Today at the job centre

Today was my second appointment at the job centre – following on from my interview last week, described in the blogpost Signing on.

There’s still a mixture of fear of the unknown and a fear of being judged in this whole process that made the run up to today’s visit a little bit worrying. It’s a bit like going to the doctor or going to the dentist. It’s strange when you think about it. These people are public servants who in principle are there to help you out and make life’s trials and tribulations that little bit easier. So why worry? Is it the individual or the treatment that we worry about? The dentist or the dentists drill?

I reluctantly ploughed through the paperwork knowing that this was all a box-ticking exercise. As a former civil servant I’m more than familiar with box-ticking exercises. Badly-designed performance management systems are an example – and I’m yet to see the ‘holy grail’ of both a fit-for-purpose performance management system combined with a capable competent and inspiring people management culture that allows lots of people who work for such an organisation to hit their potential.

I’ve got my ‘job seeker’s agreement’

It’s written for a seven year old. Really. (What I mean by that is its patronising tone rather than accessibility of language – bearing in mind our continuing problems of illiteracy and innumeracy)

“I know I must do everything I can to

  • find work
  • improve my chances of finding work
  • overcome things that might be making it harder for me to look for and get a job”

No one will be able to do everything they can to find or improve chances of finding work. There will always be something more that individuals can do.

It gets worse

“I know I must:

  • actively seek work by doing at least [insert number] things a week
  • show I have been actively seeking work every week, every time I attend the Jobcentre
  • be available for work for the hours I have set out in this agreement
  • apply for all jobs that Jobcentre Plus tells me to apply for”

The first bullet point above is a classic box ticking exercise. Making a speculative phone call, sending an email, asking a mate if anything is available – that’s three things for the week; job done. The problem with this approach is that it feels as if it has been written to catch people out rather than to help them into meaningful longterm employment. Stick rather than carrot.

The second bullet point wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they didn’t make the whole thing such a paper-based exercise – in particular with phone calls and conversations. As mentioned in my last article, my experience of seeing the screens that Jobcentre Plus uses clearly demonstrated that they were so last millennium. Last time I saw fonts like that I was playing a computer game from 1993. I’d like to think we’ve moved on from the decade when Darren Day was on Saturday Night TV.

As for the hours set in the agreement, there was the implication that I would be available to work a 9-5 or full-time job. What if people are only available or willing to do part-time work because of family/caring commitments? What about if they are doing voluntary work or are on a training course? Well…I have another form for that one. Again, another box-ticking exercise but no real acknowledgement that what I’m learning on this teacher training course is actually really useful and is more than likely to improve future employment prospects. And not because it’s a bit of paper either. (I know, bad form to start a sentence with the word “And”, but I had a bad experience at secondary school with English teachers…and art teachers…and music teachers…and physics teachers….I’ll stop there).

Finally, there is this bizarre final bullet point saying that I must apply for all jobs that the Jobcentre Plus tells me I must apply for. This is a completely counter-productive condition to have, and only increases the resentment between institution and citizen. The nature of working in a job centre means that the civil servants who work there will never have the amount of information that they need on an individual to have any idea on what jobs or careers that will be suitable for applicants.

Given the grades that front-line staff are employed at and the salaries that they are on, the chances of those staff having the competencies needed to make sound judgement calls on which jobs to apply for (and advice on how best to apply & present) is unlikely. Those that do should be paid far more than they currently are – in particular those that.
The adviser who I was with today recognised that the systems and processes he had to work with were hopelessly obsolete and were more of a hindrance than a help in my situation. I’m not looking for an entry-level admin job. I was nine years ago, but am not now. Jobcentre Plus struggles with people who are in effect freelancers and those who – like me effectively have portfolio careers. (i.e. we might be on college one day a week, volunteering one day a week, and working three days a week – all at various different times).

In the Jobcentre, just as with any other customer service environment, the calibre and attributes of the individual dealing with you makes a huge difference. My experience of job centres and job agencies also showed me the difference in incentives and demands for/of the two. In a job agency, the incentive is primarily a financial one. Taking on a sound agency worker provides a steady income stream for the agency (the cut that they take from the commissioning firm will make you wince) while securing permanent employment secures them a ‘finders’ fee. Fair enough – that’s what such agencies are for and that’s part of the deal.

