From education to employment

Boot camps and compulsory work experience

Sean Williams, Vice-Chair, Members and Nominations Committee, Institute of Employability Professionals

Recent headlines have focussed on the Government’s ‘Boot Camp’ strategy to tackle youth unemployment. 14% of young people are out of work compared to the overall unemployment rate of 5.6%. From April 2017, anyone under 21 will have to take either a job, an apprenticeship, a traineeship or unpaid work experience to receive benefits.

Long-term unemployment is one of the worst things that can happen to you. If you have been out of work for a long time it affects your mental health, your physical health, your self-esteem, your relationships and your well-being. The vast majority of people do not chose to be unemployed – why would you? It is a miserable existence on the margins of society being pilloried by those on the right of the political spectrum and patronised by those on the left.

I have spent my entire working career trying to help long-term unemployed people back into employment. I have seen the transformational impact that finding employment can have on someone who has been out of work for a long time. Supporting unemployed people into suitable, sustainable jobs is fundamentally a good thing to do. It is good for them, for their families, for their community and for society.

Those on the left who are trying to ‘protect’ people from work need to have a good hard look at what they are arguing for. It was Karl Marx who said ‘man is a working animal’. Work is a right. People in employment are healthier, happier and better-off. Arguing that people should be protected from work is like arguing that people should be protected from the National Health Service.

One of the critical things holding many long-term unemployed young people back is a lack of good quality recent work experience. Large gaps in a CV are very hard to explain away. The longer someone is out of employment the more difficult it is to reintegrate into the culture of work. Work experience helps to fill the gap on the CV and improve work skills.

So why is there so much opposition to policy initiatives that want to provide long-term unemployed young people with work experience?

I think that the objections fall into three main categories and I will try to deal with each in turn.

The first is that young people should not be compelled to take up a work placement with the threat of losing their benefits. I have some sympathy for this position but think that it is ultimately misguided for two main reasons. First, one of the side-effects of long-term unemployment and inactivity is that it can rob young people of their drive. A compulsory programme forces people to be more active and increases resilience and motivation levels. Secondly, I do not think that it is unreasonable that society expects young people to contribute what they can. Again, it was Karl Marx who popularised, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ Unemployed people have a massive amount that they can contribute to society and work experience offers a vehicle for this.

The second set of objections relate to the efficacy of compulsory work experience schemes on people finding employment. Many a lazy blogger has cited DWP’s research report into the Community Action Programme (even if they haven’t actually read it). It is true that low-quality placements have no effect on an individual’s employability. It is also true that work placement programmes with no jobsearch element can actually have a negative effect on an individual’s chances of finding employment (this is because doing the work takes away time from applying for jobs). However, we know that good quality work placements are the one thing that really helps the very hardest-to-help young people to find employment. Some of the most successful employment schemes have had work experience at their core (the Future Jobs Fund, Intermediate Labour Markets). The critical thing is that the placements are high quality. Those individuals and organisations actively lobbying charities and others not to take people on under compulsory work experience programmes are making good quality placements harder to find. They are contributing to work placements being less effective than they should be and indirectly decreasing long-term unemployed young peoples’ chances of finding employment.

The third set of objections relate to compulsory work placements ‘punishing’ unemployed young people. Let me again state quite categorically – the vast, vast majority of unemployed people do not choose to be unemployed. Unemployment is bad for people. But if unemployment is bad for people how can getting someone a work placement be punishing them? The work placements need to be high quality, meaningful and respectful. But the objectors to compulsory work placements are not lobbying for better placements. Indeed by asking people to boycott work experience schemes they are lobbying for worse placements. Giving someone a way to contribute to society whilst building their own skills and social networks is hardly ‘punishing’ them.

The language of ‘boot camps’ is unhelpful and unpleasant but good quality work placements are a fundamental tool in helping young people find decent, sustainable employment. We should support and promote them.

Sean Williams is a social entrepreneur and consultant, Vice-Chair, Members and Nominations Committee, Institute of Employability Professionals. He advises companies and governments on how best to help unemployed people move from benefits into sustainable jobs

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