Work experience: business gives a lesson to government

Work experience? Where are with that this week? Suddenly giving young people the chance to sample the world of work has become intensely controversial.
Of course work experience is a good thing. Likewise, it's never a good thing to exploit people giving their labour for free.
I'm not very concerned about people shelf staking. Someone has to do it. It's an essential part of running a supermarket. What's more important is that such activity should not amount to the be all and end all of the work experience. 
I think the really interesting development in all this is why Sainsbury politely declined to be involved in the government's scheme.
CEO Justin King was on Radio 4 yesterday explaining that he thought Sainsbury's own programme was better than the government's because he did not want anyone compelled to take part. Participants had to make their own choice.
Now, that may look like a political statement about free will. But I don't think it is. It's a cool headed decision about the kind of people you want in the business. If they make their own choice to be there, they are motivated. And that's the key. Even if it is only stacking shelves you want motivated people to do it. Why? Because they respect the job and they stick around. That means better productivity and less staff turnover. And that should add up to lower costs and a better deal for the customer.
Yesterday government u-turned on the element in their work experience programme which tied continuing to receive benefits to completing the work programme. There is now no threat hanging over those involved in the scheme.
That was an important step for government. It's significance is that it should be a lesson in what motivates people to work. We no longer live in a world where it is work at any cost, even in these difficult economic times. People want to feel valued. They wish to feel that their personal/individual choices are being respected. Government was way behind business in thinking about that. 
Indeed, businesses in the scheme complained to government that they did not want a threat attached to work experience. That reflects the fact that they wanted the people coming into their organisations to be motivated. It also reflects that fact that they did not want to be attached to a "political" decision to compel people to take part. That always looks like a political decisions and why would you want to be part of that. 
What we see here then is the private sector demonstrating a better understanding of workers, and according more respect to them, than the state.
Of course it's not catastrophic. According to government the work scheme has been successful in many cases and we should probably take their word for it. But what a salutary lesson. Don't think for a minute I believe business holds all the secrets to better public policy. It certainly doesn't. But in this case business revealed a certain enlightenment that seems to have escaped government.


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