People who resist subsidised cheap labour aren’t snobs

Faiza Shaheen - I’m a jobs snob. Iain Duncan Smith should be one too. | the new economics foundation

There was also an article in yesterday’s Guardian from someone with a genetics degree from the same university as me (Aberystwyth), who protests against being forced into “meaningless assignments” in jobs in which he already has experience, aimed at instilling “discipline” when his success at getting a degree should prove that he already has that, in the same sector:

The Jobcentre has done nothing but hinder me in my search. When I was asked what qualifications I had, and I told them about my degree, Btecs, A-levels, AS-levels and GCSEs, they responded with “Are you sure? Have you got certificates to prove that?” To be patronised and looked down on didn’t faze me, but what did was the suggestion by a personal adviser that I take my degree off my CV, saying it might be scaring employers. I steadfastly refused, and later asked another staff member who said there was no way any adviser would suggest a customer remove a qualification.

Things degenerated when another adviser referred me to the “flexible new deal” programme. They made me attend a course at Pertemps People Development Group. This was a few rooms of rented-out office space with a projector, whiteboard and a few computers. My assignment was to complete a large black folder’s worth of worksheets, with topics like “verbal and non-verbal communication” which was more or less sit up and smile, and interview techniques with innovative methods such as not swearing and wearing a shirt and tie. All for a level 1 NVQ, which according to is worth the same as a GCSE grades D-G.

After this my adviser decided that work experience was all that mattered. This was despite the fact that I already had work experience. As a student I was a “team member” at McDonald’s, “customer assistant” at Morrisons and even briefly worked for an online retailer, managing their website. This was all on my CV.

Why then did the “adviser” refer me to the mandatory work activity that is designed for young people who require “discipline” as they have “never had a job”. I have had jobs. I have discipline. I couldn’t have passed my degree without it. I have successfully passed over a hundred exams in my academic career, each one of them a good example of how I possess the skills of “arriving on time”, “carrying out specific tasks” and “working under supervision”, the aims of the mandatory work activity. Why are graduates being placed on this scheme at all?

I’m also a graduate (albeit in a humanities subject, or rather two, and I’m not sure what his grade is — mine is a 2.2). I’m not so sure that achieving a degree necessarily demonstrates that someone is particularly disciplined: a lot of students doss too much (I did) and only get their studying done at the last minute to get their essays in. I also have experience of working in a supermarket, and although that was a number of years ago, the job cannot have changed much — a till is still a till, the currency is the same, you stack shelves the same way, and so on. There are other reasons why people cannot just walk into shelf-stacking or customer service jobs: for one, they are being cut back because of the increase in self-service tills at major supermarkets, and second, shop jobs are not easy to just walk into, particularly if you do not fit the profile of a shop attendant. It took me months to land a four-hour Saturday job in Woolworth’s in 1993 (along with ridiculous interviews in which I was repeatedly asked why I really wanted to work with their customers), and if you are a young person with a degree, you will be assumed not to be in it for the long haul. Shop attendants used to be middle-aged women; nowadays, they are often recent immigrants whose English is poor.

Ian Duncan Smith accuses opponents of the scheme of “ignorance and snobbery” in considering shop work as not real work, and claims that young people are deluded into thinking that they can sit around and wait to become a TV star through a show like the X Factor. He uses the example of Terry Leahy, the former CEO of Tesco who “started life scrubbing floors at a Tesco store in his school holidays”, as if he simply rose through the ranks from floor scrubber to chief executive. The truth is that after leaving school, he studied management science at UMIST (a university in Manchester) and became a marketing executive for Tesco in 1979, two years after leaving university. The majority of people who take jobs as shop assistants rise no higher than supervisor, or maybe take a role in the back office. Major companies run management training schemes which often take on school leavers, and there are those like Leahy who studied management at university. Taking a job as a shop assistant does not lead to a management role.

It is not the critics who are snobs, but those promoting this scheme: they are wealthy men who are snobby about people, inventing stereotypes about work-shy dole scroungers who would rather claim benefits than work, or do work that is “below them”. This wealthy class seems to think that ordinary people exist to serve them, and have never had to do the sort of jobs they require benefit claimants to do now. We find, for example, that unpaid JSA recipients have been “employed” in cleaning private houses and corporate offices. Staff are being expected to work unpaid, sometimes in full-time jobs, for considerably longer than could be justified on training or self-proving grounds; there are jobs in which it might be justified for a new starter without a good work history to show that he or she could do the job unpaid for a month or so (although that should be on the basis that they get paid for that month if they do so prove), but working on the shop floor is not among them as all the skills can be learned in hours, and if someone has already done this kind of work, there is no justification whatsoever. It also relieves the companies of having to pay existing staff overtime or take on new staff, which may in turn lead to less work (and thus redundancies) in the personnel department. The fact is that many middle-class people have worked in menial jobs to simply make ends meet while they find something better. What is objected to is an unpaid work scheme which acts as a subsidy to large companies at the expense of both existing workers and those seeking work. It is a scheme invented by the rich, to further enrich the rich while improverishing the poor.

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