Monday, 16 May 2011

The invisible workforce: schoolchildren in paid roles that are complex, rich and often ignored

Schoolchildren in jobs: that just amounts to the odd kid on a paper round, doesn't it? Not according to Jim McKechnie's research team from the University of the West of Scotland, who presented earlier this month at the Annual BPS Conference. McKechnie revealed that part-time paid employment was a majority experience for schoolchildren. From his own survey data – around 10% of those in secondary education in Scotland, 18500 students in all – once students move beyond their last year of compulsory education, more of them are in paid work than not.

It may be common, but does it matter? From one perspective it's a problem: given finite time, any non-school activities supplant time that should be spent on education. For some, it's a blessing, providing opportunities and learning experiences unavailable in the education system. And for those such as McKechnie's group, it's a balance: any adult job has a mixture of positive and negative aspects, and the same is bound to be true for children as well.

The team surveyed the types of roles taken by children to explore the charge that they are generally menial and unstretching,. They found that, rather than paper routes, the sample worked substantive jobs in service industries, including retail, (28%), catering (28%) and delivery (18%), with smaller numbers in other domains such as care work and cleaning. Moreover, participants reported a range of activities within roles, with 70% dealing with customers and surprisingly, over 20% engaged in some kind of supervisory activities.

To look closer at this, each candidate was given a 'demandingness' score based on the activities within their job. Demanding jobs were more likely to be taken by those in higher school years, and by females rather than males, but features such as socio-economic status, academic attainment, and truancy didn't have any influence. As McKechnie puts it, there is “nothing atypical about taking a demanding job”.

McKechnie observed that taking survey data from youngsters may pose additional methodological challenges, a theme picked up by his colleague Amanda Simpson. Her study used multiple methods to gather information from 32 working youngsters, combining observation with interviews and also asking participants to record the activities they were involved in at various points in the day, prompted by mobile phone notifications.

The study suggested that the jobs, even many seemingly basic ones, involved a range of activities and opportunities to gain and develop both soft and technical skills. However, the children often initially showed limited awareness of these, though they gained more insight through the event recording procedure. To some extent, the 'invisible workforce' are only partially visible even to themselves.

In the next post, we spend some time with Jim McKechnie to discuss the significance of this research for the workplace.

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