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Dublin: 3 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019
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Column: Here’s how the unemployment trap works

Stop bullying the unemployed – it’s about more than just not having a job, writes Róisín Nic Dhonnacha.

Róisín Nic Dhonnacha

AS FINANCIAL PRESSURE increases on everyone, a troubling and increasing amount of vitriol is being directed at those who find themselves unemployed. Some consider unemployment a ‘lifestyle option’ in agreement with Minister Joan Burton, others a ‘soul-destroying existence’ as expressed in recent UCD research.

Many still fortunate enough to have a job feel that they are being unfairly treated while being forced to pay for people too lazy to go find a job, and call for retribution for their own pain to be reaped from the ranks of the dole queues.

The problem here, I think, has a lot to do with the (mis)understanding of the current situation regarding employment in general. Something a lot of people don’t realise when talking about the unemployed, and those jobs which remain, is that employers choose people who are the best fit for the job, the organisational culture and the organisation’s budget. Market forces mean that employers can afford to be very choosy about whom they employ. And they are.

Not everyone has the skills, capabilities or required training for some areas: IT and cloud computing for example. The same can be said in relation to training and educational opportunities. The bottom line is some people cannot retrain in emerging areas of employment. Not because they are stupid, lazy, valueless, but rather because they have a completely different set of skills and abilities. Training needs to support career development, not be quick drastic change to chase a job, any job.

Overqualified, AKA too expensive

Following this, not everyone will be approved as an organisational fit with the company. Google for example have an extremely robust selection process, and whether or not you are perceived to fit with their organisational culture is a huge part of that – even if you do have the required skills. There are very good reasons for organisations to look for ‘cultural fit’, engagement, motivation and productivity to name but a few. So a panicked jobseeker just looking for a job so that they can get off the dole queue need not apply, unless being a Googler is their dream occupation AND they have all the other skills, capabilities and educational requirements asked for.

Then there is the money factor. Employers are creating an increasing problem of internal industrial inequity by hiring people to do jobs at vastly reduced salaries – or no salary – compared to the nearest comparator within the same organisation, or often within the same section of the company. Agency temps, short-term contracts and new employees all fall into this category often regardless of their previous experience, qualifications and ability. This affects the currently employed as well as the unemployed. For as long as there is cheap, experienced, capable labour there will be no pay rises – and folks in case you haven’t noticed interest rates are going up, fuel prices are going up which means everything else will go up. While your salary and (if you still have one) house or apartment loses value.

This then brings up the issue of hiring someone with a huge amount of experience, education and training into a position reporting to someone who has a significantly lesser profile. No one is going to do that. People currently in employment want to stay in employment, so no manager is going to hire someone who can run rings around them and ultimately show up their lack of capability. With this in mind, anyone over 30 is likely to be perceived as ‘overqualified’, AKA too expensive – even if the applicant clearly states they will accept the financial offer on the table. The rationale employers give is that ‘overqualified’ candidates will move to another job – which is short sighted considering how few roles are actually out there.

Employers also ask for people who have experience within specific industries. This is a real challenge to the rhetoric about transferable skills rolled out by agencies and guidance counsellors. The hotel sector, the telecoms sector and – God forbid I mention them – the banking sector all put such stipulations on their recruitment policies. They are not the only ones and yes, it is legal.

If no one else has hired you…

Further to all of that there is a notion amongst employers that if you are unemployed you, your skills, your education etc hold less value than someone who is currently in a job. This has little to do with willingness to work. It has more to do with a flawed perception that if no one else has hired you there must be something wrong with you. This attitude harks back to the days of full employment; however, in case you don’t know unemployment figures are still rising and are currently approaching 15 per cent. This effect increases over time. The longer someone is out of work, the less value they are perceived to have and the more suspicion they are subject to (sometimes aggressively so by people who have lesser skills, experience and abilities than the applicant).

However, companies are prepared to tell you how great your skills are if you will work for free. Internship programs with real and robust training and development plans, learning outcomes and real potential for getting a job are a great idea for young people with no experience. However, not all young people or new grads can afford to take part. It costs money to travel, to dress appropriately for work and to be able to participate on a social level. With over a third of students categorised as ‘mature students’ this poses even greater challenges for those returning to college in the hope that up-skilling or re-training will assist them. It is not unreasonable to expect many mature students to be married and or have children, and so costs rise accordingly for these new students once they graduate. There is a real argument that companies who engage interns should pay them at least a basic stipend in line with their qualifications and that there should be real potential for a real job at the end of the internship.

However, very very few companies offer such robust supportive programs. Companies are currently looking for candidates who hold the highest level of experience and ability precisely because they don’t have to pay or train them and ask them to add to the company’s profits for no reward. And why shouldn’t they, if the talent is freely available? Such companies’ rhetoric is that they are doing their bit to help the unemployed and Ireland as a country, part of their ‘corporate social responsibility plan’. No it isn’t, and no they are not. They are making profit off the backs of free educated, experienced, trained and able workers without having to pay them – and they expect the ‘interns’ to be grateful for the experience of being abused for profit.

How safe is your job?

This is endorsed by the government and frankly only just falls short of forced labour. Which is illegal. The intern is suppose to be grateful for an additional €50 on top of their social welfare payment (if they are actually entitled to one – many are not) which might if they are lucky cover their travel costs to and from work – oops! Sorry, their training opportunity.

This has knock on effects for those in work too. Why pay YOU so much when I can get an experienced, educated, unemployed person to do it for free? Think about that one for a while. How safe is your job, if you really think about it?

This is then all compounded by aggressive negative social attitudes towards persons currently unemployed, which I expect speak more to fear and ignorance than fact. The vast majority of people signing on these days are highly educated, trained and experienced people; a far cry from ignorant, lazy slackers. ‘The system’ has not adequately adapted to the huge shift from unskilled, uneducated unemployed people to a majority of skilled, trained, educated and experienced unemployed people. Training courses on offer cater for the lowest common denominator; educational opportunities are limited to a very select few areas. There are no actual career management or career development programs to support those with education and skills. Then there are the well-meaning if a bit misdirected job clubs and ‘networking’ groups which, regardless of their PR, also cater for the lowest common denominator. Such programs, whilst having admirable intentions, are of little value to the skilled, experienced and educated unemployed and are often run by long-term unemployed people who couldn’t get a job either. The blind leading the blind?

There is no doubt that there is huge pressure on everyone in society at present. Attacking one another does not help. In fact it makes things worse, much worse. Looking down at and being aggressive to someone because you have a job and currently they do not is tantamount to bullying. The same kind of bullying that is putting pressure on everyone at present. There is an old saying: United we stand, divided we fall. I honestly believe if we as communities and as a country cannot learn to assist, support, help and encourage each other, and work together in meaningful and productive ways, the future is going to be a lot bleaker.

Róisín Nic Dhonnacha is a HR professional and member of the CIPD, with 15 years business experience across a wide variety of sectors and organisational types.

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Róisín Nic Dhonnacha

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