The only thing still recognisable about the job centre are the security guards. Despite the changes to the world at large, since my last visit nine years ago the native population had not advanced enough to do away with them.
A toothless drunk smelling of sour unwashed skin and rotted damp clothing stood in the doorway ogling a young black woman smoking a cigarette. He looked as happy to be there as I was.
The room appeared to have significantly less staff and more computers than the last time I went in.
I realised quickly that the job centre no longer had much in the way of its own listed jobs, instead, what paltry jobs were on offer (I listed seven in my area for part time hours) was propped up simply by the centre providing rows of computers connected to the internet. I sat down hoping to find a well of jobs but I was instead taken to a list of bookmarked jobs agencies. It appears the job centre had shifted it’s focus to processing benefits rather than offering jobs.
I could have just done this at home I grumbled to myself. Still I was there, so I might as well trawl the job sites and look for the jobs.
I was here by choice, if it can be called that. I gave up my old life. I worked for the past 7 years as a tattooist, I owned my own business, I employed my own staff, but I was living a double life, having found the nature of the work had caused my reflections to deepen over the years, and slowly the modern world and its eternal childhood began to come undone inside me. I couldn’t do it anymore. I tried to sell up, but I found no buyers, and in the end I gave it away. I just gave it away, the whole business. How would I explain that to the job centre staff? That I was trying to live by moral terms and reject my old life, and with it all that seemed to be part of the decay of society. . Oh I had some explaining to do! People don’t just throw away functioning businesses that they spent years building! They don’t do that when they have nothing in the bank, and no future! I doubted they would believe me, and decided to tell them I had simply gone bust.
My familiarity with the job centre stemmed from intermittent spells of unemployment in my mid twenties that lasted over a period of two years. I had found it hard to secure anything more than temp work in factories and if I’m honest, state benefits covered my life sufficiently enough to ensure that I had little interest in changing the situation. Once a fortnight, £80 appeared in my bank account, enough as long as I was frugal. But frugal living gets boring, and my lack of purpose in life was getting the better of me. A woman must make a choice in these situations, she must either find something meaningful to do with her life, or she must get pregnant to further her career on benefits. I chose not to bring children into the situation I was in, and so eventually I agreed to sign up to the courses that were on offer to help job seekers.
At the time like all young liberals, I resented `the system` and thought it owed me something. I saw the courses as the mark of an oppressive government, forcing me to do things I did not want to do, and I scowled at the social security employees as though they were henchmen of some cruel organisation out to separate me from my god-given benefits. Through the lens of entitlement, I failed to react with any gratitude to the services society was providing me with. I didn’t cause trouble, but I went through the motions of signing on begrudgingly. I wished they would leave me alone.
Today however, I saw them for what they were – tired human beings who the behaviour of the unemployed had made hostile . I tried to smile at one of them, to signify I was no troublemaker. With a heavy African accent, he smiled back and said hello. I now realise that a government that offers its citizens welfare, a job centre and free courses are signs that I live in a benign and functioning society, not an evil patriarchal one that needs to be over thrown to liberate the proletariat.
I signed up for two courses – One on CV writing and interview skills, and the second was a paid scheme where an external agency would me find a work placement, so long as I showed up each day at their centre for two weeks, and so long as a placement could be found. For the monumental act of turning up each day for two weeks, I would be paid a wage. The catch was that if a placement was found, I could not unreasonably refuse without a loss of benefits. I bit the bullet and signed the agreement.
The CV and interview courses came first, and I was pleased to see a free buffet lunch was thrown in in order to entice the lazy but hungry to show up. Heck, they even paid my bus fare.
But still I traipsed in with my liberal scowl, and rolled my eyes at the shockingly easy `skills assessment` test, which consisted of basic maths and writing that a six year old ought to have been able to do, and I grumbled my good morning to the course leader when she came jovially into the room. `Hello everybody!` she beamed! I still wonder how it is such people keep up appearances each day, always happy to see the next bunch of no-hoper’s. We gathered the chairs in a circle, and each member of the group introduced themselves, and explained a little about their situation.
The man to the left of me first.
`Hello my name is Michael…I’ve not worked for ten years, I was a carer for my disabled mother, but now she’s died, I’m looking for work.`
He put his head down and spoke again `I’ve been looking for two years now, but I’ve got no relevant skills, no CV, nobody wants me.`
He was aged about 50, which seemed to be the average age of the people on the course – it was voluntary and unpaid, and it appeared this acted as a filter to sift the people that were genuinely looking for work from those that were simply trying to do things to please the job centre.
`Hello my name is John, I used to work on a building site, but I was made redundant, I’ve also been unemployed for two years, but I can’t go back to building now, I’m too old and knackered…`
Several of the other men nodded, and I saw in this room that there was a secret problem in British society; the unspoken humility of older working class men who were finding themselves irrelevant to the modern world around them. Each job they applied for they were treated as second-class applicants and they knew it. Fast food chains, supermarket tills are the reserve of women and the young. Once such men lose their physical strength, they are no good in their old professions, and the hip and the young don’t want them around. Despite this, they do not complain loudly. There are no identity politics campaigns for the rights of middle aged men that have worked in one job all their lives and don’t know how to apply for a new one.
In the craving for `diversity` and `vibrancy` in the work place, these dinosaurs once past the age of 45 didn’t stand a chance, and their applications went unanswered. I could see now why the course leader showed up everyday – she saw that among the rabble of career benefits claimants that there was genuine people needing help. I felt a little guilty at my initial spoilt attitude to the course – these men were really genuinely looking for new work, many had even turned up smartly dressed in suits.
