The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Training for Exploitation? Politicising Employability & Reclaiming Education.

Employability is a powerful and increasingly dominant word within the universities. Nottingham University is proud to be “ranked in the world top 100 Universities for employability”. This is because students are now the main funder of universities. And employability provides the answer to why the £9.250 tuition fees per year are worth it – even if one needs to in-debt oneself for this investment. Consequently, employability services are not only spreading like wildfire but also academic staff is increasingly pressurised to demonstrate in what ways their course facilitates students' employability. For these employability educators the Precarious Workers Brigade just published a book called “Training for Exploitation? Politicising Employability and Reclaiming Education” (a free pdf is available online). The book offers a “critical resource pack to assist teachers and students in deconstructing dominant narratives around work, employability and careers, and explores alternative ways of engaging with work and the economy”. In this guest post Vera Weghmann introduces the book by explaining what employability is and why it needs to be politicised.


Most commonly employability is understood as the individual's ability to adapt to the flexible labour market through the continuous acquisition of skills and attributes. The post-2008 economic crisis and the government's austerity policies not only led to serious job-losses but also added fuel to the fear of unemployment, especially as social security entitlements are continuously cut back. In these uncertain times, employability promises employment security. The idea is, that if you remain attractive on the labour market through lifelong learning, you are protected from unemployment. Thereby, employability shifts the responsibility for employment from the state onto the individual. However, 58 per cent, so the majority, of graduates in the UK end up in non-graduate jobs. In such a competitive graduate labour market, employability means for students that a degree and good marks are simply not enough to land the desired job. Students are under constant pressure to always perform more and better, to ever increase their (work)-experience and to enhance continuously the labouring self in order to demonstrate their (employ)ability. And mind you, the stress starts way before they enter higher education.

The Precarious Workers Brigade, therefore, argues that employability actually means to learn what employers want and then to become it. As such, employability normalises subordinating attitudes towards work and the self, it promotes free labour and the hyper-individualised employability practices discourage collective engagement and solidarity. Importantly, employability should not be confused with employment: leaving the concrete employer/employee relationship behind employability is the embodiment of work in workers everyday lives and thereby extends capital’s control not only into the private sphere but also into the development of the self. In sum, employability is a powerful discourse that deflects from criticising the government and/or the current capitalist system and instead nurtures a culture of self-blame.

Why politicise employability?

Employability means that employers became very present in the universities. There are career fairs that allow “employers, to raise [their] brand awareness on campus and to promote internships” (Kingston University). Then there are “industry panels”, where students get employability advise from potential future employers and which are commonly “followed by networking opportunities over refreshments” (Goldsmith University). And there are “employer-led workshops on skill development”, where employers teach students the skills they want them to gain (Nottingham University). These examples show that corporate interests play a more powerful role in a higher education system, which now has the function to produce new workers in accordance with industry demands.

Conversely, and most importantly, the employability activities do not prepare students for the 'world of work' by teaching them their rights or by familiarising them with the concept of collective bargaining and the functions of industrial actions. Trade unions are completely absent from employability teachings in higher education. In sum, future workers are educated at the universities, who first and foremost learn to subordinate themselves to capital and not to challenge it.

Employability - more than skills

To understand what exactly shapes the becoming of these new workers it is useful to see in more detail what kind of employability training and workshops career centres provide. One look at the programmes reveals that employability training goes very much beyond advise on application writing, preparation for interviews and skill development. Moreover, students are encouraged to develop an employability-habitus: There are workshops in which students learn to modify their body language to “not only appeal more to an employer, but to increase your [the student's] confidence too!” Other sessions on networking teach students “how to break into conversations (and leave them)” (Kingston University). In other words, the employability-habitus embodies stereotypical masculine gender norms of the confident alpha-male, who has learned to dominate conversations by interrupting and departing from them in accordance to his interest. Yet, as employability is always presented as a neutral set of skills, attributes and attitudes the employability discourse encourages individuals to see their personal identities, such as gender, class, race and age, as irrelevant.

Employability promotes free and low paid labour

Unpaid internship in the private sector are not only illegal but also highly unpopular – according to the Sutton Trust 70% of all 16 to 76 year olds in England believe that unpaid internships are unfair because only the wealthy are able to work for free. The universities career and employability centres are therefore cautious not to advertise unpaid internships – unless they are in charities. As I showed elsewhere this exploitation for a good cause still seems to be acceptable.

Photo by Precarious Workers Brigade

Free and low paid labour is nonetheless encouraged by the career and employability centres, as students are advised that “any work experience improves one's employability” (Goldsmith University) as “even modest jobs like bar work or shelf stacking can demonstrate to employers that you [the student] have a responsible attitude to work” and should be seen as a chance to develop the right “work-habit” (Kingston University).

This shows, that the employability agenda is not only tightly linked to unpaid labour but also entails a disciplinary function as the student is encouraged to develop a “work-habit” of subordination by gratefully accepting any job on offer no matter its usefulness, conditions or pay.

And employability, thereby, replaces jobs

In the hype for work-experience one form of free labour chases the other. Volunteering is often a precondition for an unpaid internship, and often students undertake several of those before they get a paid one – all in the hope for a graduate job. The opportunities to work for free further entrench labour market inequalities. Research suggests that female interns are more often unpaid and more frequently tasked with admin work – while their male counterparts are occupied with content. But, as Marx reminded us, what is worse than being exploited, is not to be exploited. Student's with a traditional working class or migrant background in post-1992 universities report extreme difficulties in finding unpaid internships. Volunteering is here especially advised to ease the access into internships.

To increase the students' career prospects student unions are now often in charge of brokering voluntary positions. Some run volunteering data-bases, where not only the positions are advertised but also the available time slots. Social media outreach and marketing, charity fundraising and receptionist work are among frequent jobs advertised. It is easy to see that a few volunteers replace paid, full time jobs. This begs the question if employability is decreasing or increasing unemployment?

Photos by Precarious Workers Brigade

But! There is nothing wrong with work-based education.

The book “Training for Exploitation” by the Precarious Workers Brigade argues that there is nothing wrong with work-based education and shows how to “critique and organise against a system that is at the heart of the contemporary crises of work, student debt and precarity”.

It encourages alternatives to the existing learning about work by putting solidarity back in the front line. By recognising our inter-dependence with others solidarity practices are linked to justice and equality. The book suggests educating future workers by incorporating an analysis of working conditions, collective bargaining and ways to recognise and help each other. As such, it suggests an alternative to applying a neoliberal logic to work, where everyone you meet is either seen as competition or a networking opportunity.

Training for Exploitation by the Precarious Workers Brigade thus prompts teachers to use the space created by employability teachings to think and learn critically about work.

Vera Weghmann currently writes her PhD on employability and organising in the no-wage economy. She is part of the Precarious Workers Brigade collective and the grassroots trade union United Voices of the World.

1 comment:

  1. “Even modest jobs like bar work or shelf stacking can demonstrate to employers that you [the student] have a responsible attitude to work" > Nothing wrong with that. These jobs are useful, if conditions and pay are right, yes, employers should reward who did them. Better an employer who rewards people who had these jobs (which people do because they need the money and they do not do for free!), than an employer who prefers people who never did bar work but have lots of great FREE internships on their CV - internships they could do for free because their family is rich. Getting rid of unpaid internships should be the priority, not discouraging or devaluing students/graduates who do shelf stacking so they can EAT!


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