The challenge that civil servants in job centres face is one similar to other frontline public service providers – they are the final safety net. Anyone who cannot find work through any other route finds themselves at a job centre. It is civil servants who then have to deal with them. This is not easy as this inevitably means having to work with people who are more than likely to have multiple problems and needs. Not the sort of stuff that hits the inboxes of executive headhunters.
My issues with the set up in Cambridge? (I’m going to list them here because I know a number of councillors, council officials and local activists read this blog so I hope this gives them food for thought)
As far as I’m concerned, the Cambridge Job Centre is effectively in the middle of nowhere. A hideous building on a prime piece of land overlooking the river and Jesus Green. Why not sell the site off and relocate the job centre to somewhere that is on more public transport routes and that is closer to other public service providers – or even keeping them all in the same area. Is there scope to incorporate the council’s housing benefits office, the local CVS (volunteering advice centre), the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and even setting up a local NHS health and dental clinic all in one accessible venue?
Sparseness of the inside of the building
There’s no privacy for anyone – something I have a massive issue with because having too much of an open plan set up I feel strips some of the dignity that as human beings I’d like to think that we are all born with. The lack of a presence from anyone or any other organisation inside the job centre in a strange way gives an ‘adversarial’ feel to the place. I don’t get the feeling that the institution is on my side – when it should be.
I also did not see any newspapers or publications – such as the local jobs papers much in evidence. On both occasions a number of the ‘jobspoint’ machines broke down. I don’t know how reliable those machines are supposed to be – can any current or former civil servants shed any light?

The lack of other facilities adjacent/next to the job centre
This sounds strange but bear with me. There are no cafes or bakeries or convenience shops visible from the job centre. If anything something like that might give somewhere for people to go other than the waiting room waiting for their appointments.

No visible links with other employment agencies or established large (private sector) employers.
I’d like to see a much stronger presence from both employment agencies and the large private sector employers – is there a role for bringing in human resources staff from those agencies and firms (e.g. high street shops and supermarkets) to have day-release days to job centres on a regular basis and/or at scheduled times when demand for work is expected to peak? (For example in the run-up to Christmas – I’ve not seen adverts/posters for seasonal work, even though now is the time high street firms need to start recruiting).

The job centre systems and processes not being fit for purpose – not just for the long term unemployed but also for the growing numbers of ‘professional’ people who have become unemployed.
I’ve mentioned this in my previous post. During the ‘boom’ times, relatively few professional people found themselves dependent on the services of the job centre as an institution – and this point can be extrapolated nationwide. The PCS Union – whose members have been regularly raising problems in job centres (I declare an interest as a former PCS Union member and elected rep – so read about these regularly in union magazines) seemed to be one of the few organisations that spoke out both for the people who worked there and the service users during the good times. Now that unemployment is hitting the ‘middle classes’ (I hate that term but I’ll go with it for now), people with the knowledge, contacts and bloody-mindedness are beginning to speak out about how the systems and processes that they have funded and paid into through national insurance, are not working for them in their time of need.

As far as job-hunting is concerned, I’m not dependent on the systems, processes and facilities that the job centre has. I also have the support of my family – who I live with (because of their kindness and generosity – and because house prices are ridiculous in these parts I could never hope to afford my own place – even on my salary towards the end of my time in the civil service). This means that a withheld benefits payment is not the difference between eating and going hungry for the week. This blog post is not about me – it’s about trying to improve things for my fellow citizens. (No, I’m NOT Jon Culshaw’s Jeremy Kyle)

The public service ethos? That’s me. I spent a year working in banking between sixth form college and university. I was not cut out for it. Ironically out of the four 18/19 year olds that back office took on that year, the two people with university places secured for the following year decided to drop their places and stay with the bank, while myself and the other guy who joined the bank without having applied for a deferred place chose to apply for university and left the following summer.
I’d like to see more of Cambridge’s ‘professional’ types lean on those in power locally and nationally to help improve the systems and processes of our public services to help those less fortunate. The other thing that alarms me is the level of unclaimed benefits that people are entitled to – something that I picked up on Dr Eoin Clarke’s excellent blog The Green Benches. £13billion plus per year. Some might say that this saves the Treasury money. Yet this is an entitlement that we as a society, through Parliament have decided that people are entitled to as members of society.

