When is a job not a job? When it's 'work experience'

I could have been a lawyer. I don’t mean in the way that anyone could, in theory, become a lawyer if they wanted to. I mean because I went to Oxbridge and I came from a family who could afford to support me through some unpaid internships or work experience to help me get a foot in the door. In fact, I did attend one milk-round event to find out how to become a human rights lawyer. Who knows what would have happened if it hadn’t been Linklaters?

The sad fact is that law, like other professions, has become more socially exclusive, not less.  Believe it or not, you were more likely to get a job in the professions if you were born into an average family in 1958 than if you were born just 12 years later, in 1970.  While only 7% of children are privately educated, 7 out of 10 judges and 6 out of 10 barristers attended an independent school.  The typical lawyer of the future will today be growing up in a family that is better off than five in six of all families.

The legal profession is certainly not the only guilty party.  Fair Access to the Professions, a 2009 report by an all-party panel chaired by Alan Milburn, found that family wealth, private education and privileged access to university remain the key to all the well-paid professions.  It found 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants and 32% of MPs had attended private school.

According to Milburn, across the piece, ‘birth, not worth, has become more and more a key determinant of people’s life chances [and] the trend is getting worse’.  Perhaps saddest of all is that no-one seemed particularly surprised by this finding, because we all know that it’s not just access to private education and the best universities that deny many the careers they might aspire to, important though that is.  Unfortunately, getting a foot in the door is still very much about who you know and not what you know.

Milburn’s report characterised the law as one of the ‘most socially exclusive’ professions and criticised it for having a ‘closed shop mentality’ that meant connections could count more than talent.  This is not too surprising when work experience has become so critical to securing a training contract, something confirmed by recent research showing ‘half the training contracts offered by the leading law firms are likely to be filled by graduates who have already completed work experience with the employer’.  The key question is how you get that work experience.

Although formal internships and vacation schemes are, on the whole, paid and subject to an application process, more informal arrangements, often the first step on the ladder, are normally unpaid and, predictably, handed out to partners’ and clients’ children and their friends.  Nepotism, it seems, is still rife, which is hardly surprising when even the prime minister is prepared to indulge in it by offering work experience to a neighbour.

To be fair, there are a number of initiatives aiming to broaden the range of people entering the legal profession, including the Prime scheme, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  But change is not going to happen overnight, not least because it is going to take a while before it becomes unacceptable for the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’ (of which I am probably one) to shoe-horn their own offspring into prime positions for the best jobs.

Which brings me to Nick Clegg’s campaign.  On the face of it this is a quite laudable attempt to end the ‘it’s who you know’ advantage in the jobs market, not least because his boss is clearly so relaxed about the whole nepotism thing.  The 100 plus big companies involved have pledged to pay young people on internships and advertise all work experience places to help boost social mobility.

As part of this campaign, the government is sending out guidance saying interns who do ‘real jobs’ must receive at least the legal minimum wage.  But how on earth does this fit with the government’s other initiative that requires people on jobseeker’s allowance to do eight weeks unpaid ‘work experience’?  And how does sending people to stack shelves in Tesco help social mobility?  Surely work experience should be aspirational and broaden horizons, not demoralise them to the point of despair.

I am not going to rerun all the criticisms of this reprehensible programme because many people who know far more than me about it have already done that.  But what I find somewhat curious, even repulsive, is that some of the firms involved in it are also involved in Clegg’s ‘social mobility’ drive.  So while the likes of Tesco are quite happy to pay any interns, presumably in management-type roles, they won’t pay a proper wage for some of their shop-floor jobs and instead fill them with free slave labour.

A classic case of ‘silo government’ if ever there was one, never mind what it says about the coalition’s seriousness in tackling the social mobility problem.  It may be a simplistic idea, not that there is anything wrong with simple ideas, but why can’t there be a bit of joined-up thinking for once.  Couldn’t the deputy prime minister’s group of enlightened companies provide real, and valuable, paid work experience to the unemployed?  With 25% of 2011 graduates unemployed, it’s not as if there aren’t any people suitably qualified.

Of course, not everyone wants to go into a profession.  I am not a ‘job snob’ and have done my fair share of cleaning, catering and retail jobs:  I even quite enjoyed some of them and, obviously, they need to be done by someone.  They can also lead to bigger and better things, it is not unheard of for CEOs to start out on the shop floor.  But they need to be real jobs, jobs that pay a decent living wage and offer prospects.  Companies have to stop replacing entry-level jobs with unpaid work experience, or those from less-well-off backgrounds won’t be able to get into any career, professional or otherwise.

The legal profession is at least doing something about Alan Milburn’s damning findings. From March, the Legal Services Board will require law firms to ask their staff, from trainees up, to fill out forms including voluntary questions on their socio-economic background as well as their gender and ethnicity.  Milburn has called on all professions to follow.  For once, maybe, the law can lead the way.



Posted in: Employment law

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