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There's Nothing Wrong With Stacking Shelves

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The debate continues about the government's work experience scheme for young people. Whilst government ministers struggle to clarify the benefits of the scheme, they are increasingly drowned out by a vocal campaign (condemned by right-wing commentators as the work of the Socialist Worker Party). They've been clever enough to compare the scheme to the controversial US Workfare which requires participation in certain schemes to retain benefits, but as ever there's misinformation being spread from both sides so it's hard to find the truth. One thing that has really infuriated me though is the liberal elitism that has condemned all supermarket careers as shelf-stacking, and shelf-stacking to be of no worth.

Without descending into an impression of the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch I worked in a supermarket throughout my youth. I learnt many skills especially that a red waistcoat and bow tie suit few people, but the most important of them was getting on with other people (some of whom you may actively dislike) and turning up for work on time.

These are very basic skills, but a CBI survey last year found that 55% of school leavers lack them. These are skills that are almost impossible to teach in a classroom; they are best experienced. The government work-experience scheme intends to give long-term unemployed young people a much wider experience of the workplace, and the 100 or so employers participating invest time and effort into creating and mentoring such programmes. But for me that's not the important bit, if 4 weeks stacking shelves gives them the life skills and motivation to be able to find a job then I'm happy with that.

But, they scream, why should the government subsidise the wages bill of large PLCs? Isn't work experience just 'slave labour'? Putting aside the cost to the companies of creating and administering their work experience programme, no-one is working for free. The new work experience programme continues benefits, and allows the payment of expenses, during the four weeks. The huge benefit to the government, and the reason it's perfectly valid to expect it, rather than the companies, to pay is that the majority of young people will be confident and skilled to find a job quickly at the end of the programme. They will cease to be a long-term claimant. This is an investment that adds-up both from a moral and a financial point of view.

There's also the accusation that this is forced labour. The rules of the programme are that there may be penalties if, after the first week of getting to know the company and what's expected, the person fails to turn up. A quarter of the total work experience period seems reasonable to get to know what's expected. It's hugely disruptive to the companies if people just don't turn up and waste the time of their mentors, and frankly it doesn't teach the life skills it's intended to. If I don't turn up to work you can bet there is a discussion and potentially a penalty!

The alternative to these government work experience programmes is to rely on company-led internships. With the government cracking down on unpaid internships for breaking Minimum Wage rules they are become fewer. Regardless of their availability internships are often pernicious. They are mostly unpaid and therefore only feasible for those supported by wealthy parents or willing to stack shelves in Tesco at night. Internships are arguably the real slave labour.

Even if work-experience were just about shelf-stacking there's nothing wrong with that. t's a valid job; some even make a career out of it. Anything that gives our jobless young people the skills and motivation to start their career is to be celebrated. You're not better than that, no-one is, go and Occupy a job!