Help came for these men in the form that the course could offer to them – The Curriculum Vitae. Most didn’t have one, or had made one themselves that contained none of the things employers were looking for.
The young and better educated have grown up with the art CV writing as part of the final year of school had an instinct what language to use, and what should be put in, and what omitted. But many of the older people were new to it.
The course leader read out a few of the questions that might be asked on an application form.
‘OK people! Question one.. You are working on the shop floor with a colleague you are friendly with. You know that she is struggling at home and you see her take a ten pound note out of the till. What do you do?’
I was young and cynical enough to know the answer, but the older people thought it needed some conferring. They mumbled amongst themselves, then one of them elected to answer;
`We decided, um..we would tell her to put it back, its not worth losing their job over`
The course leader smiled sadly
`Wrong answer guys, I’m sorry. The only correct answer is, `inform the manager`
The men and women looked shocked.
`Oh but won’t she be fired?` asked a woman, aged around 55 who had lost her life-long job due to poor health.
‘Yes I’m afraid so, but the point is, it’s not your decision to make, you must always defer, or else you might be sacked as well’.
The woman drew her handbag to her and looked downtrodden.
At the end of the course, after going over each section of the CV and staging mock interviews, I was pleased to see the men had modern looking CV`s, complete with all the middle class graduate buzzwords that employers are scanning for; words like ‘sociable’, ‘bubbly’, ‘dedicated’ and ‘committed’.
The man who had been a carer for ten years, had previously been writing on his applications that he had `no skills` but the course leader prodded him to list all the things he had needed to do to care for his mother, and in fact, it turned out he must have saved the government a fortune by all the things he did for her at home.
The owners of the new CV’s looked more confident, and I genuinely wished them all the best in their search for employment.
It was in stark contrast to the second course. But I could hardly be surprised: The paid course had attracted all the kinds of people that didn’t really want jobs but wanted money for nothing.
Gone were the gentle working class men, and the Brie and Cranberry sandwiches. In its place was a room of shaved heads `yoofs` with burberry caps, tracksuits and gawping mouths. More like a school classroom in some boys reform school than a roomful of adults looking for work.
The course leader did not share the optimism of the CV course provider. This poor woman spent most of her days backed into a corner, or shouting at the men to sit down and behave.
The first thing I noticed when I entered, was that the door clicked shut behind me, and that there was a keypad to get out again.
‘Are we locked in?` I asked. ‘No of course not’, I was told. …’But I would need to ask for permission to leave’.
As if the keypad wasn’t enough, there was a security guard stood in a corner, and I felt my liberal offence rise to the occasion.
I’m oppressed and locked up just for being unemployed! I thought. They think people like us need security guards!
Actually people like us did need security guards.
The job placement scheme was a bit of a ruse. So long as we were on it, we were classed as employed, and struck off the government figures. This was its real purpose. It was a scheme created by the Blair government to mask true unemployment figures. As such, this private company was little interested in turning out results. It was a holding pen and nothing more.
Only an hour in on the first day, I had seen one man get his ear stapled to his head, and somebody throw a bag of sick across the room.
An argument broke out over who’s idea it was to staple the man’s ear, and the stapled man huffed and raged, dripping blood on the carpet.
`I thought it would be a laugh` smirked the man with the staple gun- a gangly, track suited chav, a haunter of bus stops and club door ways. Everybody else’s lives are just props for such peoples’ amusement.
I shrank in my seat. I was beginning to see the reasons society kept us at arm’s length and employed security guards or didn’t answer these job applications. It wasn’t the government that was the malevolent entity, it was the public. Or sections of it at least.
We were to apply for as many jobs as possible in the jobs club. But after the only phone in the room was confiscated due to gum chewing, hooped ear-ring girls phoning their boyfriends on it, we were not able to phone any employers.
Next to be confiscated was the internet, due to the same crowd using the computers to go on chatrooms, and after that the newspapers were taken off us. So after a week in the centre, all we had to find work with was a phone book and a pile of envelopes to send letters to various business addresses in the phone book. Most of the time was spent talking, or in my case, sat in silence. In my irritation, I went over to one of the computers and began to play solitaire. The course leader came over to chastise me. `You aren’t supposed to be playing!` she snapped.
`Then what am I supposed to be doing!` I shot back `I’ve been here a week at your so-called jobs club and so far I’ve been deprived of any means available to me to find a job! So what am I actually supposed to be doing?`
She faltered, clearly un-used to anybody getting angry over the fact that they were unable to look for work.
`Well..I’ll sort something` she said.
The next day, she had found me a work placement, I was one of only three people in a room of forty to get one. Presumably the other two had complained as well.
The work placement I received was in a day care centre for adults with disabilities, and it paved the way for me entering full time work as a carer. Despite my animosity to the services on offer at the time, I benefited from them, and I had seen first hand the full array of job seekers. I had to admit it wasn’t the government at fault, nor my situation. I was held back yet again by the same kind of idiots that had marred my education. But the situation is nuanced, many job seekers are genuine, and many of the staff really do want to help people. It isn’t often the job centre is praised, but they do an unsung and difficult job.
The truth about benefit seekers lies somewhere in the middle, they are neither all scroungers nor all layabouts, but the two groups are lumped together, the genuine being invisible in the overwhelming presence of loud and disruptive benefits ‘professionals’.
Thankfully, most of the job centre staff I met knew the difference.