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