A Stress Reduction Exercise, Not Just For Hard Times

With two children passing from tertiary education into employment, I have been vicariously involved in this transition. Having both done applied science degrees, I have not been concerned about their fitness for work, though it has caused me reflect on my own unawareness about getting a job after university nearly 40 years before. I certainly lived in a period where education was for education’s sake rather than a stepping stone into being economically productive. Whilst the Thatcher government’s instrumental view of education was overdone it was probably a necessary corrective to my blithe innocence. No, what has got my attention is just how hard it is at present for young adults to get into work even when well prepared.

Clearly there is a shortage of jobs, but there are other challenging features of the labour market I can remember from the post Barber crash (another burst housing bubble) as well as ones I did not have to face. The timeless problem after university is looking at job adverts that require this and that experience, but how do you fulfil those conditions without being employed first? The modern day solution might be working as an (unpaid?) intern. My holiday jobs consisted of the Christmas post and mind numbingly boring filing and paper sorting. Now one is expected to build knowledge, skills and experience for the CV. Leaving aside the exploitation question, it is a very tricky business lining up this preparatory work to fit the employment demands you have not yet seen. It also produces once student days are done a precarious life of short term productivity with potentially frequent lacunae as you move from internship to temporary work and back again.

The public sector may not be as complicit as the private sector in this internship merry go round, but the question I want to ask is whether the public sector has got its selection methods right? My son when finally getting the opportunity to apply for a job he can do is faced with a barrage of questions that that go beyond his technical knowledge, skills and experience and into his behavioural fitness for work. I am familiar with the ‘recruit on attitude and train on skills’, but surely you need to have wherewithal to do the job itself. I simply had the problem of demonstrating I had work skills that in areas I had not yet been able to gain experience. He is faced with questions on ‘navigating change’ and ‘making things happen’ such as providing ‘evidence of your ability to regularly review approaches and work with teams to identify improvements, simplify and speed up processes’. How many public servants could say ‘yes’ to ‘regularly’ reviewing efficiency? Is it fair that a 24 year old should be asked such a question?

I well understand that how you do the job is an important consideration. I further realise that structured selection of this kind reduces the possibility of bias. Nonetheless, my experience with appointing managers is that making applicants jump through these competency hoops does not necessarily identify the right person? For the candidate it adds another time consuming stress to the job application business – 27 competency questions to answer in the last application he made! To HR, is it worth it, especially as you or your colleagues have to work through the verbal gymnastics of candidates trying to prove the impossible?

Perter Reilly

Institute for Employment Studies

By | 2017-07-30T12:23:24+00:00 August 14th, 2012|Categories: Guest Blogger, Peter Reilly|2 Comments


  1. Hugh Griffith 18th October 2012 at 8:53 am - Reply

    This is one of today’s great conundrums, how to create an environment where young people can enter their prefered career at the right level and be ‘the right fit’ for that organisation. Like you I have two sons who are experiencing the lack of preparation they have been given for stepping into a career. Both have or are working towards degree level qualifications (I don’t pretend to understand what those are, being stuck in the O level, A level, Degree, Post Grad mould) but both have lacked any professional guidance on career path. Interviewers seem to ask either inane questions beyond the realm of any sensible reality or overly simple questions which display a lack of awareness of the candidate they have in front of them and this is due to a lack of genuine ‘training’ in today’s commercial and, dare I say it, public sector arenas (see my blog post in response to ‘The problem with Public Sector Recruitment Panels’).
    The 25% unemployment rate for those under 25 so frequently quoted in the press in recent times was brought home to me very recently when, in response to an advertisement for 6 apprentice positions there were some 63 applications. Nothing unusual there you may think but when such applications were scrutinised, many were from post-graduates who out of exacerbation or desperation were setting aside their 2:1s and Firsts and pursuing NVQ level 2 or 3, merely for the opportunity to work, and at £5,000 pa.
    Have we reached a point of degree saturation? Have we made further education so accessible that it becomes difficult for employers to assess or appreciate the merits of such? Or have employers learnt to take advantage of the volume of young people with degrees and use this as an excuse to over-refine their recruitment criteria. I remember the ‘recruit on attitude, train on skills’ approach; it sometimes used to be called the Youth Training Scheme (YTS), much maligned but frequently successful in instilling pride, positive attitude, desire for progression and genuine talent.
    Where and when did we forget the need to set aside the ‘management-speak’ rubbish we come out with, but frequently don’t really understand becasue most of it is meaningless, and instead focus on POTENTIAL and take a punt on ‘growing our own’ talent, skill and future.

    My dad used to say, find somewhere where there’s a job for life (he being ex teacher and ex BBC). In my experience there is merely a ‘job for part-life’. I hope our collective kids are not in a world where there is only a ‘job for a year’ to look forward to.

    Hugh Griffith

  2. Martin Rayson 18th October 2012 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    Thanks Hugh for your comments. Having reviewed a few recruitment exercises undertaken by my own Council recently I have been surprised and depressed by the level of qualifications applicants for the most basic roles have. I have a son at University too and have been trying to get him to wake up to the fact that having a degree in itself is no guarantee of a job. He will need to differentiate himself in the market and ensure he can demonstrate relevant skills.

    Setting aside the particular economic challenges of the moment (although the moment may last another 5 to 10 years) there would appear to be a fundamental mis-match between the needs of the employment market and the skills and qualification levels of those joining that market. Whilst the experience of University is excellent and the principle of having a more highly qualified population is a laudable one, we have to refocus on equipping people to be successful in the world of work.

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