Thursday, 8 March 2012

Is all work experience equal?

Recently there has been lots of coverage of the government’s controversial efforts to give unemployed people unpaid work experience placements with private sector firms and the associated threat of loss of benefits if they fail to take part. 

The issue first came to my attention the voluntary and community sector press with the tale of Cait Reilly.  Cait was volunteering with a local museum as she wanted to find paid employment in that sector.  However she was told by her local Job Centre Plus to take part in a four week full time programme, including two weeks unpaid work at discount retailer Poundland, or face losing her benefits.  Responding to the story in Third Sector online, A Department for work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson said:

“Working in retail is perfectly good experience for a career in a museum. There are very similar transferable skills involved.  It is simply absurd to suggest that we should not be providing this support and effectively leaving people at home doing nothing."

The story then got picked up by The Guardian newspaper as private sector firms and then charities started to pull out of such work experience schemes in the face of mounting opposition. In the face of this opposition the government recently changed its policy and removed the threat of benefit withdrawal from those refusing to take part in or dropping out of such programmes.

From a volunteering perspective there have, to my mind, been two issues with the government’s schemes. 

The first is the benefit sanction that people were threatened with.  Forcing people to volunteer or lose benefits is not ethical, regardless of which sector they are forced to work in.  Furthermore such practice breaches many agreements between government and the volunteering movement.  This sanction has now been removed so the issue is less of a concern.

However, throughout the ongoing saga, DWP, ministers and MPs have maintained that placing the unemployed into such work experience programmes is important if people are to find new work.  And that leads me to my second issue, the apparent presumption that only by taking part in these government endorsed schemes can people get good work experience. 

Whether it has been MPs, ministers or civil servants talking about the work experience schemes, all have been claiming that such programmes give people essential skills for the workplace. 

Look again at the DWP quote above relating to the Cait Reilly story.  According to the DWP spokesperson, unpaid work experience in retail is perfectly good experience for paid work in a museum.  I’m no expert on museum work but surely volunteering in a museum is even better experience for paid work in a museum?  Why on earth would you force someone doing volunteering that has such a clear link to their desired field of employment to stack shelves for two weeks?

What worries me about all these programmes is an apparent blind spot by government to the potential of volunteering to help people develop work skills.  Whether those skills are specific to a particular role or the so-called ‘softer’ skills (timekeeping, team work etc.) there is much evidence of volunteering helping to make people more employable as a basic search of the Institute for Volunteering Research evidence bank will demonstrate.

We may have won the battle over unfair sanctions if people don’t ‘volunteer’ but the bigger fight is, I fear, still ahead.  All of us working in the volunteering movement need to be ensuring that these work experience programmes don’t become the only valid way for people to gain employability skills.  We need to ensure that Job Centre Plus advisors, DWP officials, MPs and ministers are challenged to recognise the valuable contribution volunteering makes to building peoples’ skills and confidence for employment.

If we don’t then volunteering will become increasingly sidelined as a poor substitute for what are seen as more ‘valid’ forms of work experience.

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