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

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