“The whole ‘degrees are needed’ thing is another perpetuated bullshit lie. You don’t need a degree to be a receptionist.” Soph Warnes.
This post follows a conversation I had with someone from one of the local councils yesterday as I tried to sink my head into this engineering module I’m doing with the Open University. It also stems from some interesting tweets on internships by Soph Warnes and friends this evening.
One of the things I found in the civil service was how essential it was to have a sound core of competent “junior-grade” (I hate using that term too) administrators – for these people were the engines of the team. The work wasn’t particularly glamourous or intellectually taxing, but it was essential for the functioning of the team. Many of those that I met weren’t particular interested in climbing up the management chain. In return for providing that stable reliable engine for the team, they had a secure job. In an environment where political reshuffles meant managers switching roles all of the time, having someone who, for example had more than a clue about how the electronic filing system worked (and could teach others) were worth their weight in gold.
The temptation for firms is to use “must have a degree” as a means to ration the number of applications that they have to wade through. Going through a recruitment process is an expensive and time-consuming business for all consumed. On paper, the less time spent on recruitment, the more money saved…assuming that you are still able to recruit a suitable person. But how long will they remain around for before moving onto the next best thing? What price stability?
As we seem to be finding, sending large numbers of people to university is not the economic silver bullet some policy makers thought it would be. Instead of the exciting dynamic knowledge-based economy, we seem to have ended up with a lot of unemployed indebted and (understandably) very angry graduates who were sold a dream and were given a nightmare.
Graduating from university with debts means that job-hunters are naturally going for jobs that would otherwise be far below their skills level. I know – I was one of them back in 2004. In that year the regional government office took on quite a number of junior administrative officers (AOs in the trade) for which the basic academic requirement was five GCSEs A-C. Most of us had degrees, and a number of those that did not soon went onto university after the office was closed and they made compulsorily redundant. In a sense, the latter were lucky. They were able to spend their late teens and early 20s in the world of work, spending, living and generally growing up before heading to university with a redundancy package to see off some of the big debts they’d otherwise have taken on. But most others are not.
Commentators pejoratively talk about “bed blockers” in hospitals. (It’s not the patient that blocks the bed, it’s politicians and senior managers not ensuring that a) there are enough resources and b) that those resources are allocated to meet need). There is a risk that there’s a similar phenomenon in the world of work – graduates being employed in jobs that would otherwise go to those whose skills and ambitions match the job. How many job descriptions have the phrase “looking for a school leaver who is looking for a long term stable post in our industry”? Or perhaps something aimed at those looking to get back into work after time off for childcare.
One of the terms regularly used by pro-business types is ‘flexible labour markets’ – whether getting people to move to where the jobs are (rather than the other way around) to those calling for wages to fall as markets dictate. Yet you never see these “flexible labour markets” working at the top – as Christina Patterson’s article in the Independent covers. It’s almost got to the stage where I can’t be bothered to get angry about stuff like that. The fact that Fred Goodwin and Tom McKillop still have their knighthoods speaks volumes about the decision-makers in today’s political class given what they did. If the consequences of catastrophic behaviour was living in a hovel for 10 years, would it concentrate the mind of the masters of the universe?
Again, what price stability? The stability of being forced to work for a large profit-making corporation in return for your benefits? This for me is large firms outsourcing more of their costs onto the state and the people – costs that they would otherwise normally have to pay for. A far better alternative (again if the political classes had the courage) would be to have solid apprenticeships that justify the state investment in apprentices to providing higher levels of state benefits for those who take up part-time voluntary work with a not-for-profit/charity during the process of searching for a permanent post. That way the wider community benefits rather than having a small group (owners and shareholders) benefiting from work that they don’t pay workers for.
One of the other things that I’ve pondered about is of those who for whatever reason don’t have the ability or aptitude to function in a high-skilled job. I’ve just started an engineering module with the Open University and was left in awe of the skills and the pressures of those people who build satellites for a living. Your product costs over £100million and you have to get things right first time because you can’t call out the repair man when your product is in orbit. I can’t imagine ever having the skills to solder gold circuit boards under a microscope let alone coping with the “you really cannot screw this up!” pressure of having to get it first time every time. How many of us can?
I’ve blogged before about the curse of long term unpaid corporate and political internships. Emma Kosmin wrote in The Guardian how political internships damage the jobs market and only benefit the rich. This is also a form of ‘hidden unemployment’ – a form of unemployment that is subsidised by willing and able parents. People in longterm unpaid internships should be in paid jobs. Again, as I argued in the above-mentioned post, the existence of longterm unpaid internships is a market failure. Will the supposedly “pro-market” mainstream political parties tackle this market failure or will their silence be deafening?
Even with the entry-level jobs – what few there are, it’s not as if they pay enough for people to make a living out of. How many people are part of the boomerang generation? I’m part of it. I don’t want to be. I’ve met too many people who because of costs of living have been forced to move back in with their parents. I’m lucky in that my parents have allowed me to move back. I was talking to one apprentice in his late teens whose parents are telling him that it’s time for him to move out. But move out to where? Cambridge is not cheap. Just as long term unpaid internships and skills-to-jobs mismatches are symptoms of market failure and hidden unemployment, the boomerang generation is one of many symptoms of massive failures in the housing market – one which the Occupy Movement in the USA has started targeting. How long before activists in the UK start going after empty mansions owned by absentee landlords – in particular where the owners are based abroad? What will this mean for the legal system given the Coalition’s plans to criminalise squatting?
With so many people having sand kicked in their faces regarding jobs, housing and public services, (along with those responsible for all of this not being held to account), no wonder we’re angry!