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What should work experience look like?

Debate rages over whether government programmes offer genuine help for jobless people or if they are simply exploitative

Do the government’s work experience programmes provide much-needed experience for jobless people that will help them back into employment? Or are they merely a way for massively profitable companies to gain free labour from vulnerable individuals threatened with losing benefits? If so, what would the ideal government work experience programme look like?

The Guardian’s Comment is free site came up with five suggestions and asked readers, including those with personal experience, for their thoughts. The five suggestions were:

1 All schemes should be voluntary.

2 They should take into account the individual’s career hopes.

3 They should take experience and qualifications seriously.

4 They should offer a learning experience.

5 There should be a time limit.

Following our readers’ comments we came up with many more:

Voluntary charity work should be respected said ScotFox: “I did a lot of work for a charity working in health promotion many years ago. The view of the Jobcentre: it was worth nothing because I wasn’t getting paid for it.”

NI payments should be considered: “If a person has not paid NI for 5 years, then it should be mandatory to do [a work placement] to continue receiving benefits. If they were made redundant a month ago following 20 years full time employment, give them the option to continue spending all of their time looking for work”. (UndyingCincinnatus)

Have one-day paid placements: “The real feel-good factor of work is getting paid at the end of it. If you want young people to truly experience work, in all its glory, then they should experience getting paid and understand there is a way to get more.” (JoePaxton)

Give proper financial support: “It costs more to go to work than stay at home: there’s bus fares/travel/petrol money, different clothing to what is normally worn, and food.” (lizidrip)

Be clear whether permanent jobs are available: “If there is no possibility of there being real jobs at the end of the placement then that should be made clear from the outset.” (Rochdalelass)

Limit repeat placements: “The same placement within a company must not be offered more than three times, to stop employers abusing the system.” (milkybarkid )

Respect the jobseekers: “Those schemes which effectively show the worker no respect are counter-productive and should be stopped. That means, of course, paying at least the minimum wage, and lifting the threat of punitive treatment with regards to benefits payments if a work placement proves unsatisfactory.” (StefanStern, visiting professor of management practice, Cass Business School, London). JamesRBall 24 February 2012 4:03PM The mire of work experience in journalism helps show how tricky this debate can get. Having done a few journalism placements myself (including here at the Guardian six years ago) and hearing back from students, there are a few contraditory pressures: People on placements want to work: a lot of schemes, because they are short, are deliberately structured around shadowing and mentoring rather than actually writing or researching.

On one level, this is a good thing as it ensures work experience is not being used in place of paid employees. On the other, what aspiring journalists really want, and need, is experience – and bylines.

How long? This gets tough, too. Two weeks is, quite often, not enough. Whoever’s on work experience is often only just starting to know the ropes at this point, and just as they’re able to make a bigger contribution, leaves.

The flipside here is tricky. If people are working for six weeks or more without pay, this is likely to seem exploitative, and if not part of a government scheme could fall foul of minimum wage laws.

For people outside of London, even short unpaid placements can be unaffordable due to the cost of accomodation and food – but from the employers’ point of view, a structured work experience placement has costs, and paying people too will mean far fewer places available.

The start of a solution clearly has to be based around voluntary, relevant work experience. Balancing the other factors is likely the hard part…

Remember the New Deal: “The New Deal of the 1930s employed ‘armies’ of workers in numerous localised, small-scale endevours and paid the going rate for the local area. The projects were selected to not overlap with the private sector. This is why many small towns in the US have extravagant public parks and libraries – they would not have been built overwise. Some of the work was shoddy, some of the work was pointless, but it has left an enduring positive legacy and prevented a ‘lost’ generation.” (Paulie99)

LizziecTWF (Lizzie Crowley of the The Work Foundation concluded: “Well planned, and delivered, quality work experience is a useful tool to introduce young people to the world of work and help build their employability skills. However, the real success of any scheme should be judged on how many people it helps access employment, and the results for this particularly initiative so far, are at best, mixed. The bad press around this particular scheme may mean that employers who are considering supporting such schemes in the future might be put off. Ministers need to move beyond attacking “job snobs” and urgently seek to restore employer confidence,” she added.

ManWhoFellToEarth: “Jobseeker should be encouraged to volunteer with a local community project, charity, or social enterprise. Those that complete the project successfully are given a reference by the project, those that don’t are not. Employers should be encouraged to request these kinds of references — it’ll soon become clear that it’s in one’s interests to volunteer. If Tesco needs somebody to do some shelf-stacking, or McDonald’s needs somebody to flip hamburgers, they should create a job that is paid to at least the National Minimum Wage and advertise for it. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds