Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

Harriet Williams shares her experience as one of the million plus unemployed under-26 year olds.


Today, the latest unemplyment figures will be released, and are expected to show another rise; Harriet Williams gives a personal account of life on JSA and her efforts to find a job

One set of records the government won’t be shouting about during this year’s Olympics are the records unemployment is currently breaking. With youth unemployment at the highest level since 1991, and new, worse figures every month, it seems unstoppable. This is no surprise to me, after my recent job seeking experience.

I’m a graduate from a respected university, with a masters degree, but when I signed on earlier last year the first clue I got that JSA wasn’t going to help me get a job was when they failed to ask about my qualifications.

Can a government that professes to care so much about getting young people into university really justify the indifference to qualifications in the job seeking sector?

This was the first of many disappointments; meetings billed as ‘in depth interviews’ which lasted two minutes, inflexibility and rudeness, a lot of aggressively worded letters. All for £50 per week.

Many graduates will go through the job centre at one time or another, but things have got so bad that none really think that the job centre will help them find a job.

People will say, “why does this matter?”, “graduates are privileged and will always find a job” – Careers departments, old boy’s networks and recruitment services are available to shepherd them in to highly paid investment banking or sales jobs.

To a certain extent that’s true, but leaving aside the fact that not all graduates want the kind of jobs recruitment services offer, it matters because the lack of effort signals a greater malaise in the system.

The important thing is that school leavers, career changers and recent redundancies also aren’t getting the help they need to find a job that suits their qualifications and interests, and are often in a far worse position than graduates. Without help, the unemployment cycle will continue and the jobless who find jobs will quickly become jobless again.

I filled in my job seeking diary obediently, as the job centre says is required. You’re supposed to apply for three jobs a week, but no-one ever looked at it.

I spoke to a job seeker, Ellen, who after six weeks hadn’t received any benefits. She queried this and discovered that no-one had processed her claim because they thought she wasn’t eligible. No-one had bothered to tell her when she dutifully signed on every two weeks. This is emblematic of a general sloppy attitude.

The next problem I discovered was a complete lack of ambition for job seekers. The job centre wants to get the people on their books back into work, but they don’t care what sort of jobs they find people, whether they are suited or not. They kept suggesting I apply for ‘night secretary’ jobs. What even is a night secretary?!

When I was signing on, there was huge excitement about security jobs at the London Olympics – a full year away at that time and clearly a time limited role. What were people feted to do this job going to do in the meantime? Slip into being long term unemployed, or look elsewhere for work.

This focus on finding people just any job doesn’t keep people in work, and certainly doesn’t challenge the benefits culture whereby people earn more on benefits than they do in a job.

When asked what sort of job I was looking for, I decided to be honest – “journalist”, I said. They replied “oh, journalism assistant?” and told me, as if I didn’t know, that journalism was hard to get in to and I should try other things.

I know it’s an old fashioned idea to like your job, only the rich are allowed to do that, but it does help to get people to stay in them.

There’s no ambition, no feeling that people should be able to try to do anything they actually want to do. It’s no wonder than so many people turn to reality programmes like X Factor that create a fantasy world where anything is possible, or TOWIE where ordinary Essex girls find fame for being themselves, when the government tells you you shouldn’t even try.

A key example of the failure to be ambitious for their clients is the widespread touting of Tesco’s new work experience scheme.

Tesco (and other big retailers including Poundland) offer ‘work experience’ to people on JSA which involves menial work in stores, shelf stacking, for example, for a short period. They are exempted from minimum wage, although they continue to get job seekers allowance – paid for by the government.

Everyone will be glad that the UK’s biggest company is stepping in to help job seekers at this time of crisis.

Except, it does seem like Tesco is gaining a lot, while the government pays, and job seekers are exploited, gaining nothing. No real jobs are created or are likely to be with a steady stream of free labour from the government. ‘Work experience’ in Tesco is not something that is going to get anyone a great job afterwards, or, perhaps more importantly, teach people to value the labour that they do.

It also undermines the low skilled workforce who will find themselves out of job, if Tesco can get people to work for free. A great solution all round.  The government keeps paying and no-one has a job.

What needs to be done is simple, but as all simple things, will be fiendishly difficult to achieve.  Make job centres act like recruitment offices. Give them access to all levels of jobs, and make them able to match people to a job dependent on their skills and qualifications – look at their CV, spend more time with them, try to understand more about them.

Of course, all this requires money, and the government tells us there isn’t any. We all see how people on benefits are vilified every day in the right wing press and it’s becoming a left wing maxim, thanks to UKUncut, that we should do the same to the rich.

Perhaps the UK’s tax dodgers might step in – Topshop owner Philip Green, dodging £285 million every year? Vodafone, whose sweetheart deal with the government means they are dodging tax until 2014?

However you feel about tax dodging, it’s unarguable that this money would come in handy. This, to me, demonstrates the inequality in our society, in which the rich are encouraged to dodge tax, and the poor get bullied and humiliated for every penny they get in welfare.

See also:

The US has turned a corner in unemployment; can we follow them? – Tony Burke, February 6th 2012

What’s right for Aberdeen isn’t for York; unemployment needs city-specific solutions – Paul Swinney, January 23rd 2012

European Socialists present their action plan on youth unemployment – Alex Hern, January 26th 2012

Unemployment: Plan A isn’t working – Richard Exell, December 14th 2011

Unemployment hits 17-year high – record number of young people out of work – Shamik Das, October 12th 2011

Like this article? Left Foot Forward relies on support from readers to sustain our progressive journalism. Can you become a supporter for £5 a month?

96 Responses to “Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me”

  1. Jayne Hill

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  2. Alice in Blunderland

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  3. Foyer Federation

    A personal story similar to one of millions of young people failed by jobcentres that can’t #OpenTalent

  4. phoebemonkey

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  5. Sonia

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  6. john peter ingamells

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  7. Mabel Horrocks

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  8. James KM Blake

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  9. Peter Underwood

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  10. Roger T Bunting

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  11. Yvonne Kay

    I could give 4 months of similar stories. RT Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me | Left Foot Forward –

  12. Napier Bones

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  13. David Trussler

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  14. Cholomley

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  15. Patriciabaxter595

    Harriet, I find this article totally refreshing and completely true. I have just recently signed off and I have never been happier. Out of all the people that work at the job centre, I have only ever met one who wasn’t patronising or judgemental.

    I myself have an Honors Degree and put down journalism as a career goal and it was anything they could do to help or encourage me.

    I made a thorough account of my job search on a weekely basis – the first week I noted down at least ten – and no matter how detailed I was they always found a flaw. This angered me as I heard from several others that have signed on, that their’s were barely looked at.

    Thank you for bringing this to the attention of others, being on JSA is probably one of the hardest and most soul destroying things I have ever had to do, especially being a graduate and feeling like my three years of studying had gone to waste.

    Luckily I am in employment now and I’m loving my new job so far. All I can say to those who are still on JSA and are overqualified to do the jobs that are being put forward to them, is to just keep on trying and don’t give up.

  16. MrHippy

    A very accurate description of life on the dole.

    I’ve been unfortunate enough to have to sign on between contracts on occasion and found it utterly soul destroying. I’m amazed that anyone who regularly attends has ever found work.

    I personally filled the jobseeking diary in two days and had to ask for a new one – this caused endless confusion, I don’t anyone had bothered to do this before. I had to explain several times that the book was full and that I hadn’t lost it.

    The staff seem to expect nothing but failure.

    Your article makes me wonder if this malaise is so ingrained in the mindset of the jobcentre and its staff that no amount of funding could change it. It seems to me that the entire organisation has become terminally jaded and embittered.

    If you are unemployed long enough you may be unlucky enough to take part in the work program. This is the coalition’s initiative to help the long term unemployed back into work. For a vague idea of how it works search for “job club” and “league of gentlemen”.

