“You don’t need a degree to be a receptionist”

“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!

2 thoughts on ““You don’t need a degree to be a receptionist”

  1. I grew up with nothing, no confidence, no self-esteem and in poverty. I worked my backside off through university. I built up my confidence my self-esteem and my education. I learned to dream, I learned to hope, that I was just as good, if not more capable than those around me. And I learned I could have a good life, I didn’t have to follow my mother into dead end jobs that meant being surrounded by people in suits not even noticing you as you scrubbed the floors as they walked past, knowing they were paying her so little she could barely survive but not bothering to stop for a second, to think about the impact they and their miserly pay were having on her and her family.

    I’ve had to work for my benefits way back in the year 2K. – for 16 quid on top of my benefit for 40 hours a week. I was doing something useful for my benefits and was useful to the University where I worked. My boss was honest and upfront. He told me on day one, none of us would get jobs at the end of the forced scheme because there was no money to pay for the jobs.

    For me, I was being abused. I was working as a Change Manager no less. Everyone inisisted it was useful and good for me. Right, all those years studying to ensure I would escape poverty….thrown in my face… all those people around me earning money I could only dream of, going out for drinks, having a life, their holidays, the wedding they went to, their special outfit for the occasion. Every day, they shared their life’s pleasures around the office where I worked I could only dream of it… yet I was forced to do a job others were paid tens of thousands of pounds to do for next to nothing. I was living on so little I could barely feed myself, couldn’t afford a phone, couldn’t afford to visit my friend in hospital five miles away was repeatedly described as useful and good for me. Since when is a daily dose of being reminded you aren’t worth the bother of paying good for you? Since when is a daily dose of being reminded you are a lesser person good for you? since when is going home night after night, broke and looking at your family, knowing you are a failure in their eyes, a waste of education, a waste of effort and have got nowhere good for you, the look that says, ‘You know, you’d have a job that paid you a living wage long before now if you’d been a sentenced to prison for a crime, you’d be better off’.

    Good for who? It’s good for those who have a financial interest in keeping unemployment high, wages low. It was never good for me. I didn’t need to learn to get up in the morning and have a routine. I’d been learning that since the age of 5 for goodness sake! I didn’t need to learn how to mix with people. I was born to parents; aren’t they people? Cousins? Kids at school, aren’t they people? What about all the adults I mixed with all the way through university? All my friends, they are all people too, surely. It’s patronising nonsense. Nonsense. And you all know it is nonsense.

    The number of people I’ve known in my life who been there and done it is shocking. 20 years I’ve watched this happening. If an employer can refuse to interview someone for having poor English, then we should refuse to have such employers who can claim with a straight face a person who is British born and raised, educated in Britain with a fist full of school qualifications, a degree in politics and a Masters degree is unable to prove their ability to use the English language on the basis of not have the certificate in English most 16 years normally take, then we have to admit our society is broken, not at the bottom, not on the streets, but at the top, in government and in the boardrooms of every company, and every organisation.

    So don’t palm me off with the receptionist job. And don’t palm me off with the ‘might has well work for your benefits and be useful’ nonsense. If I can’t feed myself, if I can’t keep warm, clothe myself, and have some kind of a life, then society needs to face the failings of their economy and the impact on the people who suffer it. That’s useful. Expecting the people who can’t find jobs when unemployment is deliberately high is simply bare-faced, arrogant, selfish cheek, it takes audacity to pull that one off yet again after all these years of it continually failing. If this society can not or will not turn on those employers who demand of us education, then run us away, abuse us as cheap labour, then this society is of no value to me. This society has harmed me quite deliberately and callously. It didn’t choose me by name. I was simply one of the ones who drew the short straw. A lot of us did.

    It is harming yet another year of school leavers, another year of graduates and will continue to harm them. Harming one is one too many. If the employers aren’t useful in providing decent jobs, meaningful jobs, they are not useful to our society. Get them out. If the establishment can’t be useful in providing an economy where we all flourish get them out. They are not useful. Time they stop demanding of us. They work for us. It is for us to demand usefulness, not them. We’re tested relentlessly, and those tests are never deemed sufficient. It is a daily insult on all of our efforts. And it has been a daily insult for years. No more of this employers handing basic arithmetic to anyone who has a certificate. The sheer nerve to be handing a physics PhD a simple arithmetic test in order he may be selected to interview for a job on a supermarket check-out is not only a waste, it is a breathtaking indictment of our companies, their employees and our governments.

    And since when was there ever a requirement to have a degree to be able to have a half decent life? Since when? What is all this talk about I went to university to get an education? Excuse me, school is not a coal mine. 16 year olds are educated. University graduates are more educated. we are all entitled to decent pay, decent living standards. A degree is not akin to a driving license. Graduate or not, you still need to eat, have a home, clothes, warmth, a holiday, a life, culture…

    Enough is enough. I was robbed of my confidence and my self-esteem, my sense of worth. My country robbed me of those hard won battles. I want them back and I want to be sure this country will never ever stoop so low as to ever do it to anyone ever again. I won’t hold my breath though. It isn’t me who needs fixing. It wasn’t, not from the day I decided to apply for university. That was the route to fixing me. It isn’t our kids who need fixing. It isn’t our unemployed who need fixing, need help to be useful. They’ll be useful and healthy in an economy that has a place for them. Fixing them is no different to administering pain relief to someone suffering from an inflammation of the appendix so severe it will be lethal if not dealt with surgically.

    No more palming off, no more working beside someone you know is vastly underpaid, no more working beside someone who is being abused simply by being there and not being paid their due, no more demanding test after test of people for the most menial of tasks. No more destroying, kicking, pushing people like they are sawdust on the mill floor. We aren’t sawdust. We are people.

    We are owed a life, a decent safe life and that debt to us was marked on the cards at the moment each of us were born. It’s time we had that life, not some scheme that massages the egos of the politicians and the civil servants. That’s not why we are here, that’s not why we have governments and civil servants. They are here to ensure we have what we are owed.

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