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Internal Unemployment: How Fair Is That?

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 24/2/13

I’ll have a mocha and a part-time job to go, please


As I sat in Costa Coffee a few weeks ago, I considered applying for a job in one of the Manchester branches, thinking, I’m in here so often that I may as well work here. And I am desperate for a job, so beggars can’t be choosers, right?

Clearly I was not the only one with that idea, as it emerged a few days ago that more than 1,700 people applied for eight jobs at a new Costa store in Nottingham. Applicants for the posts ranged from graduates to former managers who were clearly overqualified for the positions.

I can identify with this. Like many graduates out there, I have had several jobs which I have been over qualified for, waiting it out for the ‘perfect job’ that may possibly never come my way. While I might come across as completely dejected and “woe is me”, some graduates have a more positive outlook.

Paul Unwin, a 24-year-old graduate, completed his master’s degree in in November 2011. While he now claims to be ‘cautiously optimistic’ now, he admitted feeling the opposite not so long ago. “Foolishly believing that a master’s would land me a job I spent several months reading rejection emails and wondering how to get experience when even entrance level jobs wanted experience,” he said.

“I was really disheartened around the 6 month mark, especially when I came back from the ‘interview’ for what turned out to be a work-placement cold calling. I remember coming straight back to the Jobcentre and losing my patience somewhat.”

Falling levels of unemployment?

For months now we have been hearing from the Government that unemployment is falling. It is their only ‘achievement’ since being in power, so no doubt they will want to bask in this glory. However, figures can be just as misleading as words.

As Rory MacKinnon pointed out in his article:

“Under the Office for National Statistics’ guidelines, ‘employment’ perversely covers not just employees, the self-employed and those in a family business, but also “those on government-supported training and employment programmes” — people who, by any reasonable definition, are not in fact in work.”

This is corroborated by a study by Sheffield Hallam University:

“In the UK there are two official measures of unemployment – the claimant count and the Labour Force Survey measure. In mid-2012 these point to divergent figures – 1.6m and 2.5m respectively. And neither of these figures is comprehensive. The problem is that in the UK there are well developed mechanisms that divert the unemployed between different parts of the benefits system, notably from unemployment benefits to incapacity benefits, or out of the benefits system entirely. Some of these men and women are counted in the official unemployment figures, but others are completely missed. The claimant count data available at this scale is plentiful, but the claimant count is the very narrowest measure of unemployment, missing huge numbers just about everywhere.”

Indeed, as neither Paul nor I claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, we would not be included in these statistics. In fact, Paul is now classed as ‘self-employed’, due to his freelance/voluntary work in collaboration with his local museum, demonstrating a rise in the “secret jobless.”

Unpaid internships

Most employers want to hire employees who have prior experience before taking them on, which is understandable; some professions are more competitive than others. This is where internships and work placements come in.

On the one hand, for some individuals, this has indeed paid off – two young women, aspiring journalists, said that their unpaid work placements had led to employment. Indeed, Paul claims that they can provide experience and confidence.

He said: “I worked for two-months at Learning Works last summer just before I signed off [from the Jobcentre] and it was a good experience; it got me out the house.

“I felt better knowing I was in a sense paying off the money I had been given on job seeker’s by putting something positive back in, and I felt it would help my CV by giving me some experience and showing employers I didn’t consider myself ‘overqualified’ or anything like that.”

But with some internships not paying anything more than travel expenses – in fact, on w4mpjobs, there are no current paid internships – unpaid placements remain a privilege for either those with generous parents who can help with funds, or those living in or close to London.

Libby, of Intern Aware, a campaign for fair, paid internships, insists that if an intern is doing real work for a company then they should be paid for that work. Moreover, she added that the vast majority of internships (particularly in journalism) take place in London, where the high cost of living means that most people couldn’t possibly live there without a wage. She said: “The LSE estimates that it costs around £1000 a month to live in London, and the average internship lasts around 3 months.

“That is £3000 that most young people just do not have. This means that people who do not have parents living a commutable distance from central London, or the means to financially support themselves, are completely cut out of these opportunities and from industries where internships are essential for your CV.”

In fact the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development guidelines explain that the rules for the national minimum wage apply if the arrangements are such that the intern counts as a worker rather than a volunteer. However, the issue of whether an intern classes as a ‘worker’ is made more complicated by the fact that, in some circumstances, they could instead be classed as ‘volunteers’.

Some people would ask, however, how do people get their dream jobs unless they are prepared to show they are willing to do unpaid work?

Libby was adamant: “A willingness to work for free shouldn’t mean the same thing as determination.” She recommends people to write to the head of the company and tell them why they would love to take up the internship but explain that they cannot afford to work for free.

However, in practise this does not always work. I did work experience at two regional papers, while I was unemployed. I asked if they would consider paying travel expenses as I was not working, but this was not possible. If I had not done these placements, then I would have missed out on some good opportunities, so I still went, even if it meant spending the last of my money on getting to those placements.


Cait Reilly

This proved somewhat tricky at the Jobcentre. Some JSA claimants have had issues with doing voluntary work or internships that have clashed with their terms set by the Jobcentre. This is demonstrated by the recent case of Geology graduate Cait Reilly, who successfully argued at the Appeal Court that her unpaid work placement at Poundland which she had been required to do to continue to receive benefits, breached laws on forced labour.

Why she could not have continued her voluntary work at her local museum while claiming her benefits is beyond me, given how she had merely swapped one form of unpaid work experience for another.

In fact, when I told my adviser that I was doing unpaid work experience (don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adored him), he said that as I had arranged the placements myself, it was not recommended, considering that all my effort should have gone into looking and applying for paid work and anything that ‘interfered’ with the job hunt was frowned upon, unless it was a placement arranged by the Jobcentre.

Paul agreed with this sentiment, having been offered unpaid placements at a supermarket by the Jobcentre, believing it to be detrimental, as it would have limited his history-based voluntary work.

As for pay, I asked myself why, if this particularly successful supermarket was so desperate for workers, could they not pay me for the 20 hours a week (I think it was 20 hours I may be mistaken) as that would get me off Job Seeker’s as well,” he said.

“I think it is a system that was devised with good intentions but, as with a lot of things, it has been abused horribly.”

For now, he is getting-by, with parents helping him financially while he can “take the gamble”  to get the experience he needs. His voluntary work at the local museum and school,where they hope to get funding to do some heritage projects in the area, is keeping him optimistic.

He said: “If these projects come off it might make somewhere like the British Museum have a second look at me.”

So, now what?

It is extremely hard to stay motivated and positive when all we hear in the news regarding jobs and unemployment is all doom and gloom. Perhaps all these articles that I oh-so-laboriously slog over will pay off. Or I should give up, as one or two individuals have not-so-kindly suggested.

Unemployment and countless rejections can take a psychological toll on a person. Hopefully, there are some employers and businesses out there who are thinking of innovative ways to recognise the talent that many Brits have to offer and take a chance on them.

For now, however, I remain optimistic that maybe Costa is hiring near me!


3 Responses

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