Boot camp at the DWP Bates Motel

Made redundant in lockdown, Jessica Cartland tries some Job Centre skills courses

On a grey Tuesday morning I found myself on a Zoom call with seven awkward individuals. Among them was Darren, who’d clearly seen something nasty in the woodshed; next to him was Flo, so glacially scowling she brought on Raynaud’s in my fingers. Derek, a goblin-like man, was backlit, making his beard appear like a fluorescent chin halo. Doreen, bottom left of the screen, was rhythmically stroking something out of sight. Finally, there was Hannah, the “Team Ambassador” course trainer: a rosy-cheeked blonde who babbled inanities at us, punctuated by mirthless laughter. This, I mused, was the jobseeker’s equivalent of a speed date at Bates Motel.

In January, after seven years at one of the nation’s best-loved art institutions, I had been put out to pasture, aged 39, with 150 fellow culture nags. Despite a plethora of valuable assets and a declared determination to act in a principled way, by raising extra funds to retain staff, the institution laid off a vast swathe of its workforce. My fellow creatives and I, a dedicated group steeped in art history, were left to face a viciously competitive Covid-era job market.

I started full-time employment aged eighteen, with the benefit of a private education (via bursaries) from my impecunious family, who ran a shop and majored in hard graft. Throughout my working life I wangled my way into jobs through word of mouth, rarely going near HR departments. I once got a job crewing for an opera company at a castle in Italy after a conversation with a man on a night bus – he turned out to be the producer. That isn’t how the world works now.

An echo of my mother’s voice lingered in my head: “Get a job anywhere!” But I no longer wanted to fly under the radar followed by a cloud of uncertainty. The one gift of redundancy was that I could take a risk and perhaps find a fresh course – one that might have a positive impact on other people’s lives.

By March, nearly out of funds, I signed on. Looking for work became a job in itself. My assigned mentor at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) called me every two weeks to quiz me on the hours I’d spent proactively touting for new appointments and check which websites I’d been using. She sought evidence of all applications, interviews and rejections, charted in the compulsory daily journal documenting my progress. For £140 a month I felt the pressure mount. My journal was flatlining: a depressing catalogue of failed attempts to secure a position that would keep me afloat.

By May my expectations had lowered to the point where I contemplated responding to an ad for a “sandwich artist” at a chain that prides itself on fillings that could render ectomorphs obese. It amused me to imagine customers drumming their fingers on the takeaway counter while I laboured over culinary Jackson Pollocks.

My mentor summoned me to the local job centre. I could sense the collective desperation even before crossing the threshold. Those queuing before me were greeted with froideur by reception, and I in turn felt that frost. I waited patiently in a cordoned section listening to fellow signers-on face inquisitions, which they parried with stories of failing mental health and diminishing self-belief.

My phone rang and a woman asked crossly why I had failed to show up. I gently explained that I was sitting ten metres away from her and had been waiting twenty minutes. After an in-depth exposé of my failure to find gainful employment, I asked if she could suggest any government schemes to bolster my skills. She fumbled away at her PC and exclaimed that she had now signed me up for a Team Ambassador course. My heart sent out a thousand silent expletives, but my brain said, “What have I got to lose?”

And so, back at my virtual Bates Motel for eight hours a day over a fortnight, Hannah was the instructor leading Darren, Derek, Flo, Doreen and me through a halfwit’s notion of what it takes to galvanise a team. In a maths competency test I had to identify a twenty-pence piece, but the bulk of teaching focussed on creating a CV. The highlight of the fortnight was Derek recommending strip clubs as “real ice breakers for team building” and Hannah’s appalled hysterics.

It transpired the majority of my fellow students had already toiled as managers in the warehouse sector and seemed better equipped to lead the sessions than Hannah. Any enthusiasm ebbed away under the bombardment of business jargon like “trust benefits”, “productivity inhibitors”, and my favourite, “self-upgrading”. Thankfully, I’d already put in an Amazon order for a new, improved Me with an electromagnetic bullshit repellent and built-in bread maker. At the end of the course, we were awarded a certificate as valuable as a sticky gold star in kindergarten.

Another month passed in applications for all manner of positions, from gallery manager to a weirdly-worded vacancy for a call centre operative in Athens – the job spec revealed my gross earnings would be less than a month’s rent, the very essence of slave labour. A few companies bothered to send back gentle let-downs claiming my CV would be kept on file. Endless nights were spent awake with a pounding chest and sense of anxiety that gave way to mornings of grim determination.

Any enthusiasm ebbed away under the bombardment of business jargon like “trust benefits”, “productivity inhibitors”, and my favourite, “self-upgrading”. Thankfully, I’d already put in an Amazon order for a new, improved Me with an electromagnetic bullshit repellent and built-in bread maker

Fortunately, I have a supportive and loving family around me. I don’t have to make the dehumanising choice between buying food or paying for electricity and gas. How many of the estimated eighteen million people using the DWP’s services can say the same? How can our welfare state help guide people towards greater autonomy and dignity – especially in the face of all that has come over the last eighteen months – when so many elements are already stacked against the most vulnerable?

I approached the next DWP course with trepidation. Having mentioned I had some interest in a desk job I was put on a misleadingly titled Civil Service Training Course. The outcome of this, I was told, would be a certificate in Employability, which sounded promising and no weirder than the Level 2 Handcuffing course I had seen advertised or the Level 3 Certificate for Safely Handling Ladders.

The civil service course was led by cheerful Debbie, who greeted our motley crew via her webcam with a breezy: “Welcome to Celebrity Squares. What a lovely bunch! Now, I want you to think of us as one big happy family and I am mum. I am here for you to use and abuse.” Mummy was giving me mixed messages.

