Not long before Christmas last year, around that period when it snowed heavily, I had gone to Birmingham to do some final Christmas shopping. I can’t remember what I bought that day, most likely tat, but it was six bags worth of tat. The day I went to Birmingham also coincided with my appointment to sign on at the JobCentre: planning things for the days when I’ll know I have bus-fare is how I have to do things now. I might not be able to remember what gifts I purchased that day, but I can remember it was bitterly, bitterly cold. Like freezing cold. Like I wished I hadn’t forgotten my gloves because my hands were hard and beetroot red cold. The boots I had worn that day – too small for me – had rubbed a hole into the back of my left foot. I was cold, I was tired, and I was pretty sure at least one foot was sporting a blister the size of a newborn baby’s head. 16:15: I arrived at the JobCentre. 16:30 was the time of my appointment. Now, the JobCentre have a rule which states you are only allowed inside the building ten minutes prior to your appointment. I can see why this rule is in place: JobCentre’s aren’t places you want to be and overcrowded ones are even worse. But I figured five minutes couldn’t hurt, what with it snowing and all. But it did hurt. Even though JobCentre staff were preparing to close for the day, even though there were only between eight and ten Jobseekers inside, even though it was one of the coldest days of the year I wasn’t allowed inside. I was too early. So, after a small amount of protest, I trotted back outside and stood in the snow for five minutes. And five minutes turned to ten, because this, in my experience, is largely what it’s like dealing with the JobCentre, every small thing becomes a battle, every battle a game of oneupmanship. Sometimes you lose; sometimes you win.
I could tell you other stories – the one where I was thrown off for something I said being misconstrued, or the one where someone sat me down to tell me my CV was too well written – and more in further detail, but they all end in the same way: me wondering if I’m dealing with people who think and feel; me more bewildered by job-searching than I was before I signed on; me disillusioned.
And, because they’re my stories, with me as the wronged victim.
But I know I’ve been a dickhead too. Take, for example, my last signing on. Appointments are now given within half-hour time-frames, so if your appointment is scheduled for 1:00-1:30 you will be seen between those times. Except last time I wasn’t. I sat out the half-hour, watched people who came in after me leave before me, collared a man to complain, and got needlessly angry with him. He got flustered, said some things about the system and quickly walked off. I sat back down and bitched about it with the person next to me. And I’m sorry about that because I appreciate working in a JobCentre is difficult, that dealing with scores of people five days a week is a challenge, and me being angry about it isn’t going to help anybody.
But there’s something about the place that, as soon as I walk in there, makes me feel like it’s us versus them. The security, the chairs stuck to the floor, and the fact that I can never quite tell whether half the people who work in there are impersonal because they haven’t got the time or because they just plain despise us. I’m lucky that I now have an adviser who it feels like I have some sort of relationship with, who I can talk to and joke with, but as nice as she is, I hope to not be seeing her for too long.
. . .
Bits of what you’ve read there – if you’re still with me? – have been knocking around on my laptop for a while. I’ve been thinking of writing about unemployment for some time, but every time I get so many words in I balk – everything seems a bit woe is me. I thought it was worth compiling, though, and sticking bits together as best I could, if only to give you some idea of the experiences of an unemployed person, and to also show the position from which I watched Channel 4’s recent Dispatches documentary, Tricks of the Dole Cheats.
As I creep into long-term unemployment, I was expecting the worst. People, especially those who have been consistently employed for all of their lives, struggle with empathy when you’re unemployed. There are things you could do, they say, you could take your life by the scruff of the neck and shake it until it rights itself. I’m used to being bashed, to being labelled a scrounger – and I’m used to people quickly backtracking when I’m around them, saying, I didn’t mean you. I know you’re looking for work. But am I? Every day? No, I’m not. Some days I haven’t got the patience for it. There are some days I want to do other things that interest me more than asking a question I already know the answer to. So I prepared myself to hear similar stories, to see all of us labelled as lazy and work-shy once more. So I was pleasantly surprised to see Tricks of the Dole Cheats seemed to be on our side. No resolutions to problems were offered – either by the documentary makers or the JobCentre – but it seemed to be saying the lazy and work-shy deserve better; they are lazy and work-shy because that’s how the JobCentre is making them. If Tricks… didn’t teach us jobseekers anything we didn’t already know, maybe it showed others what we’re sometimes up against.
