Esther McVey, the government’s Work and Pensions Secretary has said that teenagers should be encouraged to have Saturday jobs. If you’re more than about 35 years old, it’s little more than another ‘water is wet’ observation, but the fact it needed saying is instructive.
Ms McVey made the comments after official research, part of a review assessing the impact of Brexit on the UK labour market, claimed Britons were viewed as “less hard-working” than European immigrants. The research also showed that Brits had far higher levels of absenteeism than their European counterparts.
What Ms McVey said was that teenagers should get part-time jobs to help them prepare for work and she’s spot on. In an interview with a Telegraph journalist she said that there had been a fall of up to 60% in the numbers of young people with weekend jobs, resulting in many lacking the basic ‘soft skills’ needed for real employment. She said: “What you’ve seen from the 1980s, particularly in this country, is far fewer people doing Saturday jobs and doing jobs after school. It’s about people understanding what a boss wants and what you want out of a job.”
Employers need to apply for a licence to give a job to anybody under the age of 16, even for things like paper rounds. I’m sure the law was aimed at protecting children from getting roped into working full-time in Dickensian sweat shops, but I have to say I think this well-meaning law also causes harm by putting an administrative barrier between teenagers and their first jobs.
The benefits, in my experience
If you worked as a child, what did you get out of it? Most will say ‘money’, and that was my main motivation for working. Most parents (though not all, I know) allowed us to keep the money we earned and spend it as we chose. From age 13 we began to learn the lesson that if you wanted something, you had to work for it.
Some of us learned that if you were unreliable and were often late or just didn’t turn up to do your paper round, there was always another boy with his name on a waiting list who would take the job off you in a flash.
We learned how to deal with people outside our family and friend circles, how to talk to bosses and colleagues. We didn’t need to learn how to survive without glancing at a smartphone every few seconds because smartphones didn’t exist.
I didn’t like getting up early and I got sacked from 5 different paper rounds before I gave up on the idea. On the other hand, my Saturday job at Sladden’s greengrocers in the high street was brilliant. I was mostly there to keep the displays topped up, but once the owner realised my ability to count money in my head was as good as his and that customers liked me, I was also allowed to serve customers. I learned how to make old ladies smile when I served them, what to say to the old boys and how to deal with more or less everybody else. I also learned more about fruit and veg than most people would care to know.
At certain times of the year I looked for other jobs too. I took a temporary Christmas job every year from the age of 14 to 20, working in hotels or restaurants, sometimes working in the kitchens, sometimes as a makeshift and then ‘experienced’ waiter. One summer, I forget which but I must have been 16 or 17, I got a job working on the beach in my town, and ended the summer with a potful of cash, a new girlfriend and a brilliant suntan.
I have no idea what percentage of children genuinely have part time jobs (let’s ignore licences, as I’m sure many newsagents will too) but I have 7 neices and nephews, and I’m only aware of one of them having a job while they were at school. Until the age of 16 I lived in one of a block of 4 houses, where a total of 9 children (including myself) lived in 4 families. I remember that 6 of us had jobs at one time or another before I moved home, so I’d say the percentage has probably fallen significantly since I was a child.
Whilst it’s not really fair to generalise, I’m going to do just that here. Too many teenagers come froma school environment where they have no fear and precious little respect for teachers, and where discipline and punctuality is little more than a wistful memory in the minds of older teachers. Far too many have no idea whatsoever what working requires of them, how to speak to bosses and colleagues, what timekeeping and reliability mean, and how to cope with not being the centre of attention of either a teacher, parent or friend.
Teenagers these days understandably confuse defiance with independence. Independence comes in different forms but when you are 14, 15 or 16 years of age and are already earning money, you start to attain a degree of independence, even if only to the extent of not having to beg parents for money. These days too many confuse a stroppy teenage ‘you can’t do anything to me’ mentality with independence, and it seems to take a couple of sackings to get rid of it.
I just asked my sister about this and she reminded me what her son had done while he was young. He’d sorted out a Saturday job at a local boating store and also did gardening jobs for a few elderly folks in the area. When he was 15 he bought his own sailing dinghy (my sister had promised to contribute £1 for every £1 he saved up for it) and, having excelled at the sport since he was about 12-13 years old, started giving sailing lessons.
Having a part time job won’t turn every kid into Richard Branson or stop them stealing to get what they want. It won’t necessarily teach them to like getting out of bed early (I’ve never liked it) and dosn’t guarantee that it’ll make them employable, but it certainly gives them a far better understanding of the world outside family and school confines. It sure as hell doesn’t do any harm.