Justin King: Don’t let work experience debate destroy its real value

Justin King City Food Lecture

It would be nothing short of a travesty if the real casualties of the heated debate raging about work experience and big business end up being the very people many of these schemes set out to help in the first place.

I agree there are legitimate questions to be asked about which initiatives are appropriate for our young people, as well as for the long-term unemployed and other "hard to reach" groups. All work experience is not equal.

However, I must challenge the idea that getting work experience in any given business is somehow not a proper opportunity as some have suggested. Time and again we have heard the words "shelf stacking" used in a disparaging way.

The retail sector is arguably one of Britain's most meritocratic industries. The vast majority of our store managers and those in other retailers started out shelf-stacking and will tell you it was a vital part of their development. And it is valuable work. Only last week I spoke to a night shift colleague with 25 years' service who told me of the pride he takes in seeing a full, picture-perfect store ready for customers at the end of a hard night's work.

This is a perfect example of the value of work and the sense of fulfilment it can deliver and shows why we must not let the current noisy debate about work experience distract us from the scale of the challenge we face as business leaders and as a society more broadly.

There are people in this country who lack the confidence and skills to enter the workplace in a conventional way. Government cannot tackle these issues in isolation and those of us who put social responsibility at the heart of our businesses have to do what we can to contribute to a solution.

So, how then, should we move on from the current furore?

Understanding the barriers that some unemployed people face in getting back to work is a good place to start. Those out of work for a long time now face greater competition than ever before to find a job, and some face additional challenges such as having a disability or a criminal record. They may also be short on confidence and, crucially, any recent experience of the workplace. This is where businesses like ours are really able to help.

Coming off benefits after a long time can feel like a challenge in its own right. And the prospect of having to negotiate layers of bureaucracy to get back on to benefits if it does not work out can put people off trying in the first place. We were never participants in the government work experience programme, nor did we work with A4e. Our solution has been to offer short work trials in partnership with charities and agencies such as Remploy, Mencap and Jobcentre Plus so that those who want to work can literally "try out" a job to see if it is right for them.

These opportunities are always attached to a real vacancy and, far from exploiting those who choose to take part, are designed to protect them and their benefits for a short period of time while they have a go at a job, sometimes for the first time.

With rising unemployment figures and no prospect of an imminent economic recovery, big business has both a responsibility and an opportunity to play its part in getting people back to work. We must offer properly structured and meaningful work experience schemes that are fair and a genuine first step to a proper job.

For a young person, getting experience in any work environment can help them to understand their career options and give them something to offer future employers. Retail is a fast-paced environment and not right for everyone. There is no question that you get an invaluable insight into a business, both its challenges and opportunities, from the inside that is otherwise simply hidden from view.

Our participation in offering work experience bears this out and shows real success comes from both parties seeing it as a genuine opportunity. We have a long-standing commitment to this. Since 2008, the schemes we run have created 12,000 genuine job opportunities; 4,300 alone in 2011. And what we've learned is that success lies in three things. It must be voluntary, last only a few weeks and have the prospect of a real job at the end.

It's time to move this debate on. Most of us in work today had invaluable work experience in the early part of our working lives - this should not be denied to others. Properly-structured work experience is a good thing - especially if can lead to a real job. And given our current economic and social challenges, it has never been more important to provide the right kind of opportunities for the young and the unemployed of today.

This op ed originally appeared on page 4 in the Daily Telegraph Business section on 29 February 2012.

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  • Posted on: 29 February 2012
  • Type of article: Press release

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