“Now, if you can all introduce yourselves and tell us an interesting fact about you,” she encouraged. An eager man in his twenties started us off: “Hi, I’m George, I got a first in Japanese Studies at Oxford and I was part of a pro-democracy campaign in Bahrain.” I wondered how on earth George had got here and whether his parents were lamenting the cash spent on his education.

Fourteen “Me” stories later I could see that, while the group was beautifully diverse and made up of capable people, most (like me) had found that losing your job in the Covid era made it harder than ever to re-enter the workforce.

I diligently threw myself into all the learning modules and group sessions, meeting all coursework deadlines. I felt like I was five again, pathetically delighted with the glittering feedback.

On Friday a guest speaker joined our Zoom meeting – John, a recruitment officer for the DWP. The penny dropped: this was a specific recruitment drive for one growth section of the civil service: the people overseeing jobseekers like me. John had authentic passion for the work he undertook and was far and away the most informative and articulate person I’d encountered so far.

John gave us hope that whatever field we were each aiming for, it could be reached via the doomy doors of the job centre. If we were employed there, we could move, chess-like, into other departments. He said the canny among us could even find ways to get civil service-funded training that would benefit both us and the department.

I felt genuinely elated. For years now I’ve wanted to retrain in an area which serves others – particularly the teen mental health sector. John gave me a vision of how I might do this.

On our final day we sent revised CVs and behavioural statements to our tutor. Surprisingly, mine came back with a glowing review again, lifting my deflated ego. But then we had to practise job interviews in front of our peers, giving feedback on content, delivery, body language and integrity.

Oxford George went first. He was asked to give a positive example of how he’d influenced a work colleague. He steered wildly off-topic, like a politician deflecting a simple question from Andrew Marr. It became ever more toe-curling and humiliating as each of my classmates took the hot seat – but also liberating. We were all hideously out of practice with the grim interview process.

My turn arrived. “So, Jessica, can you tell me why you think you would be the right fit for the DWP?” I wanted to say: “Because if Dennis Nilsen could get a job there, I couldn’t do any worse. I certainly wouldn’t take my work home with me. Or put it down the drains.” But I somehow stuck to the topic. No one pulled me apart.

Against all odds I actually learned a few things. I realised I had useful, transferrable skills. I gained in self-confidence and had a new-found interest in the civil service. My CV doesn’t need to be War and Peace (just as well, I loathe plagiarism). And I can happily live without hearing the phrases “thought shower” or the deeply sinister “punch a puppy” when obliged to do something questionable for the greater good of a company.

As we signed off, Mummy told us how brilliant we were and that she’d miss us. She bade us good luck out in the big bad world but felt sure we all had what it takes to become civil servants. As I waved goodbye, I felt gratitude towards these strangers for their openness and vulnerability. I wished them well and meant it.

However, I hope never to see or hear of Oxford George again, especially after he offered to teach a Polish fellow-student how to speak “the Queen’s English”. Sadly, I feel George is destined for greater things. Perhaps a Cabinet role, he has all the hallmarks. God help us.

All names have been changed

Unemployment impacts mainly the young

In June this year the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said global employment growth would be too weak in 2021-22 to provide adequate opportunities for all those who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The pandemic-induced shortfall in jobs is estimated to remain at 75m in 2021, falling to 23m in 2022. The worst-hit regions are Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia. The ILO warns that the situation is likely to get worse before improvements are seen next year, as the pandemic continues to exacerbate social inequalities.

In the UK a raft of household-name companies collapsed over the course of the pandemic, leaving thousands of people jobless. Arcadia, the group behind Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins, fell into administration in November, putting 13,000 jobs at risk as ASOS took over the brand. So far 2,000 jobs have been lost. Debenhams was bought by online retailer Boohoo in January, with potential loss of 12,000 jobs. TM Lewin made 600 workers redundant. HSBC has begun an ongoing programme to make 35,000 people redundant worldwide, while British Airways is in the process of cutting 12,000 jobs to stay afloat.

In July 2021, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) measured the UK employment rate at 74.8%. That is 1.8% lower than the quarter before the pandemic (December 2019 to February 2020), but 0.1% higher than the previous quarter (December 2020 to February 2021).

The ONS said there were “early signs of recovery” in the jobs market. However, despite the rise in job vacancies over the past twelve months, the level remains almost 128,000 below pre-pandemic levels in the January-to-March quarter of 2020.

Young people make up the majority of the unemployed. The ONS measured 13.3% of 16-24 year olds who are economically active to be unemployed. Currently, 4.9% of the UK is unemployed. Furlough has prevented an even higher number of people from being unemployed.

If you are actively looking for work, the government can provide a degree of financial assistance. In April 2021 there were 2.6m claiming either Jobseeker’s Allowance or universal credit as they were “searching for work”. This compares with 1.4 million in March 2020, before the pandemic began to take effect.

The main benefit for the unemployed is the new-style jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). This is worth £59.20 a week if you are under 25, or £74.70 a week if you are 25 or over. Jess Phillips MP has pointed out that if the young had a better voting record over-19s would be more likely to get the same jobseeker allowance as older adults – but since they don’t vote in large numbers, politicians don’t treat them fairly. You may be able to claim new-style JSA as well as universal credit, but the first payment can take some weeks to arrive, potentially disastrous for people with no savings.

Universal credit is a benefit aimed at working-age people, which was introduced to replace six benefits and merge them into one payment. The replaced benefits are: income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance (except for some people with severe disabilities), income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit, working tax credit.

Sources: BBC and Office for National Statistics (ONS), and ILO

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