term solutions have to be found and work experience projects, whether wholly palatable to everyone or not, fit that bill.
– Colin Borland is head of external affairs for the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland