Shadow Work: Preparing Students For A Depressed Labour Market

‘Shadow work’ is the term for tasks previously performed by paid workers but which are now done by individuals as unpaid labour thanks to advances in communications and IT technology. The classic example would be a self-checkout at a supermarket, but shadow work has transformed many aspects of our lives, from Oyster cards on public transport to online banking. With public sector cutbacks brought on by the recession and austerity measures, implementing shadow work measures has become an unavoidable reality for public services across the UK, to reduce costs at a time of shrinking budgets, e.g. the plans considered by Transport for London to increase automated ticket services whilst closing costlier manned ticket offices on the London Underground.

A public sector service which already relies extensively on shadow work measures are the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Jobcentre Plus offices. This is quite a natural development in some ways, since looking for work has always been the responsibility of the individual. Jobseekers in challenging fields frequently do shadow work on their own initiative; artists and film-makers place clips of their creations on YouTube, funding for software projects is sought on Kickstarter, writers and journalists self-publish through blogs etc. However an increased reliance on individuals’ shadow working has also been forced on the DWP through a combination of increased unemployment and underemployment, staff cutbacks and technological changes, e.g. the shift of employers advertising onto the internet and away from job centres etc.

Nonetheless for many jobseekers the official system remains their starting point. Since the DWP’s departmental budget is unlikely to improve in the immediate future, more must be done earlier to encourage individuals’ initiative and to make them aware of the tools they will need to use to find work. Through piecemeal measures such as those suggested below, both the DWP and other institutions could lessen the burden on Jobcentre Plus offices by ‘catching’ potential claimants before they enter the system, or reducing the amount of time they spend out of work by improving their job-hunting skills. One way would be to integrate employment services earlier and more tightly into the secondary and post-secondary education system. The idea would be to reduce demand before a student joins the ranks of the unemployed, thus reducing the overall rate of un- and underemployed young people joining the UK economy every year:

  • Mandatory career centre appointments for all undergraduate students in their first and last years at university, with the aim of first building a focus on their preferred career in their first year, and then a pre-graduate job-hunting plan. As with a Jobcentre Plus contract, students would have to provide evidence of job-seeking/work experience before graduation.
  • Change the nature of government funding to universities so that the industries in demand for workers receive the correspondingly highest funding for places. The increase price of certain places would have the dual benefit of steering post-secondary students away from ‘soft’ degrees, and from industries in which there is at present an oversupply of candidates such as journalism or publishing.
  • Reach secondary students before the choice of subject to study at university is made, either though mandatory financial planning or personal finance courses, to then look at the costs and returns of potential degree courses they are planning on taking.
  • The creation of LinkedIn and other social networking profiles at university or secondary school to familiarise students with the process of recording their skills and achievements.
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