Wednesday, 18 May 2011

An interview with Jim McKechnie on child employment

(Jim McKechnie is a professor in the Social Sciences department at the University of the West of Scotland. Following his presentation on child employment at the BPS Annual Conference, he was gracious enough to spare some time to explore the issues further; my questions are in bold. This forms part of this month's focus on younger people in the workforce.)

You've spoken of how jobs can have good and bad effects on young people who take them. What's a good example of that?

Well, take the number of hours worked: our research suggests a complex relationship with educational attainment. Students working excessive hours – more than 15 hours/week - have negative consequences in academic attainment. But those working five to six hours a week do better educationally than students who have never worked. Of course, we have to establish the causality, but it's clear that working isn't necessarily a bad thing for schooling.

Beyond the hours worked, are there types of jobs that are less worthwhile – too menial, perhaps?

We need to be cautious and not look at these jobs through adult eyes. The least demanding jobs are those in delivery: not a lot of contact with individuals, not much decision-making. But at the same time, those jobs tend to be taken by people who've never worked before as a first way in to having a full-time job.

As an early experience, it might be demanding to them, as they've never had to get up early before, they've never had to be reliable. And typically, people who start part-time in delivery work go through a sort of career path of part-time jobs, with an 'arc of demand' increasing as they move forward.

Could you talk about how employers are involved?

Well, they tend to seek child employees on the basis of flexibility, rather than cheapness – wages are typically standard, especially for post-16s. Some recognise “a breath of fresh air” that a young person brings into a workplace. For example, they see them as less pedantic than the adult part-time employees they have.

Employers are very variable in how they treat schoolchildren. One response to this would be to recognise good employers in some way. For instance, training provided is very variable. Those employers who do train see the young people as an investment for the future: “I get a good quality employee for a relatively low cost.”

In this sense, it resembles the impetus for many graduate programs.

Yes – and moreover, when these employees move on typically they introduce their friends as a 'next generation' for the business; a free screening process for the employee.

There is a growing recognition among employers that this young group of people are a valuable support system for their business, but it would pay for employers to pay more attention in some cases. It would be worthwhile for the better, more organised employers to introduce contracts when workers hit 16 to ensure they get time off for exam prep, to restrict hours so it doesn't clash with education; to say 'we acknowledge we get the flexibility, so we give something back'.

I was fascinated by your finding that around 20% of your young sample had some supervisory responsibilities.

One example we have is of an individual entering work in a shoe shop at the age of 14. who gained sufficient expertise in technology and methods that by 16 they were used to deal with and on-board new employees.

Now, we know the value of peer to peer tutoring in education, so why not take that model and apply it to business situations? You could imagine having a young person showing others the ropes may be better than a more managerial approach, and avoids potential culture clash.

How about the young people themselves – how can they get more from these early work experiences?

There's a major challenge for young workers themselves, as they tend to undervalue the experience, and don't see the full scope of what they're doing. In education, we use personal development planning to foster self-reflection on academic work. Should we extend this to work experience too?

There is a tension, however. When you talk to young people, one of the major benefits they see in paid work is a growth in their independence and autonomy – a consistent finding in the evidence base. If you try to educationalise that experience, you may be undermining one of its most valuable benefits! If you have to justify to the teacher what you've learned from work, it becomes just another kind of coursework. So we advise treading cautiously, as an opt-in opportunity for those who wish to try it.

How would you like to see the world of psychology participating in this discussion?

From an Occupational Psychology perspective, to ask whether or not we can look at this age group of workers in terms of well-researched features such as job satisfaction, quality of employment experiences, engagement, even issues like stress. There are an array of tools out there but they've been designed for adult populations. Given that an estimated 1.1-1.7m under-sixteens contribute to the economy through part-time jobs, and given we're talking about our future workforce here, this group needs some time under the spotlight.

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