Back in my days of literacy teaching, when I worked with adults whose linguistic skills ranged from non-existent i.e. barely able to read and write, to threshold GCSE, I always started my classes by talking about what my learners COULD do because this helped to build confidence and let them know that I valued their skills as much as they valued mine. We sometimes played a game where, as a group, we allocated jobs in a fictional stranded on a desert island scenario, and it made them chuckle when I commented that I’d be the first one to be barbecued and eaten, as knowing where to place a comma would be extremely unhelpful if shipwrecked: unable to build a shelter, whittle a simple bow and arrow or fishing rod or build a fire rendered me something of useless hanger on, more useful for my meat content than anything else. Knowledge and skills are of course, contextual. I think of this often in my current job as a careers and skills adviser and with great sadness because lately I meet more and more individuals who are condemned to long term unemployment because their skills don’t work in the context in which we now live.
The current UK job market has shifted so much over the last 50 years: the task of applying for work, even unskilled work, requires literacy and computer skills beyond the grasp of many, young and old; unskilled work has become rarer and more competitively sought; qualifications have replaced experience as an indicator of job role suitability and an increasing professionalisation of even manual work has taken hold. Global capitalism has led to the outsourcing of production: in the past 30 years alone, the UK’s manufacturing sector has shrunk by two thirds. This process, termed ‘de-industrialisation’ goes hand in glove with the growth of what New Labour termed the ‘knowledge based economy’ i.e. lets flog ideas, tourism and brands instead of objects, be the brains of the operation rather than the hands. (for a more in-depth and intelligent exploration of the subject go to Aditya Chakraborrty’s excellent Guardian article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/nov/16/why-britain-doesnt-make-things-manufacturing)
I work on the front line: every day I meet individuals caught in the struggle to find meaningful work with which they can support themselves; for example, I meet many who have supported themselves brilliantly through practical trades all their lives who now find that this is no longer an option. The recession, which is a direct consequence of our unsuccessful economic policies, has killed the construction trade; in addition, even simple labouring now requires a health and safety ticket, beyond the grasp of those with poor literacy skills or without the money to pay for it. I regularly meet men who have driven dumpers for 25 years but can no longer do so because they cannot afford the £500 needed to gain certification or feel that they cannot take a test because they can’t read or write very well; young people who have fantastic practical skills but are shy and can’t sell themselves at interview so stand no chance of getting a job or even an apprenticeship; people with learning difficulties, who are actively seeking repetitive work, factory work and the like but there just isn’t enough to go round. The list is endless. How can we help these individuals, who grow in number year by year?
These are a common stories and heart breaking ones: many of these individuals have a strong work ethic and, for them, being out of work can lead to ill health, depression or alcohol abuse (more customers for the overstretched NHS). I have listened to more than one tale of woe which ended in a confessional of suicidal impulses: I think it says much that a careers adviser should be the witness to this kind of emotional desperation
And it’s not just the older generation who suffer: as a teacher, I taught many apprentices who were fantastic bricklayers, hairdressers or carpenters, but who were simply unable to grasp how to place a comma, or a plural apostrophe. The local college has now made it a matter of policy that individuals who are unable to gain GCSE C standard English and Maths cannot continue to study their trade to a level which will help them gain employment: the ranks of the unemployed and unemployable grows and grows.
I am regularly reminded that it is part of my job to challenge these individuals and I do: I encourage all my customers to engage with education and training and to gain better IT skills which will enable their job search and job applications. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a teacher, and I believe in education as a force for change, for self development and growth, social, economic and individual (but this means we must see education as more than a tool for churning out accountants and software engineers- another subject dear to my heart). As a teacher I did all I could to engage my learners, to contextualise the skills they needed to develop and to value the skills which they had. But to imagine that this is sufficient is naive: more often than not I could not overcome the problems wrought by generations of low aspiration, poverty or poor nutrition to name but a few, and at times it was hard to argue that it was even necessary: I would not choose a bricklayer based on the quality of his written work; must a cleaner have an NVQ? We cannot even begin to address the issues of our de-industrialised economy without changing some of the fundamental inequalities at its heart: as I witness first hand Labours’ ineffectual attempts to provide a political alternative and the Tory answers to these problems, slashing benefits, scapegoating claimants and continuing to pursue economic policies which widen the gap between rich and poor, I wring my hands in despair. Who will speak for these disillusioned and marginalised individuals?