And what are we up against? Tricks… showed hidden camera footage of one jobseeker not having his job-search booklet checked. I feel I should point out that my booklet has always been checked, but nothing more. A check to see if I or someone else have filled their quota of looking-for-work activity for the week is all well and good. But I can’t help but feel that more than a check should be done. Jobs should be noted and put into a system whereby jobseekers can be matched with similar jobs to the ones they’ve recently applied for. The SOC code system is unreliable and never, ever works. Some SOC codes are in such a state of disarray that a job search for positions in the field of journalism can turn up available positions as an embalmer. If our booklets were taken better notice of advisers would see patterns and could then stop wasting their time sending information about the wrong jobs to the wrong people.
An example: some of the last activities I filled into my booklet include applications for a call-centre position, an admin role, a notetaker position, a study support worker, and news of an interview for a minor editorial role. This would suggest I have an interest in working in either some sort of office-based job, or in an education-based job. The latest job given to me by the JobCentre? A position working in a lingerie shop. Now, I can provide you with an illustrated example of why I would never IN A MILLION YEARS get this job. After some extensive research, Facebook reliably informs me that these are the faces of men that make women feel sexy:
Here is my face:
As the foremost expert in my own face, let me assure you it is not the sort of face that makes women feel sexy. Look at me. I always look that thrilled. I don’t even think working in a lingerie shop could make me look any happier.
Seriously, if our booklets were taken more notice of the JobCentre would learn more useful information about the people they’re charged with getting back into work. We shouldn’t be defined by the first three jobs we give you – most of those are probably off the top of our heads. I know I can’t remember mine.
Tricks… then went onto interview an ex-JobCentre employee – a ridiculously small sample size for a documentary, but here the show is restricted by its half-hour format rather than being wilfully picky. (I hope.) The employee could remember little or no training received with regards to improving jobseekers’ employability; he could, however, recall training in how to keep themselves safe. I know staff at the JobCentre have to deal with some pretty unpleasant people, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be trained in order to protect themselves. What I am saying, if what this ex-employee suggests is true, is don’t just be scared of us. Know how to help us as well as how to get us removed from the building.
But as much as Tricks… was on our side, the one thing I couldn’t get on board with was their impromptu recruitment/careers advice session. And why I couldn’t get on board with it is for the very simple reason that most careers advice is shit. And I mean utter toilet. Not just bad, but condescending and preachy and unhelpful. There are many things that can drive you crazy as an unemployed person, but my biggest gripe is careers advice. And suddenly everyone’s a careers expert. Everyone thinks they know how to navigate the job market, that their situation is the same as yours, when most times they don’t know how to navigate the market and their situation is nowhere near the same as yours. Careers advice doesn’t just need a rethink, it needs a whole new model.
. . .
This post was originally intended as a response to this blog by my friend, Ewar. It’s morphed into something a little more and a little longer than a response. It probably isn’t even a response as I don’t disagree with anything he states. How do you deal with two million people? I’m fucked if I know. But I thought it might be interesting to have a post written by a relatively new jobseeker (him) and one written by a long-in-the-tooth jobseeker (me). The tone of each piece is a little different; he’s more hopeful than I am: ‘when I’m away from that hellhole.’ When not if. I remember the first few times I signed on, when I was sure I wouldn’t be there for long, when I was confident in my chances of getting a job. I don’t feel that way anymore.
If you want to watch the episode click through here.
Image credits: http://scallywagandvagabond.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/robert-pattinson-hot1.jpg; http://www.usmagazine.com/uploads/assets/celebrities/10853-david-beckham/1251225681_david_beckham_290x402.jpg