Could Conscription Be the Answer?

Kitchener Poster: Conscription could be the answer!
Lord Kitchener Poster – public domain

Editor’s note: Opinion pieces such as this do not necessarily reflect the views of Kent Bylines or the Bylines Network.

Your Country Needs YOU!

This nation is short of HGV drivers, warehouse stackers, chicken slaughterers, hospitality and care-home staff. The European Haulers Association tell us that the recent offer of short-term visas for drivers from the EU is unlikely to appeal to many. Conscription could be the answer!

So we face the battles at the petrol stations and in the supermarket aisles … alone. “Very well then … alone” as was memorably said in World War II. In the earlier World War, Kitchener’s poster persuaded most young British men to sign up even before conscription was brought in.

Appeal To the Young

Very well then … appeal to the young at a time of national crisis. So how about conscripting all school-leaving youngsters aged 17 and above to serve some time in these sectors?

Pay them the minimum starting wage applicable in the sector. If they had to serve for a year, or 10 months to allow for some holidays, that would also solve the problem at some universities of the cohorts backing up after Covid. Some medical schools, for example, are paying the students they have accepted to defer a year.

For some areas of study, it might be a positive advantage to have had some job experience post-school. Future nurses and social workers could have worked in care homes. Future retail managers would have seen the basics of the warehouse. Would-be surgeons could have honed their dexterity on Christmas turkeys. Future engineers sent into the fields might have dreamed up better designs of picker robots. Creative curriculum designers in the universities could find some ways to incorporate such experience alongside other learning and assessment.

Not a New Idea

Using conscription for social service is not a new idea. In several countries it can serve as an alternative to military service. In the 1970s I was working with the Simon/Cyrenian network of houses for the single homeless.

We used to get some great volunteers from West Germany who had opted for social service instead of military service. We also used to get young Britons who had to do a certain amount of social service before they qualified as probation officers.

The Need To Pay Conscripts

But British industries now in need of labour should not get conscripts free of charge. They should pay the basic rates. This would help students, who now have to saddle themselves with student loans. This amounts on average to some £35,000 by the time they finish a three year course. The interest on loans varies from 1.1% to 4.2%. And it applies from when the money is granted, so it can amount to almost £1500 by graduation.

A student does not have to repay the loan whilst their salary is below a certain threshold. But, above that, the employer deducts the money. The employer pays it on via H.M. Revenue and Customs (HMRC) at the rate of 9% of the amount over the threshold. There are three different plans for undergraduates:

  • Plan 1 has a threshold of £19,895 per year,
  • Plan 2’s threshold is £27,295 per year, and
  • Plan 4’s £25,000 per year.

This means care-workers, who are shamefully underpaid, with an average of £16,000, would not hit any of the thresholds. But a trucker on a starting wage of £24 000 would do so on Plan 1.

Learning On the Job

Some of the necessary work does involve training. For example the training of a trucker can take six months of courses and cost some £3,000. But this could be done on a loan scheme. The student might pay it back eventually alongside the student loan.

There is considerable advantage to the student in having a second set of skills to help with employment in unpredictable future years. In a time of a future pandemic for instance! There would be some gain to the nation in having a reserve army of such workers to draw into the urgent jobs during such times.

Another advantage to the student is simply being able to earn extra money before and during studies. I was lucky enough to have a gap of nine months before starting university. Realising I would need spending money when at college, I signed on in the summer season to work as a waitress in one of the large tourist hotels in Russell Square, London. The advantage of this was that I could board there, and did not have to commute from the middle of Kent.

As it turned out, I was the only English worker in the entire hospitality team. Many of the front-of-house staff were from the far west of Ireland at that time. In the kitchen, it was like the United Nations, under the strict control of an Iranian chef, who used knife gestures rather than polite language.

The Lure Of the Big City

Thinking about the pull of London for those from the west of Ireland, I recognise an economic fact I’ve since encountered elsewhere. Places growing richer always pull their service labour from the poorer places, whether it is London from Ireland, or Johannesburg from the mountains of Lesotho. There are only a few ways in which any society can get its drudgery done: slavery, feudal labour, bonded labour, child labour, immigration, or conscription.

We now regard the first four as horrors we have left behind. Though when I was in the North East there were still living memories of the school holidays for “tatty picking” (the potato harvest). Immigration is now mostly impossible for low-paid work, except for the recent tiny concession of short-term visas (which probably won’t bring in enough drivers, anyway). So that leaves youth conscription as the remaining option.

What Will Work Best?

Objections will arise from many sides. It is too late for this academic year. Universities badly need to fill their halls of residence and get on with face-to-face teaching again. Union leaders will say that the better solution is to improve pay and conditions, so that more native Britons actually opt to work in these jobs. But it is to be noted that some jobs, such as trucking, hospitality with unsocial hours, and harvesting in remote fields, do not combine well with family life.

So they are in fact more suitable for the young, who enjoy the nightlife, or roaming the roads, or mucking in together. Their youthful contribution need not undercut wages for ever. One can hope that as they graduate to managerial or professional jobs, they will be more sensitive to the needs and skills of those still working in these sectors.

So, how about it, students?