It was interesting to see Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, attacking people who “think they are too good” for work schemes and jobs such as stacking shelves. This followed a legal victory by a geology graduate, who had been required to undertake a work placement in order to continue to receive benefits.
I share some sympathy with Iain Duncan Smith when he says, “I'm sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they're too good for this kind of stuff” but I think that apportioning ‘blame’ in this way rather misses the underlying issue.
While I’m sure perhaps some people do believe that menial work is ‘beneath’ them, the truth is that this perception of some jobs being more worthy than others is actually in the mindset of the nation.
You can witness the stark difference in how jobs are perceived by taking a trip to the USA. In the States, most roles get respect – whatever they are. In the UK, many people waiting on in bars do so ‘between jobs’ or for additional income. It’s just a job, not a career. In the USA, being a waiter or waitress is a respected career choice – as is emptying the bins, working in a shop or whatever. If you contribute to society by working, by and large you’re respected.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case in the UK. But I think we all have to shoulder the blame for that attitude being prevalent – because in one way or another, most of us contribute to this view. We promote jobs of worth as being only those needing degrees. Solid trades are seen as less worthy than white-collar jobs. Stacking shelves is, for some reason, seen as being without virtue, as mindless, as a job to take when there is nothing else.
This is nonsense and it has to change. One only has to look at Terry Leahy, ex chief executive of Tesco, to see what nonsense it is. Leahy started his working life by stacking shelves – with Tesco – and worked his way up to lead the same business, with a global turnover of nearly £60 billion.
Logistics (which encompasses stacking shelves, driving trucks, moving goods and so on) is one of the few careers where you can start with few qualifications and take yourself as far as your ambition and talent will go. Leahy is the proof of that.
But it’s not just about how far you can go. It’s about the job having worth.
When you sit down to eat, every mouthful you swallow was delivered to you via some kind of distribution network. The chair you sit on was delivered on a van. That’s how important logistics is to everyday life – almost everything we eat or use has been brought to us by plane, train or van. Most of it will have been through a distribution depot; most of it will have been stacked on a shelf.
Stacking shelves may not carry the kudos of being a lawyer, but it should. Few roles are as vital to the way we live – every day.
And if that doesn’t deserve respect, I don’t know what does.