The truth about unpaid work experience #wrb #workfare

The furore over Tesco advertising for a night shift worker paid only by JSA and expenses has been rumbling on for a few days now. Some valid and some not-so-valid arguments have been made by both sides.  However there are so many anomalies that I thought it necessary to provide the facts- from someone who spent two years brokering unpaid work placements for unemployed adults in Brighton and Hove. You’ll have to excuse the sketchiness of the detail, but I have to be conscious of data protection.

From September 2009 to April 2011 I worked on a locally funded contract designed to help people back to work. It was delivered by a local social enterprise and – crucially –  all the work placements were voluntary, with no sanctions at any point if a work placement was not completed.  The placements were for a maximum of 16 hours per week, in an occupation relevant to the client’s career goals and lasted for a maximum of six weeks, although in some cases we were able to double the placement to 12 weeks with both sides’ agreement. Travel expenses and childcare were paid- in advance if necessary.

We had some brilliant successes, we had some horrific failures. But all the time we worked with the client and the employer to make sure that the client was obtaining the experience they needed. As a result, a number of clients dropped out. The majority of the placements I brokered were with small, local employers, many of whom were charities and voluntary sector organisations, meaning that there were mutual benefits to the relationship. Most clients embraced this, and rather than looking at what they were doing as slave labour, they built good relationships with their employers and enhanced their skill sets. Sadly we did not keep a record of the exact percentage that then went on to paid employment, but I can think of at least 30 per cent from the top of my head. Even those that didn’t go on to obtain work immediately after the placement stated the benefits of a well-managed work experience placement – they felt more confident, more skilled, more experienced and more sociable.

Contrast this with the experience of one of our volunteers, who was gaining admin experience while volunteering for us once a week. She had been unemployed for just over a year. She asked one of the Flexible New Deal (FND) providers if they could find her a work placement related to the line of work she wanted to pursue. They agreed, and lined her up with a four-week placement at a local hotel. She was to use the IT and admin skills she had been developing with us by working on reception and within the office, mixed in with other duties throughout the hotel.

Working 30 hours per week, she started off cleaning and changing sheets. On the second day, the FND provider called in to check that she was there. They spoke with her manager, but did not ask to speak to her. Her manager couldn’t understand why they had not wanted to speak to her, nor why they would ask to speak to her manager. After a week or so of cleaning rooms, she asked when she would be doing more admin-based work, as this is what she had wanted experience in. Her manager was vague in her reply, but she got on with the job regardless.

After three weeks, with no sign of admin work forthcoming, she decided to end the placement. Remember, she had VOLUNTARILY sought out this placement. Word got back to the FND provider and the next thing she knew they had stopped her benefits for a month. When she questioned the decision she was told that the placement was mandatory, and she had broken the rules by dropping off before it had finished. She put to them that she had asked for the placement herself, and if she had known they would stop her benefits, she would have finished the final week. Of course, her cry fell on deaf ears. Her benefits were stopped for a month, resulting in her building up a £200 debt.

The story does have a happy ending, however, as she returned to volunteer with us and shortly afterwards secured her first paid admin job.

Sadly due to data protection I’m unable to provide much detail on the more successful placements that I organised, but what I can say is that they all took place with forward-thinking employers and supportive managers. We also had some nightmare situations- including one where the regional manager agreed the placement, but when the client met with their prospective line manager, the line manager stated that he didn’t see the point in the scheme and it was going to upset his staff who would not be getting paid work while he was there. Needless to say, we pulled that one pretty quickly. Other companies used the opportunity to develop their own staff – one excellent company provided one of their staff with his first line management job by supervising the client. Both parties were more than happy with the outcome, the client got the experience she needed, while the company boosted their own employee’s CV.

I should point out that for small-to-medium sized companies a work experience placement can be a lot to manage. If the job doesn’t actually exist, and they are offering the placement primarily because it will benefit the client, this is actually a lot for them to take on. For a company with small profit margins it can sometime be a hinderance, which is why the brokering agency needs to manage the relationship carefully.

But the biggest irony for me in all this is that I had three or four clients approach me and ask for work within a supermarket. I wrote and called relentlessly to Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, yet none of them had the decency to even bother replying. The most promising leads I acquired were from a small Tesco Express, where the manager said he would be happy to help out, but every time I called he was already at his full quota of work experience staff, and a small Co-op store who eventually stopped returning my calls.

So Chris Grayling can talk about ‘job snobs’ all he likes, but ultimately the supermarkets and other big businesses are only interested when there’s something in it for them. I’m a big advocate of work experience – but only when it’s voluntary, relevant, appropriate and well-supported. There is enough evidence (despite Grayling’s lies) that this scheme is none of these. Of course this is no substitute for paying someone, or even a (paid) work trial. If a company is taking someone on with a view to employing them, as many of the workfare* companies claim to do, why not pay them for their work from the outset? There’s no further risk to them if it doesn’t work out, and they get the benefit of try-before-you-buy.

Well, why would they? This Tory-led government has thrown the work trials baby out with the Labour bathwater, and at what cost? Free labour for corporations and slave treatment for the working poor.

Funny how that one escaped the manifesto, isn’t it?

*When I ran the spell-check on this entry, it asked me if I wanted to replace the word “workfare” with either “workforce” or “warfare”. I don’t think I need to add anything to that.

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One thought on “The truth about unpaid work experience #wrb #workfare

  1. […] one of the most costly and prestigious events of the year. I’ve blogged previously about my experience of being employed to broker unpaid work placements, though there did seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel back in February when Tesco […]

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