  17. Clare Tate

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  18. Adam

    Youth unemployment and the workfare scandal: taxpayers subsidising profits of Tesco, Poundland and the like.

  19. Laura Haley

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  20. Wendy Hibbs

    “@BendyGirl: RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me” sounds like argument for careers guidance to me.

  21. Pam Hewett

    “@BendyGirl: RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me” sounds like argument for careers guidance to me.

  22. H. O.

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  23. AD

    Harriet, totally agree that job centres should be ambitious and I think that people should be forced to work for socially more sociallly useful orgs like charities, if we are going to ask people to work for benefits.
    However there is one thing I’m finding problematic about the arguments against the use of such work experience. Many of the people complaining are graduates who see this kind of work as a bit beneath them… you’ve even done it a bit yourself when you say ‘Work experience’ in Tesco is not something that is going to get anyone a great job afterwards, or, perhaps more importantly, teach people to value the labour that they do.’ It’s not that it has no value at all, it’s that you don’t value it. I’m sure Teso’s values it immensely…hence the argument above that this free labour should be given to charities instead.

    Being forced to work for free is not going to get you your journalism job, but is it worse than the alternative: you get to spend your day writing and building a good CV for your journalism applications, but another young person on the dole ends up on the scrapheap because they’ve fallen so far from being employable that it takes years to get them back to a place where they can achieve even a dead end job at Tesco. ( I’ve worked directly with some of them).

    I Just struggle with some of the snobbery of this, which is that nobody cares about young people with dead end jobs and job centres with no ambition for the ‘clients’ until some graduates get drawn into a programme and see how demeaning the system can be.

  24. Help Wanted Here

    Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me | Left Foot Forward: This focus on finding people just any job doesn't k…

  25. Get The Job You Want

    Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me | Left Foot Forward: This focus on finding people just any job doesn't k…

  26. W. King

    Hi, I just spotted your article/blog here after going to Twitter looking at the sorts of messages about Workfare.
    I have to say quite a few of the points you have made here are very similar to what i have come across in my own experience, even where they told you Journalism was difficult to get into i was told the same (i have a degree in an I.T related subject) i think it may largely be because most of the staff don’t really seem to know about any sector of work outside of ‘unskilled’.
    I think we also share the viewpoint that if you at least enjoy your job the chances are you will be more productive and likely to stay in it than if you dislike it which would tempt someone to take sick days just to avoid going in.
    With a little bit of help early on I could probably have found employment in roughly the sector i want to be in, but due to the attitude of the job centre my most valuable skills are probably now too rusty to be fully used without a refresher which would probably have been a much more sensible and effective thing (not to mention cheaper) to do than sign me over to an outside company who have no interest in me beyond how much money the government will give them to ‘aid me into employment’.
    Thank you for writing the article its nice to know im not alone in how I feel about this particular scheme and attitude towards graduates and their employment.

  27. HHLimbo

    Unemployment rising rapidly whilst we subsidise Tesco etc with free labour. A personal account: #boycottworkfare

  28. Deborah

    @oliverlaughland @homakhaleeli : @williamsharriet already wrote something similar on @leftfootfwd

  29. Harriet Williams

    @caitlinmoran workfare is totally the wrong approach. Have a look at what I wrote about JSA and it's failings

  30. Guest

    I was in the Job Centre yesterday and used their machine to look at the latest local jobs. There were hundreds of jobs but 99% of them were duplications of the same CATALOGUE DISTRIBUTOR and ENERGY SALES roles. These so-called self-employed vacancies don’t pay any sort of hourly rate and you are paid by commission only.

    When the government talks about 400,000 unfilled vacancies in the economy, how many of those are actually these bogus, self-employed vacancies? I do not understand how these jobs can be advertised as ‘meeting the requirements of the National Minimum Wage Act’. I have even had my advisor at the Job centre threaten to sanction my Job Seekers Allowance if I do not apply for these dubious sounding, ‘self-employed’, commission-only sales jobs.

