A Good Job Well Done. Or Not.

14th December 2012

Heather Harris mourns the death of weekend work

Apparently it does grown on trees. After all those years in which my parents drummed into me the utter arboreal impossibility of harvesting money, a study reveals that today’s teenagers clearly believe this is what happens. At least, they’re certainly not going out to earn it…

According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), the number of young people working on a Saturday has halved since the mid 90s. ‘The proportion of 16-17 year-olds taking weekend jobs has plunged to just 20%. Increasingly young people are not getting their first taste of the jobs market until they have finished formal education in their early 20s,’ it states.

And Lord Sugar, currently presiding over the third series of Young Apprentice (final episode: 20 December), for one, is not happy. He recently recalled how his first job in a chemist on a Saturday morning gave him a taste for business.

“I taught the boss how to increase sales of Milk of Magnesia by instead of asking ‘large or small?’ say ‘do you want the small 1s 6d one or the extra value 2s 6d one?’… Hey presto, nine out of ten chose the large one and profits soared.”

My own tentative first step on the job ladder was rather less successful. A loud voice and rare love of vegetables made me a natural choice to work on our local market stall. Their faith in me bore fruit until a sudden drop in temperature revealed a tendency towards frostbite and I was replaced by a warmer blooded rival.

Needing money to finance my desire for Donny Osmond records and flares (yes, yes…), I joined the gravy train once again, this time at our local Pukka Pie factory. Despite the lingering smell of steak and kidney ruining any chance of finding romance at the Saturday night Scout Disco, I loved the fact I had money in my pocket.

And all my friends seemed to share this philosophy. Some jumped in at the deep end and worked as lifeguards; others put their ‘sole’ into their jobs at the local chippy, put their best foot forward at Clarke’s or worked their socks off at M&S.

My brothers washed cars and mowed lawns for elderly neighbours but tended to be paid in biscuits and Vimto – so my parents put their names down for local paper rounds.

How times have changed. In the 70s, before the weekend newspapers weighed more than a small oak, demand for rounds was fierce. Now, according to my local newsagent, “Even paying more than the minimum wage and asking for just a couple of hours work we struggle to get reliable paper boys and girls. They just don’t seem to need the money!”

But it’s not all their fault. The reason that many youngsters lack the financial incentive to propel them out of the door on a Saturday morning is the attitude of their parents. As one father of 16-year-old twins explained, “They get so much homework that there’s really no free time for them to get part-time work at the weekends… so we give them a monthly allowance.”

The sentiment is echoed by Valerie Todd, a commissioner at the UKCES. “There’s more emphasis on doing well at school; young people are finding less time to do what they would have done a few years ago whether that’s a paper round or working in a local shop.”

And it’s not helped, too, by the attitude of some teachers. One schoolmaster, anonymous, observed, “I grumble whenever I see pupils working behind shop counters on Saturdays as they should be putting effort into studying so they can get a proper job later on.”

The problem is that, in a recession, with ‘proper jobs’ becoming as rare as a hot summer’s day, more and more part-time work is being taken by graduates frustrated in their search for full-time work. Add to this the influx of migrant workers and it’s not difficult to see why even those 20% who do want part-time work are struggling to find positions.

Sport also has its part to play. When there’s a choice between playing football/ netball/swimming for the local village/ school team on a Saturday morning or stacking shelves at Sainsbury’s there’s generally no contest. And few can argue that encouraging teenagers to dispel their raging hormones at a sports centre every weekend is just as good for society as seeing them tackle a pile of dirty dishes or take on the role of sweeper at the local hairdressers.

What playing sport or poring over the books doesn’t give them, however, is that oh-so-valuable work experience. As UKCES states, “Recruiters place significant emphasis on experience – but young people are leaving education increasingly less experienced.”

In other words, they may have a stack of A and A* grades as long as their arm but ask them to cope a with a queue of customers of equal length and they’d fail miserably. Ability to communicate with the public face-to-face and not via a computer screen is also being lost.

The Government has taken steps to solve the problem. In July, it announced a planned change in the system of funding education after 16, making it easier for young people to get work experience. From September next year, schools and colleges will be funded per student and not per qualification. This will mean that there will be an incentive for youngsters to do other activities and not just bury their heads in books in an effort to boost grades.

Employers are also being encouraged to look beyond the list of academic achievements at the top of a CV and see how a candidate has shown an interest in an industry by doing work experience in the field. My daughter’s chosen field is actually full of horses and she spent her summer shovelling ‘manure’ with one mud-splattered eye on a future career in animal care.

In The Guardian recently, Jeevan Vasagar, the paper’s Education Editor, made a valuable point: there’s nothing like paid work for reminding pupils just how much basic literacy and numeracy skills matter. If more teenagers acquired Saturday jobs, he asserted, perhaps fewer employers would bemoan the lack of basic skills among school leavers.

A survey by the CBI actually found that one third of employers had been forced to give new recruits lessons in maths and basic English.

Not me though. That brief experience in outdoor retail still comes in handy thirty years later. There’s nothing like a crowd of freezing customers baying for bargain bananas to speed up mental arithmetic skills. Add to this the manual dexterity skills developed from putting pies into holes on a fast moving conveyor belt and the negotiation skills required to persuade my boss to give me a Saturday off –and I’m every current employer’s dream.

Hopefully this latest study will be a wake up call – for parents and teenagers. It will, one hopes, set alarm bells ringing and encourage them out of their beds on a Saturday morning and out to work.

If they can make the effort, they will be rewarded with a blossoming career which pays more than the peanuts they once sold behind their local bar…

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