DON’T get me wrong. I think work experience is a good thing. It’s the way I obtained my first job in journalism.
I did loads of unpaid stints on newspapers and magazines. In those days, I seem to remember we actually got something called travel expenses.
But it was still a massive financial stretch, especially when I was sleeping on my friend’s floor in London by night and attempting to look cool running around after fashion editors by day. My mum sent money for “my keep” but I was still so skint I had to hide from the bus conductor.
There is, however, work experience and work experience. I knew that journalism was the kind of career where you are expected to go the extra mile. Working for free is a test of your tenacity. Finding a way to survive was good practice for keeping a job in this extremely cut-throat world.
If you want to be a journalist, you single yourself out. If my kids decide to follow in my footsteps, or to work in the music business like their father, I can’t imagine either of them walking straight into a cushy number. They will end up doing work experience, and like my own parents did for me, we’ll find a way to support them.
I teach journalism at university, so I know how financially crippling this can be, but I still argue that where there is a will, there is a way. My dad was a steelworker. We were hardly the affluent middle class Nick Clegg worries about.
I once taught a lad in Barnsley who had an absolute burning desire to be a journalist too. He spent the winter labouring every weekend on a building site so he could put himself up in London for three weeks whilst he worked for nowt on lads’ mags. He ended up running his own magazine.
But, here is the crux. So much today is free; newspapers handed out at train stations, music downloaded online, chatting away till all hours on Facebook without the hassle of running up dad’s phone bill, that we are in danger of creating a society in which a minor detail such as being paid to do a job is becoming as quaintly old-fashioned as using a typewriter.
And then, inevitably, there is the class issue. As Clegg keeps reminding us, it is increasingly common for middle-class children to work as interns for no financial reward until a “proper job” comes along. If we’re going to play devil’s advocate, we could argue that if it is acceptable for university graduates to do it, there is no reason why others shouldn’t do it too.
This is the essence of the Government’s Work Experience scheme, which set off offering two-month stints with big companies such as Tesco to young people aged 18 to 24. The big issue is that they are not technically get paid, but receive only Jobseeker’s Allowance of £53 a week.
The big argument, which has prompted protests from Right to Work campaigners at several Tesco stores, is that those who signed up and then dropped out risked losing their benefits. Slave labour, or a way to give young NEETS (those not in education, employment or training) a reason to get up in the morning?
Well, before you make up your mind, can I just point something out? We, the taxpayers, are funding this scheme. All these huge companies – which originally included McDonald’s, Boots, Asda and Primark – undertook this not out of the altruistic goodness of their own hearts but because they were getting labour paid for by the government. While our hard-earned taxes prop it up and provide these companies with a steady supply of workers, their own profits tot up.
It is easy to see that if a big retail chain has plenty of people filling jobs effectively for free, there is no need to start creating jobs for others who might actually require the inconvenience of a salary in the bank every month. Or indeed, increase the hours or the wages of those already on the payroll.
A report by the Fair Pay Network finds that many supermarket workers can’t earn a living wage, so the government has to top them up with “in-work” benefits. Paid for by, ironically, their workers and everyone else who pays tax. No wonder so many companies are now back-tracking on their original Work Experience arrangement. It doesn’t look good at all.
So, while I totally agree with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who argues that stacking shelves is better than pointless dreaming of stardom on the X Factor, I think we have to remind ourselves of another quaintly old-fashioned concept, the one of fairness.
I will be the first to shove my two out of the door to get a taste of the real world when the time comes.
But we shouldn’t be seduced into thinking that any kind of Work Experience is the answer to everything. It isn’t.
It’s a short-term fix, in more ways than one, and anyone who regards it as anything else is seriously deluded.