  31. Thomas Charles Newman-Bruce

    I’ve been on the JSA since February 2010 and I apply for at least twenty jobs a day. This morning I received my first ever reply and have been offered an interview. I personally found being a job seeker one of the most depressing things I have ever experienced.

  32. Harriet Williams

    @williamsharriet great article on youth unemployment! I had a similar experience. @leftfootfwd

  33. Harriet Williams

    @williamsharriet Gd read & true point about so-called work exp RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  34. Harriet Williams

    I can see your point, and I see how that might have come across as snobbery, but I didn’t really mean it like that. What I was saying was that working in Tesco is a bit of a rubbish job, for anyone, because they treat their staff badly and pay minimum wage. I think that everyone should aim high in life, and I deliberately made the point that the indifference towards graduates is emblematic of indifference towards job seekers as a whole. It’s just that graduate indifference is the only sort I’ve experienced first-hand.

  35. Chloe Apatronymie

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  36. paulinr sharp

    Tesco is a complete disgrace. Ive shopped there for years but no more. Using the unemployed as cheap labour is the lowest of the low.

  37. a4e highpark1

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me

  38. Shirley Ayres

    Youth unemployment, Job Centres & me @leftfootfwd < radical rethink of job centres required HT @a4ehighpark1

  39. Linda Rumbold

    This is a sad indictment of what it's like looking for a job today. If this rings a bell with you why not think…

  40. Linda Rumbold

    RT @leftfootfwd: Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me Ask me how I can help if this is your situation.

  41. Alex Wright

    Apparently temp/recruitment agencies (or at least some) used to talk to people and find out what they may be good at, like you suggest for Job Centres – though I think a lot were always very admin-focused.

    Now it’s difficult to even get on their books (and not just being told to upload your CV) until you have a fair bit of office experience, and in most of them you’re mostly applying for jobs by yourself.

    Although a lucky few get called when their CV comes up in a Web search (at least that was my experience after graduating in July til I’d spent a few months doing data-entry at a uni, then I luckily managed to get another near-minimum wage admin position when that job ended). One other agency annoyed me by trying to get me into a call centre-like job (which they insisted wasn’t a call centre job) that I didn’t feel suited for (I don’t have a good phone manner and would dread being on the phone all day).

  42. Jobcentre Plus needs radical and urgent reform to bring down unemployment | Left Foot Forward

    […] Youth unemployment, Job Centres, and me – Harriet Williams, February 15th […]

  43. Steve Starlord

    25th March 2012
    Ah! Your ending reminds me somewhat of the old saying:

    “To make the rich work harder you pay them more. CARROTS
    To make the poor work harder you pay them less” STICKS

    Love, Light & Laughter

  44. Amgeraghty

    I hope you have found work by now if not visit my website ,I will give you free access if you e mail me via the contact us form , this site is designed to give genuine focus and help to this growing sector , Andrew Geraghty CEO Jobcentrepod Ltd

  45. Jess

    I am also a graduate from a top university, with a masters degree. I have recently applied for JSA because my zero hour contract at a London Museum is unreliable and does not pay me enough to live. What I really need is full-time employment and a London living wage. I now have first hand experience of what it is like to ‘sign-on’ and I can confirm that the JC Plus employees that I dealt with could not care less. The appointments lasted a maximum of five minutes, I saw a different person each time, nobody asked me what qualification I had or about the jobs I was looking for. One condesending employee advised me to refuse shifts from my zero-hour job because working too many hours would ‘be a hassle for her to explain on paper.’ Another told me, ‘we are told to discourage people from signing-on so never be late for an appointment, any excuse and they will cancel your claim’ (he was a nice one). Another, had trouble spelling and using the computer to type. What qualifications do you need to secure a job at the Job Centre in Rushey Green I wonder? I have been attending for 4 weeks, complying, using ‘Universal Jobmatch’ to apply for vacancies (most of the stuff is out of date) and filling in the little ‘My Work Plan’ book which none has ever looked at. So far I have receive £0.78. The whole system is f*****.

Leave a Reply