Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Are we devaluing paid work?

The views expressed in this post are my own only and are not related in any way to my employer or their views.

 In recent times I have come across many examples of 'professional' voluntary work - that is, voluntary work done by professionally qualified individuals, and also by graduates of all kinds, where I believe the work in question should be done by paid staff. Many of these examples come from library, archives and museum work, where budgets have been cut to such an extent that organisations feel they have are forced to look to volunteers to carry out such work, otherwise they argue, valuable work would not be done at all.

 This has been taken one step further by the recent trend for increasing numbers of public sector bodies to 'employ' graduates for project work where extensive cuts have been made and the are larger gaps then ever to be filled by volunteers. Don't get me wrong, I can see the advantage in supplying work experience for students and graduates, however, we have to ask ourselves what the cost is to the paid workforce. If we use an ever increasing supply of non paid 'staff', why would we go back to using paid staff?

 Over the last six months, the adverts for volunteers have increased alarmingly in the fields I work in, and have previously worked in. I have seen job adverts complete with person specs for volunteers for work that is obviously meant for qualified professionals - now being done by volunteers. We are not just talking about individuals expressing an interest in an area and asking for some hours of voluntary work - we are talking about some sectors actively recruiting volunteers, and training staff to recruit and line manage volunteers. I call that employment.

 Similarly in Universities, the explosion in work and voluntary opportunities for undergraduates in their place of study can't be a coincidence, when it follows widespread cuts in education funding. It's bad enough that students have no choice but to pay the current fees in HE but now they can be expected to work for their education, filling in the gaps in the business of running a university.

 At some point we have to say: enough. This is enough. Is there some point when we would be happy to go to a volunteer doctor, or dentist, or even surgeon? No? Would be want to engage a volunteer plumber or electrician? Would we want volunteer bin men or women on the street collecting our refuse? So what are we saying? Are we saying that we value some jobs more highly than others? Are we saying as a society that some jobs matter but others don't? It looks like we think librarians don't matter, or archivists, or many other information based professionals. How about teachers? When our children have a question at school, 54% of youngsters google them - only 3% ask a teacher. So we can substitute our teachers for volunteers, right? Think how pleased David Cameron would be if the big society was taken to that level.

 Though the information profession is feeling cutbacks keenly, there are other areas where young people are being asked to work for nothing and people with professional or industry experience are being asked to work for less. We need to shift the focus back to values of skills and experience, and adequate recompense for these attributes. Going down the road of cheap labour is not the answer: its short sighted and as a society this costs us far more in terms of social welfare and ill health, both physical and mental.

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