Catriona Stewart: Rishi Sunak, more than retraining is needed in an employment crisis

IT is perhaps a bold move – when the next step in the process is for my boss to read this – to admit to have been looking at other jobs.

Not just any old job either – government sanctioned jobs. In case you’ve missed it, the UK government has come up with a rather diverting wheeze – give five minutes of your time responding to a series of questions online and they’ll give you a suggestion of careers you might like to retrain for.

Yesterday morning before work I went for a run in the park yet somehow found myself strolling around under burnt autumn leaves with a coffee and dinner plate-sized cookie. I tell you this as a framing of the extent of my athletic prowess.

Because, having dutifully and honestly inputted my answers, the skills assessment said I should think of “boxer” as a possible next step. While I admit to only a cursory knowledge of the genre, I imagine the sport of boxing would decline my advances.

It was also suggested I might like to be a “sports professional” or “football referee”. Without dwelling for too long on why a boxer might not be classed as a sports professional, I took a look at what the draws of each might be. Interestingly, while football referees and sports professionals, under “typical hours” were described as working “evenings, weekends and bank holidays” boxers work only “evenings and weekends”. So an immediate plus there.

I imagine “football referee” was suggested due to my response of “strongly agree” when asked about enjoying following rules and having no qualms about telling others what to do.

A pacifist friend was recommended “soldier” while the website also suggested “scaffolder” to my chum who’s a classically trained musician. Some of my friends turned up “journalist”. I did not.

There is, though, a cruelty at the heart of this japery. Namely, this – for now at least – is a mildly amusing way to pass the time when, for a great many others, this is a time of sudden unemployment and grave uncertainty.

Thousands of cinema staff, as mentioned earlier this week, have lost their jobs as work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey suggested they use their customer service skills to retrain as care workers.

The arts sector is in dire straits and pleading for additional financial support. Again the suggestion was that retraining is the way forward. Rishi Sunak expressed his sorrow that not everyone will be able to do “exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis”. Pushed on whether he could be more explicit about whether people in the arts sector should go and work somewhere else he sold it as a positive: “That is fresh and new opportunity for people.”

Of course, many of our arts sector already work two jobs. Many people in many sectors have, for many years, worked multiple jobs to get by. From jobbing young actors working in coffee shops to some of Scotland’s most skilled musicians freelancing because their national orchestra has gone part time.

MPs though, of all people, should know about second jobs, given how many top up their salaries. It is, though, one thing to support a passion with a pragmatic back up plan and another to suggest the arts aren’t worth saving so find yourself a Plan B.

Pubs and restaurants, only just trying to get back off their knees, have been sent back towards hardship with tighter measures introduced in Scotland and predicted lockdown measures coming for England.

As furlough winds down businesses that were deemed worthy of support are suddenly not categorised as viable: shut down businesses, such as Cineworld, cannot access the government’s financial support and so, as with so many other sectors where businesses have closed, jobs are unsupported and under threat.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, suggested people who have lost their livelihoods will be helped into “better jobs” by new government schemes but failed to answer the question of how many boxers Britain really needs.

“We’re not going to be able to protect every single job, very, very sadly,” he said. “But that is why we are providing extra support in the welfare system, but also really importantly, with skills, apprenticeships and the Kickstart Scheme for young people. This is so we can help people into better jobs.”

Do politicians, when they pose for photo ops briefly carrying a couple of plates to a table, or wearing a high vis vest at a roadside, think these postures are all that’s required of people to move seemlessly into a new work life?

One of the great privileges of journalism is the opportunity to gain insight into other people’s careers. I’ve ridden along in fire appliances and learned to play the bagpipes; driven a bus and worked in a charity shop.

None of these are on my CV – they only serve to give deeper respect for how other people meaningfully earn their livings.

It’s been an interesting time of redefining what roles are important. The “key worker” labelling of some jobs over others opened up an interesting new way of viewing the value of work. Supermarket staff and hospital consultants were both, suddenly vital.

The arts and culture sectors are also vital. You might romanticise them to give them value – spiritual and emotional enrichment – or you might talk about the powerful impact on mental health and wellbeing. You don’t really need either of those, though. The arts sector has a cold cash value, and a substantial one at that. No industry that provides jobs and contributes to the economy is superfluous.

At the beginning of the pandemic the message was that jobs would be protected. Now the goalposts have shifted – a football metaphor, perhaps refereeing is for me – and the message seems to be one of acceptance that certain industries are worth less than others so those with roles in them should step away.

This is offensive to many who closed down their businesses to protect the public in the “all in it together” spirit we were told was necessary. Those businesses did so thinking they were going into hibernation, not headed to extinction, but now their futures are uncertain.

Of course jobs will be lost, this is a time of crisis. People will have to look at retraining, and at reinventing their work lives. This should not be couched in terms of the value of jobs based on their viability in a pandemic. And it should be dealt with sensibly, not with slapdash quizzes undermining the seriousness of what is at stake for people in a looming unemployment crisis.


Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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