If there is are problems with how the payments are made and who receives how much, improve the system. Where individuals break the law, we have a legal system to deal with that. It’s called the rule of law – something that people tend to appreciate only when that rule of law comes under threat. Let’s stop the stigmatisation of people on benefits – whether unemployed, disabled or the full time carers. After all, isn’t this the Big Society and aren’t we all in this together?


25 thoughts on “Today at the job centre

  1. No visible links with other employment agencies or established large (private sector) employers:

    I did see the army recruitment stand there once.

  2. Your Jobseekers Agreement clearly assumes that without a contract you would not look for work. This perspective on unemployed people is what gives the providers and funders of Job Centres the incentive to be as unpleasant as possible. If they didn’t make unemployment demoralising you might enjoy it, and then where would we be?
    Unfortunately, the effect of all this is to further depress and disempower unemployed people. It also implicitly represents employment as something people seek to avoid and so, perversely, increases fear of finding work. Job Centre users can often become trapped between the low self esteem foisted on them by the system and terror of being forced into work that is presented as something they would want to avoid. The easy solution is to play the Job Centre’s game, collecting evidence to keep them off your back while desperately fending off the prospect of dead end jobs.
    In this way Job Centres help to both to perpetuate the self-defeating stigma of unemployment and to exacerbate the most harmful aspects of having lost a job.

  3. My Jobseeker’s Agreement was negotiated with the Disability Employment Adviser to reflect the limitations imposed by my disability: reduced radius on the commute I had to consider (still twice as far as I could actually manage) and so on. A month later she announced she couldn’t do anything for me (not just disabled, but a senior engineer with an odd speciality -I think I was their nightmare client) and threw me to the wolves. Every time I came in after that, the frontline staff would take one look at the disability provisions on the Jobseekers Agreement, and try and persuade me I didn’t need them. Combine that with the DEA’s attempt to convince me to apply for minimum wage jobs immediately after being told I was a flight controls specialist formerly working on Eurofighter development and I wrote the whole organisation off as irretrievably disablist. It all ended in tears with a complaint to the minister and an admission from JCP that they had failed to take account of my disability.

  4. Now the professionals are consumers of the dole, we have a vision of how it should work. Grannovetter wont get us a job, we need a community centre to hang out in. A designer’s vision of hospitality, a resplendent hub of exchange: a free latte with every wi-fi. It is what has been missing all along, a quixotic paradise of lambs on the village green, each and every job-seeker sharing the rowing across the river of despair, from the banks of nihilism to the landing stage of optimism. I came here a cynic yet I leave positively engaged in this mixed diversity of portfolio careers and mutual aid. My Rubicon crossed. Thank you.

    1. Do you seriously think those professionals will be listebed to? Seriously? Professionals lost their jobs way back then too. The banks crashed 3 years ago. Three years is a long time to wait to be listened to. There is no political will to listen to those without work. The unemployed are there to be kicked, blamed and bullied. That is what has been happening in this country for more than two decades. If you want to be listened to, then parhaps you might want to start working towards turning the titanic Daily Mail, Express and Murdoch empire.

      And civil servants will not listen now either. If they cared, they would not be participating in a system that ensures the unemployed can barely eat, let alone pay for winter heat, a TV license or a basic phone, they would not be participating in a system that hounds the poor, and is now beginning to force them out of their homes. The would not be working in an office where the poorest, the economic victims have to pass through a gauntlet of security to sign on. People do not get upset in public libraries. Ask yourself why are they getting upset in a dole office. Because the people inside that office can often be patronising, further degrading the claimants and can, indeed sometimes literally remove a person means of survivial. The Job Centres and our politics are destructive, destructive of people and have been for years.

      The evidence is there for all to see. Always has been. Professionals, howerver, preferred to blame ‘them‘, you know the unemployed people, who by definition have no skills. Here are two pieces of news for you. You unemployed professionals are now ‘one of them‘ and you are now condemned to years of explaining you can read, you can write, and yes, you do have skills (how many looks of disbelief have you been given already (be honest)? Second piece of news is this, being one of ‘them‘ means you know nothing, and are not to be listened to because you are lazy, and didn’t finish school, and are to be, patronised, humiliated, not listened to, because you are one of THEM lazy people who refuse to work and that’s why the economy is a mess! It’s all your fault because you are a lay sponger. Get used to it, you have no rights to be listened to in this country, because you are now one of THEM.

