I work in a place and I get money for that. It’s a simple principle based on an age-old theory that if you have a skill it has some value. There are, of course, exceptions: Paris Hilton, Nick Clegg, Paul Burrell, Carlton Palmer, Rebecca Black etc, but most of us have honed our trade and we are reasonably happy with that.
Still, I remember the day when I had no discernible skill and that was when I was at school. I had a limited knowledge of life and its intricacies: sure I knew what an ox bow lake was but getting 20 at ‘keepy uppy’ presented a stronger challenge.
I wasn’t completely useless. As a far as I was concerned I had a fairly decent CV that would rival that of any ambitious 16-year-old. In my time I had built fairly impressive camps out of road signs in the local woods so I had a decent knowledge of construction and although my advances on Ruth Gordon had been frustratingly spurned on numerous occasions, a rummage up Jane Hawkey’s tanktop gave me a well-rounded appreciation of women and their emotional needs.
Sadly, that was not enough to convince my schoolteachers that I was an entirely employable young man. They had concluded that I and my peers knew jack shit about the world of work and had cynically set aside two weeks in our final year so we could ‘experience’ it. In order to ‘target’ our needs we were asked to fill out a form from which suitable local employers could be pinpointed.
Quite frankly they might as well have sent us to a Gulag. I went to school in Watford, which is much like saying I spent five years learning how to colour in. My peers, largely council estate thugs, used the work experience form to promote instant expulsion or their version of comedy genius. Paul Jessup said he wanted to pursue a career in pornography because he felt he had enough talent (down there) to earn a decent living, whereas Simon Bearup claimed he wanted to drive tanks… fish tanks. I laughed out loud when I saw his form but he sort of fell between the cracks after that.
Because I had come from a home where stealing was frowned upon I chose to complete the form with honesty. I said I wanted to be a journalist, a TV presenter or maybe even a doctor. I even considered a career in law because my dad told me lawyers make a load of money and regularly get to patronise poor people.
It was a pointless exercise, fulfilling nothing more than a bureaucratic requirment. The bulk of jobs secured by moments of excellent contact-fostering by our quite-useless school’s careers department pointed to a future of depressing drudgery. The local supermarket – anxious to make two weeks of shelf-stacking seem more attractive – had a ‘management’ scheme on offer for an army of spotty youths and we were expected to demonstrate a level of emotional bunting-hanging at the very prospect.
The supermarket was a high coup for Bushey Hall School and those selected would spend two weeks on all the sections learning different ways of shelf-stacking, like… upright. The ‘highlight’ of the fortnight would be a requirement to attend the supermarket’s management meeting where students would learn of the sections that had done well and those that had fallen short of their targets. Doubtless there would be a post-mortem outlining the reasons for the poor performance where the section manager would talk about the failure of operating systems, a communications breakdown or a shortage of staff when the reality is not enough people walked into the shop and bought stuff.
The other big local employers anxious to participate were insurance companies and banks keen to find youngsters who didn’t mind doing a bit of photocopying, searching the internet and making tea. This didn’t sound like fun at all, but since I had mastered basic arithmetic I knew this is what was coming.
The brighter students who could recite ‘the cat sat on the mat’ were lucky enough to get a stint on the local newspaper. Here they could ‘shadow’ a journalist doing his or her job and, to me, that sounded like a hoot. Now, as my career has stuttered to depressing mediocrity, I know what a complete and utter waste of time this would have been. I realise now that I would have learned little more than the fine art of fiddling expenses and how to hype up the importance of growing large vegetables. Then, I was anxious to pursue a career in investigative journalism and I knew that a trip to the magistrates court was part of the ‘experience’. There I would have seen first-hand how middle class people with a good upbringing punish poor people for pinching cans of soup from the local convenience store.
I wasn’t a girl so the obligatory love of animals featured no part in my form. Animals are to be eaten with chips. The voluptuous Vanessa Jones didn’t understand that principle and pointed out that she gleaned most satisfaction when she was alone in her room, stroking her cat. She used a different word at the end of that sentence and was perhaps intimating that she would like to pursue a similar career to that of Paul Jessup’s. Inadvertently she found herself at the local vets and, like Bearup, she never returned. She had witnessed too many cats being put to sleep and it left a scar so deep that she was unable to pursue her dreams where poorly lit bedrooms and plinky plonky music would feature heavily in her life.
It wasn’t much fun. After two weeks of our sabbatical from traditional academia most of us returned exactly to where we were, which was in the classroom still stuck on the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’. John Barnet still couldn’t get it even though he wrote two full A4 pages of ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ in order to drum in the difference. He reasoned that practice made perfect.
I didn’t go to the local bank – my placement – I went to the local park instead and blew up rogue slugs with ground-based fireworks. I just contained enough wherewithal to reason that I would not benefit from a place populated by people who didn’t have distinct signatures. From the anecdotal evidence imparted by others in my so-called school it’s still clear that the ‘work experience’ they endured didn’t actually have any work in it. Those two weeks taught youths absolutely nothing except that they got in the way and nobody knew what to do with them.
So, here’s the thing. If you’re a young reader and are about to embark on a fortnight of work experience, take my advice and absent yourself from this hopeless experiment. Fake illness, go to the local mall and make a nuisance of yourself because you’ll learn more that way. It’s the best, and only, advice I can give.