The New Working Unemployed.

The New Working Unemployed?

Who are they?

They are interns, students in and out of the university term time, post 16 year olds working in local shops. Most of this new group are under 35 years of age. They are technically unemployed because they are not paid any wage. They may, or may not get travelling expenses, lunch vouchers or some money. They are registered as unemployed and in receipt of a variety of benefits.

How did it all start?

Nearly 40 years ago the new Polytechnics started new degrees with a focus on industry, and future jobs for their students. This worked well for many. It involved extra months or even a year in a local charity, local authority, small research organisation etc.. Graduating students had a CV showing a 4 year degree, that made them look more employable than graduates from a more traditional university. They were mostly unpaid, or low paid, some with expenses. More recently most universities encourage short internships for much the same reasons, but with little or no pay.

Where are we now?

Very large high street shops have young workers who are “shadowing” other paid workers. Large employers are now expecting graduates to have work experience on their C V, ideally related to the job for which they are applying. Large charities are largely run by unpaid volunteers. Job Centres encourage unemployed to work for local firms as work experience, again with no pay.

What are the consequences of these changes?

Culturally the link between work and pay is being weakened. The advantages to employers are obvious. The advantages to the unemployed are less clear. The emerging culture of unpaid work can seem to create a sort of ladder between no work at all, and a full time paid job. Climbing this ladder may take a long time; yet it appears compulsory. An interesting cultural change is the current confusion about the very existence of a “working class”.

What is the employer’s view of these changes?

Academic debates about the death of the working classes have been going on for over 30 years in Britain and Europe. Long memories are required for the Durham Miners Gala; and historical memories for the 1926 General Strike. Today’s employers are more familiar with a variety of management theories which see workers as partners, fellow managers, team members, colleagues and other professionals. To see a fellow employee as a worker is inappropriate, and against “business etiquette.” There are a variety of individuals in the firm; and certainly not a collective, or part of a larger national working class. But there are real differences between workers which have to be managed. Workers are full time, part time, casual, temping, shadowing, interns, work experience and volunteers.

What is the aspirant employee’s view of these changes?

In education subjects that are oriented to future employment are viewed as more important than in the past. Post Graduate degrees are seen as essential for employment; which downgrades the importance of the first degree. There are even rumours of a PHD degree as the next step to assured employment. Having gained all these qualifications, and resulting debt for fees, the search for a job is all the more pressing for today’s graduates. For graduates of further education there are some jobs, but also more training for jobs which may not exist locally. For 16 year olds leaving school with little no qualifications, and no education maintenance allowance of £10 to £30 per week, the future is bleak indeed.

What is to be done?

Enforcing existing law, which makes employment with expenses only paid illegal; stop paying a wage only when a customer is actually buying something; stop making potential employees stand by a phone until they are required, and not paying for this time. Persuade trade unions to do more than they already do to help 16 year olds with finance for education. Introduce a new version of the education maintenance allowance. Create a closer relationship between the trade unions and the national Union of Students, to advise students of the above tricks, and how to fight them.

Brendan Caffrey.
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