      If they remaining professionals do listen then good, But, I don’t believe it. I honestly believe this country has gone so far, is now so delusional and cruel we will soon see work camps and it will be the professionals who send the unemployed to them claiming there is nothing to be done, because the professionals are only doing their jobs.

      It’s gone too far for too long, I’m afraid and I have no more hope left.

      1. It’s because I care that I am a civil servant. It’s because I care that I continue to work with the most vulnerable people. Because if civil servants didn’t perform these duties, it would be contracted out to the private sector whose only concern would be making money to keep their shareholders happy.
        Many civil servants are carers, parents, on low wages or are managing a disability. Civil servants are just like you: There are good ones, bad ones and indifferent ones but at least no-one in the job is motivated by profit.
        I am sorry that you and many others have had, and continue to have, such bad experiences.

  5. No apostrophe in the possessive “its”, and commas occur in pairs, not as isolated orphans. Punctuation is as important as the words – an omitted comma can completely change the meaning. See Lynne Truss on the subject.

  6. Things to bear in mind:
    Jobcentre Plus is required to be all things to all people. The staff there realise that this means they are not providing the ideal service to anyone, but their hands are tied by the requirement to deal with everyone who walks in the door, whether job-ready or not.
    If you are a professional, Jobcentre Staff will expect you to know where to look for work and will leave you to do so (except for the box ticking exercise of checking your jobsearch records) so that they can concentrate on those with literacy, numeracy or language issues. If there is a service you particularly require, take information about that service to your next interview and ask to discuss it with your adviser. Most are more than happy to help if they can, but do not have time to do this kind of research on your behalf.
    Experience shows that private alternatives provide no better service, but at a considerably higher cost.

  7. Do you really think there is anything new about this? I’ve had a number of spells of unemployment in my career, despite having two degrees and a host of vocational qualifications in two entirely unrelated fields of enterprise. JobCentres are not designed for people like you, and me, because the assumption is that only the unskilled and poorly educated need help to find work. They are the people the system is designed for. The rest of us aren’t supposed to be unemployed. And that’s because the system doesn’t expect there to be recessions, and banking crises, and high unemployment, and entire industries failing, and government cuts, all of which cause unemployment amongst those people who aren’t supposed to be unemployed. It’s a system designed in a bubble, not the real world.

    1. I can’t say you’re wrong, but do you not agree that when resources are limited (and they are) they should be directed towards those least able to help themselves? The Jobcentre is no longer there to do your job search for you. The staff would love to “match & screen” people for suitable vacancies, but, guess what, they’re being made redundant too. Many are trying to do the work previously done by two and this makes for an often impersonal, conveyor-belt system.
      Many Jobcentre staff are just as frustrated with the current system as you are. Many believe that the best way to get someone off the register is to get them a job they will stay in, rather than any old job that will pay the rent. Sadly, in the current climate, these jobs are not always available and sometimes the realisation that you have to step down a rung or two and pursue a new career path is too unpalatable (and the temptation is to blame the nearest soft target).
      “Social Mobility” in coalition Newspeak – it works in both directions.

      1. I’m actually not unemployed – I’m self-employed and have been for a long time now. My point was that unemployment amongst highly-educated people is a cyclical phenomenon. JobCentres have a one-size-fits-all approach which is designed for a particular group – the long-term, low-skilled unemployed. They are also only resourced for this group, so when unemployment increases JobCentres struggle – and as you point out, at the moment that effect is being made worse by public sector job cuts (and we have also seen that before, too). In effect, the design and resourcing of the system doesn’t accommodate cyclical increases in unemployment. I’m absolutely not blaming the people who work in JobCentres. I’m really complaining about the lack of imagination among the people who designed the JobCentre system.

        “Stepping down” to a lower level actually isn’t that easy. People are frequently turned down for jobs because they are overqualified for them (I speak from experience). And there is a moral question here – is it right for someone who is capable of doing a more highly-skilled job to take a lower-skilled one, thus depriving someone else of that job – who may only be capable of doing lower-skilled jobs and may have desperately needed that one?

