The Discipline of Work

by | Oct 23, 2017

I recently wrote about my annoyance that admin was seen as the unskilled default job of our time. I’ve been thinking more about this – or more precisely, thinking about skills and how you get them.

I’m at the top end of my 40’s and I can see how I am the sum of my working history (and my personal history as well). Each part of this history has given me something – even the bad bits. Sometimes it’s not even a skill per se, it’s an understanding of how things work. The question is, can we do more to teach skills to those around us? Is it possible to have an apprenticeship-style agreement where you teach someone key work skills; the kind of skills that make someone employable?

Think of this another way; if you employ a young person, they sign on the dotted line, are given access to the staff handbook (which you suggest they read) and then you give them stuff to do. When they don’t turn up or behave inappropriately, we usually address this from a HR perspective, which might seek to correct the behaviour, but rarely tries to understand the bigger picture or the underlying motivators.

HR bods will be puckering their lips for a sharp intake of breath, but take off your professional hats for a moment and really take the time to think about what I’m saying. I’m reminded of a project that Shelter used to run (although I’m not sure it was publicised or if they still do it). They worked with families who had court issued ASBO’s. The idea is simple: if you issue the order you did nothing to understand what was causing the problems and how those problems could be addressed. All you did was move the problem from A to B where it would start again, probably worse than before because now the family felt persecuted. The project team worked with the family, they addressed the issues and helped re-educate the individual family members, teaching them what was acceptable and the impact of their previous antics.

I’ve used the word re-educate; in a lot of cases it’s education (not re-education) because you have to learn what’s appropriate, it doesn’t just happen. And this is my point, we assume so much when we employ people, and mete out penalties based on these assumptions.

One of the issues is that as an employer we have a duty of care that is laid out in employment law and is in the context of the individual’s employment. If we try to understand what is motivating someone to behave in a certain way we run the risk of (a) setting unreasonable precedents which others copy and which costs the business dearly and (b) over-stepping the mark and causing offence or distress which ends up being mediated by a tribunal which ends up costing the business dearly.

You see the problem here? It’s like we can’t win.

We need to acknowledge that the soft-skills needed to be employed aren’t a given and find ways to teach them. As employer’s we also need to be able to support team members in ways which address drivers of behaviour rather than penalising the effect of them, in a way which does not overstep boundaries.

One place we can start is within educational settings. Over the last couple of decade’s we’ve become blinded by the need to be academically brilliant to the detriment of all else. This is borne out by the high number of young people attending university – not going to university is seen as a guarantee you will not achieve anything in your life. I absolutely despise the attitudes around this as it writes off those young people who are highly intelligent but struggle academically. It also assumes that having gone through the university system you are fit to be employed. How? A lot of people I know that went to uni spent a lot of time sleeping and drinking, living off bad food and with an unrealistic view of money because debt was inevitable (not that student debt was ever taken seriously). And the rest of their life skills were questionable – they took their washing home, they never had to look after a property (limited consequences) and if they missed a lecture it didn’t really matter.

We recognised a few years ago that children needed to learn some life-skills as well as the academic subjects, which is why all kids from an early age have one PSHCE lesson each week. This should be extended to work skills in the last couple of years of education and maybe a compulsory module in every higher education course. There are some courses that do recognise that the students are likely to be lacking in core skills, which are then included as part of the course, but these are the courses where there is a high number of young people who have dropped out of education early. We’re going back to assumptions again – if you’ve completed school and university you are deemed to have these skills.

I’d like to know if one of the entities, who work with young people, can devise a programme, where a young person is employed in a non-specific role, with the intention of getting them up to speed on being employed? Maybe this already exists and I’m going to have someone prove me wrong. Maybe someone will tell me that plans are afoot to introduce the soft-skill training into schools and universities. More needs to be done to address this problem, because the benefits would be immeasurable: we would have a generation of work-ready people less likely to continually lock horns with their employer, which equates to less stress for both parties and less cost to the nation’s economy due to lost work days and disciplinary actions.


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