Back in the 1990s I was travelling on a train from Waterloo, I think going to Surbiton. There were two businessmen in their forties talking with two Frenchwomen in their twenties. They were discussing (in English) the nature of employment in Britain and shared a common viewpoint that Britain was good for work because things were so flexible. One of the women asked if the men had read 'The State We're In' by Will Hutton (1996) which was the 'in' book at the time, a popular, serious book about the state of Britain before New Labour came to power. Of course, being British businessmen neither of them had been anywhere near a book on the economy or British society. Anyway, they were interested in why the women were in the UK. At the time it had been announced that there were 160,000 French living and working in London. She said it was because in France all careers were locked into particular paths. You studied the relevant qualifications at school and then went into that career. The tight link between specific qualifications and particular jobs meant it was almost impossible to change careers. She felt the UK was different allowing people to shift into fields in which there were vacancies at a particular time.
There has always been a drive to improve the quality of service that people receive in the UK and despite the British reluctance to ever engage seriously with vocational qualifications we have seen them increase, notably with the introduction of NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) in 1986. Employers liked them as they could be done in the workplace meaning that their workers would not be taken away from them even for a day per week as was the case with qualifications such as City & Guilds. With increasing regulation over standards, notably in catering and residential care it allowed them to comply with such standards without feeling they were giving up anything much. You have to bear in mind that every time there is a bank holiday in the UK, employers whine publicly about the laziness of British workers when we have five fewer per year, i.e. a working week's worth, less than the next nearest country in the EU. We have not yet moved to the situation of Germany where there are schools and qualifications for waiters, but the past two decades have seen the UK edge in that direction.
Now, I am a strong supporter of education for all. I also think that we have seen great improvement in service sector provision, especially in hygeine and in care for residential patients. However, we have now begun to move to the tram-lined employment patterns of France. As regular readers know I have now been unemployed for three months so am beginning to look well beyond my previous employment for work, both geographically and in terms of nature of employment. Of course, you always run up against job specifications saying 'must have substantial experience' which means that unless you joined that profession at 16 you stand little chance. Software is also being put up as a hurdle, not simply the Office packages we can all access comparatively easily, but also things like SITS management information software, Prince2 project management software, PASW statistical analysis software are just a few examples. However, it is now reinforced by 'must have ABTA qualification' to work in a travel agency; 'must have NVQ2' - in an advertisement for a groundskeeper. Now even manual jobs need qualifications. All employers now assume that any worker must arrive fully trained in the specific packages they use, no matter if there are other packages out there, or be considered utterly useless. British employers never want to train their staff, they always want someone else to do it for them.
I am torn between wanting good quality service in service industries, which I acknowledge comes from training, and yet realising that there are scores and scores of jobs even comparatively low skilled ones for which I will never be able to apply because back in 1992 I did not take an NVQ qualification in warehousing and in 2003 did not persuade my employer to buy one piece of software rather than the one he bought. Of course, in a period of unemployment, these employers will generally find someone out there who does have the precise qualification and expertise they want. In smaller towns it might be less easy and of course the more caveats you put on a post the smaller you make your supply pool so you increase demand in relation to supply and force up the cost, i.e. the salaries to secure those workers. Having such refined requirements may make it easier for recruiters by reducing the number of applicants, but in fact increases 'frictional' unemployment, because it may be that the only people with the relevant NVQ are in the town 15 kilometres away. Perhaps a particular local college did not teach that software and yet the people in the next town do not want to relocate to your town for the job. I suppose in the old Norman Tebbit attitude they should then be compelled to 'get on your bike' and travel for work. Of course, there are probably more opportunities to retrain these days certainly than was the case in the 1980s, but retraining needs time and money and the bulk of unemployed people lack both of those things.
So, given that I am excluded from so many jobs by their qualification criteria let alone my lack of experience, what options am I left with? Basically, in my district, two. The first is to work in a call centre. I was struck by one advertisement which said the job requires you to make a minimum of 250 calls per day, which by my calculation means that in a 7.5 hour day you have to make 1.8 calls per minute! Maybe that is possible if you were trying to cold call sell double glazing but this company is involved in cold calling to get performance data from companies. I guess it will take you more than 30 seconds for the call to be answered and the telephonist to even direct you to the right department even before you can begin to try to persuade the company to tell you about their performance. Thus, the day, in fact must be far longer than 7.5 hours. I also love the names call centre jobs now have, such as 'Customer Retention Advisor' which is increasingly common, whenever you try to cancel a service you get put on to a member of staff who tries to persuade you not to leave. This is a whole wing of call centre staff now, alongside the cold callers and the standard customer service staff (even the Department of Work and Pensions has adopted this approach, you now call up to 'sign on' and the call centre worker goes through a lengthy script).
The other job vacancy in my district for which you need no experience is to be as an extra or an actor/actress in 'adult', i.e. pornographic movies. It even emphasises on the advertisement, that whilst you must be over 18 for the job (there seems to be no upper limit, I suppose under ageism laws they cannot set one), it does not matter if your sexuality is 'straight, gay, bi or tri...' I have no idea what a trisexual is, though I must say that on a job application for a company I completed the other day there were four categories under gender, the two traditional ones plus male-to-female transexual and female-to-male transexual; interestingly hermaphrodite was not listed, but I guess these days you would be compelled to go into one of those transexual categories, even if you are not actually moving in one direction or the other.
Repeatedly coming up against qualification, software and experience is frustrating as what I had seen as the safety net of taking an low-skilled, low wage job is effectively barred to me in a way it was not back when I was last unemployed in the early 1990s. Employers can be choosy at present, but in time when employment increases they need to shake off the assumption that they have no responsibility for the training of their staff and that everyone must know the business precisely and what particular software the company has selected before they arrive. Otherwise they foster a narrowly focused workforce that is always going to be prone to unemployment as qualifications evolve and software packages become obsolete.