  8. I’ve been to the jobcentre alot in my life. I’ve been unemployed on 3 occassions and I am unemployed now. I don’t have to go through the torture of signing on but I have seen friends and previous partners have to. I am summonsed to a 6 monthly ‘work focused’ interview because my youngest child is only 2 years old. I have to sit for an hour and go through the motions of the dreaded calculator which is depressing, it had only shown a positive income through part time work once, yes once. When I explain that when I go to work I want it to be full time my advisor always tries to talk me out of it. She’s a very nice lady who puts up with alot, my two toddlers literally run riot in the impersonal top floor of the jobcentre. I spend half the interview chasing them the length of the floor and pleading with them to be good for ‘just a little bit longer’. The interview always ends with my advisor saying it’s unrealistic to expect me to find work at the moment. I am one of many who go through this, there are millions of us, chasing kids during interviews, explaining how much childcare is and how we want to work but simply can’t. I don’t need a cv writing workshop, an advisor to find me a course or jobs to be put in front of me, I’m more than capable of doing that myself. I just need affordable childcare and no one has a solution for that.

    On the subject of signing on, my children’s father went through that hell last year. He sunk into deep depression as a result. He begged for training, he begged for a job, any job, he was desperate. He got 2 interviews and a big fat no at the end of them after applying for hundreds. It split us up. He was told at one point to apply for sickness benefit because it would be easier for him, he refused because he just wanted a job. He’s an aerial engineer by trade, has been since he was 15 years old and was unemployed for the first time in his life. He was told he didnt tick all the boxes for funding so they couldn’t pay for any training for him. Now he works for an aerial firm for £20 a day. He just about makes the rent every month. Before that he was doing warehouse work on nights untill they told him they didn’t have enough work to keep him on. He says he will never sign on again, no matter how bad it gets because it stamped on his confidence and self esteem.

    It’s not going to get better anytime soon and I feel for all of you who have qualifications and skills. It’s unlikely you will find a job of your choosing, there are just too many chasing too little. The jobcentre where I live made alot of people redundant a while ago, as a result they had to shuffle all the signing on appointments about so they had enough staff at one time to cope. Too many claimants and not enough staff.

  9. I’d like to apologise for my intemperate tone in my earlier response to Frances Coppola. I let my frustration show. It just feels like public sector and civil service workers are being attacked from all sides. And lets face it, the Jobcentre is popular with no-one.
    I agree with everything Frances said in response to me. It is indeed not easy, and not always possible, to step down to a lower level. But it is something that many are being forced to consider in the short-term as the labour market contracts in specific areas and while they consider their options.

  10. I’ve been wrestling with this system for the last 15 months. I’m a professional in a niche(ish) field so didn’t expect them to be much help but found some of their understanding of the jobs market surprisingly poor.
    Before moving into my current career (6 years ago), I was a part-qualified accountant. They couldn’t understand why employers wouldn’t interview me for basic bookkeeping jobs even when I explained that I was more qualified than the boss of the person I’d be reporting too. They’d also not understand that I couldn’t get interviews at the part-qual level as I’d been out of the field for 6 years. There was also a failure to understand that working in industy as an accountant is different to working in a firm of accountants and despite my industry experience, my skills weren’t appropriate for a lot of practice work.
    The stick was much more in evidence than the carrott. One week (recently) when I’d applied for every job in my field in the UK (5 in that fortnight) and got interviews for two of them, I was told that I wasn’t making contact with enough employers.
    This week I had to sign on at a different desk as I’m now under the tender auspices of the ‘Work Programme’. I didn’t know that there are two places to sign on in the building and I was in the wrong one. When I found out, I went to the right bit and finally signed on. As a result of being in the wrong bit of the building, I was given a written warning that if it happened again, I’d have my benefit stopped. Just for being in the wrong room as they’d not told me where this new desk was.

    The system needs more triage to match job seekers with people who can actually help, be it professional job search or improving literacy and numeracy. The staff, who put up with an awful working environment and low pay, need better more focused roles and training. The ‘jobspoint’ machines need to recognise the roles I’ve had, not lump them in with static security guards or admin clerks. The building itself needs to not be tucked away from public transport stops and surrounded by cobbles that are treacherous for wheelchair users and people on crutches. The systems in place need to comply with current legislation, rather than DWP’s interpretation of what they think it is. Finally, the agressive and menacing G4S security guards need to display thier SIA ID visibly as required by law.

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