Yet again, large corporations have come under fire from the press for employing unpaid young people for up to six weeks under government job-seeker schemes.
This week Halfords and Prudential are the latest to have been accused of “taking advantage” of the scheme by using young people for unpaid labour. (Guardian UK) Under the Youth Obligation Scheme, a new offer introduced in April this year, 18 – 21 yr olds who have not taken on any kind of work experience six months after signing on to jobseekers allowance could lose their benefits if they turn down unpaid work options. These placements are designed to be of “community value” and can last up to 18 months.
The government have defended the scheme, claiming that it is intended to ensure young people gain experience that employers find attractive. These placements are organised in conjunction with the local Job Centre Plus' and either consist of work experience, traineeships or apprenticeships. Most schemes are between six weeks and six months. Halfords, who run a shorter programme, have placed 45 young people on their trainee scheme into employment within the business. It is not clear that this scheme was designed with the Youth Obligation in mind or whether it is simply an ongoing youth scheme that local JCPs have subsumed.
In March when the Work and Pensions Committee published their report discussing the scheme, they laid out a warning that the DWP must “offer the right support to young people”. (9th Report 16-17) Young people at the start of their careers need to be afforded a wide range of experiences to reflect the expanse of job roles in the working world, which the scheme has not yet delivered. Whilst the report went on to acknowledge that those imposing the sanction had some discretion, it recommended that there be “a clear expectation that [JCPs] will not mandate young people to attend placements that are not appropriate for the stage that they are at in moving towards work”. It highlighted the DWP evaluation, which supported concerns that where young people were forced to attend placements that did not reflect their aspirations, host organisations “believed that it was unlikely that either the host or the claimants would have a positive experience”.
It seems, however, that young people face very little alternative than to take up a scheme which may be of little relevance to their futures when the alternative involves losing all of their benefits and support system. During the early stages of consultation, charities working with young people cautioned that the use of mandatory work placements and “work for your benefit” schemes could leave a bad taste in not only the young person’s mouth, but also that of larger corporations concerned they would get bad press. The committee report mentions many times the dissatisfaction from employers (potential hosts) over previous JCP engagement and their unwillingness to commit to the Youth Obligation Scheme, as if in proof of that.
The government is right to look at closing the gaps between academic and vocational pathways into employment, thus reducing unemployment overall, but it is hard to see the positive impact on young people six months in. The foundations are built on unwilling hosts and poor employer-JCP relationships locally; there is a lack of flexibility in sanctions; the range of options presented appear minimal and cumulatively, this does not set young people up for a positive experience. As the JCPs gear up to hand out the first sanctions this month we can only wait to see what impact this will have on the young people reliant on this support and hope to be reassured.