‘Sorry, we only take on graduates’, a snotty, trouser-suited woman sniffed, when I inquired about work experience opportunities at my local paper. But perhaps if I had an uncle or a friend of a friend who was pally with the editor, I would have had more of a shot at securing the week of experience I was so desperate for. Rather depressingly, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know — journalism is certainly no exception to this.
This is why I was pleased to find out that the Youth Select Committee’s next project is tackling the issue of barriers to work experience. With half a million young people unemployed, it is crucial that we start figuring out what’s going wrong.
Most professions require some form of experience to even get onto the career ladder, which leaves young people in a catch-22 situation — unable to get a job because they haven’t got experience, and unable to get experience, because so few businesses offer it. (Or only take on university graduates …)
And when the only people I know who have succeeded in acquiring work experience have a friend in a high place, it is clear that nepotism still prevails and is without a doubt a barrier.
So what can be done?
Last year, the Youth Select Committee received a formal government response to their recommendations on the issue of body image, so it is likely that the Committee’s decision to launch this inquiry will put barriers to work experience and youth unemployment on the government’s agenda.
Currently, there are no laws prohibiting nepotism in the workplace, even though it blatantly puts less well-connected young people at an automatic disadvantage. What is needed is more workplace regulation restricting favouritism, along with outreach programs to ensure that less connected — but just as able — young people are on an equal footing. This would of course benefit job seekers, but also the companies themselves, because they would be taking on the most able and productive candidates.
Moreover, workplace favouritism is not uncommon. According to a study published in 2016, almost 30 per cent of those surveyed said they had witnessed people who were evidently underqualified being given a job opportunity because they were favoured by the manager or owner. More than a third said they had observed fellow colleagues being given preferential treatment.
How can we expect to maintain a thriving and dynamic labour market when people are securing work experience, getting jobs and reaching the top of the career ladder merely because their daddy knows the boss? It undermines the whole principle of the free market and leads to inefficiency because people are not succeeding on the grounds of personal merit — which the UK economy is supposedly founded on. And more importantly, it means that the rest of us are even less likely to find work experience.
It is something of an elephant in the room. How many times have you heard someone say, Oh yeah, I got the job because I know someone who works there. You probably don’t think very much of it, but it is undoubtedly becoming a problem and is one of the barriers which I hope the Youth Select Committee will be investigating.
As much as the neoliberals would like to think that it is, the playing field is certainly not level. And it is well-off families who have the connections necessary to secure their children work experience, internships and graduate jobs. Seven in every ten young people aged between 16 and 25 use family connections to get their first job. But what about the other three in ten? We have no chance.