This article in the Guardian somewhat concerned me.  Apparently some work programme asked a charity to provide a whole team of volunteers to help unemployed people with CVs.

My worry is that volunteers and volunteering are becoming commodified. Companies should’t be trying to make money out of volunteers and they shouldn’t be used to replace paid workers.

A lot of people volunteer in order to put something back into society. They help others and all they get is a nice warm glow! Then some volunteering is used partly to gain experience to help with getting into a particular career or progressing up the ladder.

Edinburgh Graduands

The growing trend however is that volunteering has become a necessary step to get any job. Unpaid internships are the thing for graduates. At best they are a way  for companies to get away without paying trainees with a paid job at the end and at worst there isn’t even a hope of a paid position.

Unemployed people face working for their benefits. Apparently 30 hours will “be enough to familiarise the unemployed with the world of work.” Now, to me, one of the key things about the “world of work” is getting paid! Bringing home an actual wage is part of what gives people pride in their work. If these people are working- pay them minimum wage.

With 2.57 million unemployed and only 462,000 vacancies there just isn’t a job for everyone. Those long term unemployed people will often find themselves bottom of the heap and being able to say they’ve been forced to work for free for a few weeks isn’t really going to improve their prospects.

Imagine you’re a teacher in some weird version of the 11 plus system. There are 5 places in the grammar school for your class of 25. Some of the kids in your class are a bit lazy so the headteacher says you have to make them all work harder- they should all be going to the grammar school! So you give them all the cane and  test results improve across the board. However there are still only 5 places in the grammar school!

There are not enough jobs and eventually people are going to get sick of volunteering without any hope of paid work.

I read Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones the other week and it got me thinking about some of the experiences I’ve had working for Connexions.

I once had a conversation with an employee of a training provider which arranged apprenticeships. She said she couldn’t believe how badly some of the students were doing on what she felt was incredibly basic maths. This inevitably turned into a bit of a “the kids of today” style rant.  I said that I didn’t believe that young people had become less intelligent, it was just that there are fewer opportunities for those who are not so academic.  Young people who might have gone into manufacturing or mining are now fighting over the few remaining “practical” roles available in construction and warehousing.

She wasn’t convinced. But Owen Jones argues that the destruction of the manufacturing industries is what has led to the negative attitude towards working class people. Instead of looking to structural and political problems, increasingly the trend has been to blame the poor for their own poverty.

This links in quite well with the way services for young people are organised. There is no end of courses to make young people “employable” and “work ready” but also no real acceptance that there is a severe lack of suitable jobs in the first place. Lots of the “apprenticeships” available are, in my opinion, just an excuse to pay someone £2.50 an hour. For example, a study found that “in the retail sector there is no observed effect of apprenticeships on wages at all”. But in the areas where an apprenticeship sets you up for a decently paid career such as plumbing or electrical, opportunities are almost impossible to find.

Jones also talks about the New Labour obsession with “aspiration”, the idea that everyone should want to get out of the working class and that there is something wrong with wanting to work as a labourer or in a factory.  Its very difficult to say the right thing in this area because no one wants to be accused of being against aspiration! Of course young people from working class backgrounds should be encouraged to become doctors, lawyers and politicians. But plenty of young people don’t want more education, they tell us again and again that they just want a job.  In the past, well paid, practical and physical work was available but now most jobs are  “opening doors for each other” in the service industry.

A problem that he doesn’t really tackle but that comes up a lot in my work is that these days more and more jobs require level 2 in literacy and numeracy. We can improve education, introduce “foundation learning”, raise standards left right and centre but some people are never going to be able to reach that level. I recently had a difficult conversation with a parent whose son wanted to do an apprenticeship in construction but couldn’t pass the CITB test. She asked what he could do and I advised her he could go on a foundation course to improve his maths and English. She then asked me what would happen if he still couldn’t pass. I had to tell her that he probably wouldn’t be able to get an apprenticeship. She said he had excellent practical skills, he just wasn’t very academic. I told her I understood but that the training providers were not funded to put people through the practical side of the apprenticeship if they couldn’t handle the functional skills.

It seems like those who can’t reach the required academic standard are being left behind and skills that are not academic are being devalued. Surely everyone deserves to be able to make a decent living if they’re prepared to work hard. I’d like to see a world with social mobility in both directions where all different skills are valued and people who don’t want to climb the greasy pole can still have a decent life.

At first it seemed as though the Conservative’s plan was to take the 200 million spent on Connexions and hand it over to schools to provide face to face guidance. Gradually it became apparent that the funding was to vanish completely.

In the opposition debate two weeks ago on Careers services for young people Nick Gibb claimed that the government cannot find “£200 million here and £200 million there”. But apparently they can find £250 million for weekly bin collections.

In the words of Jenny Chapman MP, careers advice is “not the sexiest subject out there” but for the sake of a 3 words in a bill (face-to-face) and £200 million, the government are wrecking an entire profession.