22 November, 2014

The changing world of work

I read with interest the recent furore surrounding Greencore. This sandwich manufacturer, which supplies ready made sandwiches to several of the big supermarket chains, hit the news because it had been in Hungary hiring staff, when local unemployed people in Northampton (the factory's base) knew nothing about the vacancies. People were outraged that an employer was looking abroad, rather than locally in the first instance, to hire its staff.

However, what really struck me about this news story was something rather different. First off, I was somewhat surprised that sandwiches were made by people on a production line, having naively assumed that such an activity would be mechanised. It was also interesting that despite the long hours, low pay, and cold conditions that the work entailed, one employee (a graduate from Poland) considered the job "a great opportunity". I know a number of people in similar situations -- highly-qualified graduates from across the EU who work in low paid roles in the catering and hotel business. There simply isn't the work available in their specialist areas in their home countries, or indeed in this country, hence they are forced to  find work where they can. What counts as "a great opportunity", then, is very much relative -- dependent on the particular circumstances in which you find yourself.

Things have changed a lot over the past three decades or so. Graduating in the very early nineties, I was just at the start of the employment situation becoming tougher. Having a good degree from a good university was no longer a passport to anywhere you wanted to go in the world of work. Ten years earlier, and things were quite different. A colleague recently told the story of how he dropped out of university at the end of his first year and then managed to get a job as a radiographer (without any experience in the area). Several years later, he returned to university and studied for an undergraduate and a Masters degree simultaneously! That kind of trajectory simply wouldn't be possible in today's world.

All of this makes me feel nervous for my own children. I (and they) assume that they will go to university but where, exactly, will that lead them? Quite possibly into low paid and/or unskilled roles with few prospects. Or perhaps halfway across the globe in search of something better. Or maybe, just maybe, things will have come full circle over the next decade and the world will again be their oyster.

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