As a local MP I regularly get letters from school pupils looking for work experience in my constituency office. I am happy to help the pupils out in this way if I can. I noticed that the letters all have one thing in common – they are from the one or two fee paying schools in Wolverhampton or the grammar school. These schools are not in my constituency but in the wealthier, Western part of the city. I have nothing against these schools or these pupils but I wondered why I wasn’t getting requests from any of the state secondary schools in my constituency, all of which sadly score below the national average in exam results.
In response to this, last year I wrote to the local heads of the state schools saying I could help young people out with this work experience and asking them to let their pupils know the opportunity was there – an opportunity already eagerly being pursued by pupils who have probably been dealt a better hand in life than most of my constituents and who feel that working in the local MP’s office will be a good addition to their CV.
The value of work experience is clear to many motivated young people. They know employers are looking for candidates who have developed interests beyond their schoolwork and have some idea of what the world of work involves. That is one reason why internships in media organisations, law firms and so on are so valued. The thing which should cause concern is not that such internships exist, but that they so often go to those with family connections and that constituents like mine are too often shut off from them, not even knowing they are available let alone having a chance to apply.
Add to this the current levels of youth unemployment. Over a million young people out of work. In my own constituency 1500 young people on Job seekers allowance. Overall in my constituency unemployment levels of 12.6%.
What to do? There is much that needs changes to help the unemployed. National policy. International policy. Indeed the question of where future jobs and growth come from is one of the most urgent of this post crash age. But while fighting for broader change, individual politicians also have to ask what they can do here, now, for the people they represent.
I didn’t invent the idea of a local work experience scheme. I borrowed it from my colleague Siobhain McDonagh MP who had organised an excellent scheme in her South London constituency, in alliance with local employers and Job Centre Plus.
Before Christmas, I approached the Black Country Chamber of Commerce and Black Country Job Centre Plus about organising a local Wolverhampton Work Experience Programme. The idea was to ask employers to provide places of at least six weeks to local unemployed young people and then make the list available locally. By providing a directory of available places and sending it to local young people we can break through the circle of places being offered on the basis of social contacts and get these opportunities to more young people.
Letters were written to local employers in the public and private sectors asking them to offer places. The local NHS offered 100 places, guaranteeing they would be additional to current staffing levels and wouldn’t replace any paid staff. The main local social landlord, Wolverhampton Homes offered places too. So too did engineering firms, music venues and other private sector employers.
All those offering places were invited to a local launch hosted by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Wolverhampton last Friday. No one involved in putting this together is interested in exploiting young people. Everyone is committed to trying to do something to help young people increase their chances of finding work.
The highlight of the launch was the story of Jessica Williams, a young woman who had been through work experience with Wolverhampton Homes. Through it she got a temporary job with the organisation, then a permanent job. And she’s clear that the work experience was her route to employment.
And yet this has become one of the most controversial issues in the country. Major national chains like Tesco, Burger King and Poundland have drawn back from Government schemes. Why has a good idea become so controversial?
The argument is put that any work experience without payment in addition to benefits is exploitation. This is wrong. Provided choosing the place is voluntary and provided there is a reasonable time limit on the scheme it isn’t exploitation. On the contrary, it is opportunity as is recognised by those letters I get from the wealthier part of town.
It would be good to live in a world where everyone had immediate access to a paid job on leaving school or university. It is something we should strive for. But it is not the situation we are living in. Unemployment is at a 17 year high. So it is back to the here and now and what we can do.
Work experience is not the same as a paid job but it can help young people find a paid job. And it is vital at these times of high unemployment to avoid a lost generation of young people, losing contact with the world of work and being excluded from opportunity, particularly if that exclusion is done in the name of the right to work.
Where the government has gone wrong is threatening to withdraw people’s benefit if a placement doesn’t work out. Not all placements may be of good quality. If someone is treated badly or the placement is a complete waste of time, they should have the right to say no.
For employers, the truth is work experience is rarely a chance to exploit and more often a cost and a commitment. An untrained person has to be supervised and kept occupied. But there is something in this for employers too. They can get to know potential employees and that can lead to the recruitment of good new members of staff. That’s what happened with Jessica Williams and Wolverhampton Homes and it can happen with others.
The Government should act to fix the flaws in its approach and regain the confidence of employers in work experience. In Wolverhampton, we won’t be put off. The unemployment situation is too critical, the need too great, to end up in a situation where we would rather young unemployed people sat at home doing nothing rather than taking part in experience which might help them get work.
Labour is the party of work. Good paid work, yes, but also the chance to get that good paid work. Work experience is part of that chance. We should not turn our backs on it. Instead, we should make sure that as many people as possible have access to the opportunity it brings, the value of which for those with means and wealth is all too clear.
Pat McFadden is the L:abour MP for Wolverhampton South East