In her first column of the new term, Fran Lowe discusses Employment Minister Esther McVey.
Hers is a name that you may well have heard being bandied about on social media over the last few days. Here’s why: Esther McVey is Employment Minister, and in a recent interview with The Daily Mail she spoke out and said that the unemployed youth of today should be prepared to take entry level jobs. Apparently, we should all stop moaning and “get a job in Costa”.
To a certain, very small extent, I can almost see where she is coming from. She is right in that it is highly unlikely that when we graduate we will walk straight into our dream job the following Monday. There is always going to be that awkward time of interning, finding work experience, and thrashing out job application after job application, and that time will need funding. Personally, I have no doubts that when the time comes, I will fund it by working in a coffee shop.
However, this is much easier said than done. Clearly, McVey has never tried to get a job in a coffee shop. I can smugly admit that it will be easier for me than for others: the version of my CV that I use for part-time jobs has the words “2011-2014: Caffè Nero” in big letters at the top. If and when I am an unemployed graduate, I know that this will make it significantly easier for me to do exactly what McVey wants me to do, and get a job in Costa. They’ve been trying to poach me for years.
However, there is something crucial that McVey seems to have forgotten: that kind of job is very highly sought-after. In the Mail’s article, they mention that one Costa shop in Nottingham received over 1,700 applications for 8 jobs. My own experience in recruiting staff has been similar: I would say I take at least 15 CVs a week, and if there’s no relevant experience, I hate to say it, but that CV goes straight in the shredder. There are just too many applications to even read them all properly. McVey seems to think it is the easiest thing in the world to walk into a job in a coffee shop. The reality is that even that kind of job, the job that no one even really wants to do, is still hard to lay your hands on.
McVey appears to have the common misunderstanding that all unemployed people are lazy- a view not at all aided by a lot of what we have been seeing on Channel 4’s Benefits Street. It looks like the argument about whether or not benefits claimants are really just scroungers is really coming to the fore, and with her comments about unemployed youth, McVey has put herself right in there. Whether or not she is just playing politics and has done this deliberately to try and raise her profile remains to be seen, but what is instantly evident is that McVey has no comprehension of what it is like to be unemployed, and to repeatedly have your applications rejected and your CV ignored.
But, not only is McVey’s view unrealistic, it is also unfair. When we graduate, after three or more years of hard work and stress all in pursuit of a good job at the end of it, we apparently should not be disappointed if we end up working in Costa. We should be satisfied to be going in at entry level so we can work our way up- one day, we could be managers! Because making coffee is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life! McVey would argue that is just me being a “job snob”, aiming too high and being too ambitious.
All this is really very disheartening. It hearkens back to a few months ago, when someone very close to me was struggling to find graduate work and was told, by someone very close to them, to accept that they would just work in a coffee shop for the rest of their lives, because it was all they would ever achieve, despite their top degree from a top university. Many tears had to be mopped up, and much encouragement given. A few months later when that elusive grad job was landed, many words had to be eaten. But essentially Esther McVey is saying exactly the same thing. Is there anything more soul-destroying?
It’s as though all those years of being told by your parents, your school, and now the university, to be as ambitious as you can be, and that we can be anything we want, have been snatched away from us. McVey even goes so far as to state that “[we] are dealt the cards [we] are dealt, and [we] have to make the best of that. That is life”. I may be reading too much into this, but is it not implied that there are some of us lucky enough to be born to go to Oxford and become a Tory Prime Minister, and there are some of us who might aspire to managing a branch of Costa? Apparently, being over ambitious is not the way forward, and instead we should be realistic. I’d like to see the faces on a classroom full of small children if she goes in there and tells the ones that want to be doctors that they might one day drive past a hospital, or the ones that want to be actresses that they will almost certainly wait on tables for the rest of their days. Our heady days of aspiration are over.
What’s more, I can firmly remember being told when tuition fees were raised to £9,000 a year that doing a degree was still worth it, because of the better job prospects at the end. The government spouted figures at us about how much more we were going to earn with a degree; how much further on we would be by the age of 30 than those without degrees; how £27,000 wasn’t extortionate. All of that seems to have been forgotten: we may as well have just got a job in Costa all along. Two years in, I might have been an assistant manager by now.
All my life I have been told that going to university and getting a good degree would give me so many more job prospects, and that I could therefore afford to be more ambitious. I consider ambition a good thing, but it seems Esther McVey disagrees. Maybe I should just make the most of the cards I was dealt when I was born, and accept the fact that because I went to a state school in a town with the wrong kind of reputation, I will never get that dream job. The £27,000 that my degree is costing me might well turn out to be a complete waste of money.
As utterly demoralising as McVey’s words are, I am aware that there are plenty of people who will agree with her, and that my view is only so outspoken because I am an unapologetic leftie. It’s probably true that there are some unemployed young people out there who could be trying harder, and maybe they should try and get a job in Costa. A lot of this also comes down to the immigration argument: perhaps things might be easier if there were less migrants getting these jobs, freeing up vacancies for our home-grown unemployed. But the reality is, Costa is going to employ the best staff it can find, and I honestly don’t mind if my cappuccino is made by someone from Portsmouth or Poland, as long as it’s a decent cappuccino. It comes down to qualifications and experience, not what it says on your passport.
I think the best response to people like McVey is to fight back. If we let her words discourage us, believing that after years spent in the library slaving over essays and revision, we will still just end up working in Costa, that’s likely to be what will happen. Myself, I would quite like to be able to say in five years’ time “Look, Esther McVey, look how wrong you were.” Ambition is healthy, and McVey isn’t going to make me lose mine.
Fran Lowe, Features Columnistbookmark me