It is probably now safe to comment on last month’s debate regarding government work experience schemes without risking the wrath of The Guardian or The Daily Mail and being accused of a Trotskyite tendency or of unfurling the “make ‘em bloody work for it” banner.
What I do support is any initiative that gets young people into work and gives them a chance to get on the career ladder. I know from my past as a store and regional manager throughout the 1970s and 1980s that the numerous young people who went through the many state-sponsored work experience programmes of the day received an excellent vocational foundation. And what better than the grocery trade to provide the sort of grounding and training that is required for full-time work?
Many youngsters turned up ill-equipped by the education system, with poor appearance, lack of everyday people skills (manners) and no understanding of what working full-time meant. The system required the retailer to sign up to basic training and to monitor the individual’s progression through written reports. At the end of the scheme they would either have the opportunity of a full-time role or would enter the job market.
In my experience, most were offered full-time positions and in some cases even before the programme had finished, and in any event they were better prepared for the world of work than when they started.
I witnessed some remarkable changes in those youngsters who took part, and I know that many of them went on to have good careers in the retail trade and beyond, some even climbing to very senior levels on the management ladder. A far cry from my visits to their homes on rough sink estates demanding their mothers sent them to work when they failed to turn up! Can you imagine doing that today?
I therefore believe all work experience or apprenticeship schemes should be encouraged. The mechanics need to be right for the individuals, so companies, politicians, unions, and the “not real job” campaigners should co-operate to ensure the schemes work and to encourage participation. But the retailers should also play their part. So often we see the big four trumpeting the tens of thousands of new jobs they will create in the coming year, but how often do they boast about the number of school leavers made fit for the modern work environment?
The grocers need to show the determination to change young people’s lives by giving them confidence and skills. Above all, they have to have ambition, a trait so valued in those they successfully inspire.