Painting rocks or work experience?
In the midst of the battle over work experience between the supposed Trotskyites and the Minister for Employment, the voice of one person is being drowned out. It is often the case in an employment services system that is essentially paternalistic and disempowering. In ignoring that voice, we miss the real answer to the problem.
Unemployment is demotivating and depersonalizing. It saps you of your energy and leads many long-term unemployed people into depression. We are habitual creatures and the patterns of a life of inactive unemployment become a debilitating straightjacket.
Cracking unemployment often means smashing those patterns and establishing new, work-like habits: getting up early; washing and dressing; eating breakfast; travelling in the rush hour, and so on. Time in a real workplace can be invaluable, socialising with work colleagues and completing real working shifts over successive days. But the value of this also has its limits.
There is a very big difference between eight weeks of work experience in an admin role in a busy office and eight weeks of shelf stacking in a discount store. The difference is nothing to do with snob value.
In the office, assuming you aren’t just making the tea, you are meeting constantly changing challenges and learning new skills. It is eight weeks of work habits and meaningful, on-the-job training. You are more likely to perceive its value and be genuinely engaged. You are more likely to move on to permanent employment.
The shelf stacking ‘job’ is simply an automatic, repetitive task, the developmental value of which is gone after one week. This is also more than enough time for it to fulfill its ‘work trial’ function and for the employer to see you in action. Beyond this, you are free labour that is almost certainly displacing someone else who could be employed for a proper wage.
One of the options on the old New Deal under Labour was ‘subsidized employment’. This was one of your choices if you couldn’t find a job, and once selected it was mandated and your benefits could be stopped for noncompliance. It was not dissimilar to the current work experience, with attachment to employers. Though it could last months longer, and your dole was topped up with a small subsidy. In some cases it looked very like apprenticeships and was excellent. In other cases, notably mini cab firms and hairdressers, the employers used it to get cheap labour.
Another New Deal option was voluntary work, called the ‘environmental task force’ if it happened to take place outside. Again, it was suggested that a few months of something that looked like work, mandated but ‘voluntary’, ie unwaged, would develop the right habits. In Australia this could last for up to a year and was called ‘work for the dole’. In a small number of cases it was excellent; developing work-like habits and also offering a chance to learn useful, sellable new skills. The charity Groundwork, for example, ran some very successful gardening and grounds maintenance programmes.
However, in many places the opportunities for meaningful voluntary work were few and far between. One now well-known welfare to work provider reputedly painted the same church in London three times, just for something to do. Down in Australia, they called such dehumanizing activity, ‘painting rocks’.
Listen to a long-term unemployed person’s needs and interests and find them an intermediate labour-like activity in which they perceive real value and you start a marked change in their wellbeing. One study in Glasgow actually found white-cell blood count falling as a result of engagement in work or training that was seen to be worthwhile. Give out rocks to paint, and the effect is reversed.
A week’s work trial in Poundland leading to a guaranteed interview and linked to an actual vacancy, is a vital and welcome feature in any effective welfare to work response. Eight weeks of work and training, in a workplace, developing new skills and opening new opportunities, is equally as important but looks and feels quite different.
The answer to the work experience furore is nothing to do with Trotsky. The answer is a pragmatic understanding of the causes and nature of unemployment and an informed deployment of personalised solutions that actually work.