This week has seen an extraordinary assault on the government’s work experience programme. A scheme designed to help the young unemployed into jobs by offering them work experience has been denigrated as “slave labour”.
Campaigns of this sort depend heavily on emotion rather than facts. The scheme is, of course, neither compulsory nor an open-ended commitment to do unpaid work for the benefit of a large private sector employer. What it offers is a month-long placement, designed to give someone experience of employment in a sector where they might pursue a career. While unpaid, participants continue to receive benefits as well as their expenses.
Sadly, however, when mud gets flung there is always a risk that some of it might stick. Amid attacks from a pressure group – the “Right to Work” campaign – and lurid stories about abuses at other state workfare schemes, several big employers, including Tesco and Poundland, have questioned their participation. Others have vowed not to join at all.
Britain has a genuine problem with youth unemployment. With 22 per cent of those aged between 16 and 24 out of work, there is a risk of a “lost generation”. The weak economic environment has made businesses wary of hiring new workers and this disproportionately affects those looking for their first job.
It is too soon to know how successful the programme will be. But those who want to gain workplace skills should surely be encouraged to do so, rather than left to moulder at home. According to the boss of Greggs, the baking group, most of the participants he had met “liked it and want us to keep offering it”. Prior to the scheme, those on benefits who sought work experience had to surrender them.
The worst thing would be if the campaign deterred young people from joining the programme. David Cameron has rightly decried the “snobbery” that castigates working in a shop or a restaurant as drudge labour. This sort of thinking must be challenged. But the government might review the wisdom of withdrawing benefits from those who leave placements early. While rarely invoked, this is a presentational nightmare. If sanctions are needed, it might be better to find alternatives, such as community work.
There are no easy answers to Britain’s problem with youth unemployment. But at least the work experience programme contributes positively to the search for one. Its critics do not.
Get alerts on The FT View when a new story is published