I have recently become unemployed. Whenever I tell anyone, their faces crease into expressions of kind understanding, and most begin to make special little sympathetic noises; the kind of vowel sounds made only by stroke victims and the truly empathic. At this point I’m compelled by honesty and self-loathing to admit that I actually had a job that I was quite good at and which I left of my own accord because I wanted to look for a better one. You can generally sort my conversational partners into one of three groups according to their response.
The first group – comprised mostly of students and of people trapped in unhappy jobs – tend to back my choice with enthusiasm. They hail my joblessness as liberating; an opportunity to take stock, focus on the long term, go travelling, find myself.
The second is made up of two subgroups: the gainfully employed, and family. Both generally start by offering tentative congratulations for my bravery, and then ask leading questions as to the kind of work I am looking for. When told ‘I’m not sure’, friends may raise an eyebrow, but delicately change the subject. Family observe no such polite protocol and an argument breaks out which lasts until someone starts crying or food is provided.
The third camp consists exclusively of recruitment consultants and the long-term unemployed. These people are, without exception, horrified by my decision to become voluntarily unemployed during a recession. While the tact and/or naivety of friends is endearing, it is the latter group who have the best handle on the current job market and, therefore, it is to them that I have lately been forced to go for advice.
I was actually quite organised about unemployment. At 9 a.m. on the first Monday of 2010 I called Jobcentre Plus in Liverpool and arranged a New Claims interview at my local Jobcentre. I reported on time and wearing smart clothes despite the snow, and was interviewed to confirm my personal details. I was then asked to wait for a second interview, ‘the one to find you a job’. After sitting for 55 minutes in the surprisingly resonant open-plan office becoming increasingly worried that the other claimants might burn me as a witch for wearing polished shoes, I asked a security guard if anyone knew I was waiting. He looked worried and scuttled off. When he came back, it was with the Customer Services Manager, who took me to her office to get me a job.
Having signed on twice before, I knew how this would work. The interviewer asks you what measures you are taking to find work. You answer that you are sending off two applications per day, sending CVs to companies in case of hidden vacancies, you’re registered with 17 recruitment agencies whom you telephone regularly to pester, and you’re brushing up your IT skills in the evenings. The interviewer listens to this with their mouth slightly open, and their eyes begin to glisten with tears of joy as they realise that the person sitting in front of them applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance is actually seeking a job.
You’re then issued with a Jobseekers’ Agreement form, on which you have to record three things per week that you’ve done to find work, and given a signing-on date. I had previously never made this signing-on date before, as work had always come along. I did, however, have the good fortune to overhear the following interview, held at an adjoining desk in York Jobcentre:
Interviewer: So, Mr Smith, what measures have you taken in the past fortnight to look for work?
Mr Smith: Looked in a shop window, ennit.
Interviewer: I see. (Ticks form.) Well, we’ll see you in two weeks.
Having done quite a bit of searching already, I felt confident about the way my interview would proceed. Yet after we had established my jobseeking techniques, my interviewer came out with a totally unexpected question.
‘What is your profession?’
Er, what? I hadn’t seen this coming. Being of a sadly unvocational predisposition and background, I was at first unable to answer. Then I remembered that the day before I had quite fancied the idea of applying for a job at the BBC. Good employers, interesting work, good money (eventually), might meet Sandi Toksvig in a lift… she needs an answer for the box… what the hell. ‘Media’, I said breezily, making sure to pronounce it with 2 ‘e’s and a ‘j’.
Mrs Customer Services Manager nodded, tapped something into her computer and informed me of her intent to refer me to PFJ. It was my turn to sit with my mouth hanging open and a catch in my throat. Everything had been so nicely predictable up to this point. ‘They will help you to find a media job’. Mrs Customer Services Manager didn’t know what PFJ stood for or what they did. For a while she was under the confusing impression that they operated out of the same building as Ealing Jobcentre, until we worked out that she had cut and pasted the wrong information into her referral letter.
I tried to convince her that I did not need help from PFJ, whomsoever they might be, especially regarding a career in media, to which I was not exactly wedded, and anyway, surely I had more than adequately demonstrated my own capacity for research, and wasn’t it a little patronising for the Jobcentre to exert such authority over my jobseeking? However, Mrs Customer Services was adamant that my referral must go ahead, and, moreover, had already pressed the button. To add insult to injury, she informed me that I would be eligible to apply for a grant to assist with buying a suit for any future interviews. I felt quite raw about this, given that I was wearing my smartest clothes, until Nic told me that a similar offer had been made to her by a woman wearing a football shirt in the office.
When I had thanked Mrs Customer Services and slithered home through the snow, I did some Googling and discovered that the referral was part of a new DWP initiative to hasten the employment of Jobseekers like myself. With 1.64m of us signing on for Jobseekers Allowance in 2009, the Government are keen to ‘place higher expectations on individuals to take up the support on offer,’ hinting that such acceptance may constitute ‘a condition of receiving benefits’ (see the White Paper on the matter by Yvette Cooper and chums, December 2009).
Fair enough. One of the worst parts of going to the Jobcentre is seeing the people there who have been signing on for months. I’m not saying this from a position of moral outrage, although there may still the vestige of a twinge of indignation directed towards Mr Smith. You can’t possibly understand other people’s circumstances and motivations (or lack thereof). Plus, it’s all very well making a distinction between yourself (Jobseeker) and everyone else (Dole Scum); but after the first two weeks of sleeping past 9 and lazily browsing jobsites, the sense of righteous entitlement begins to fade. An opportunity, however obligatory, to attend a vocational interview or even ‘sector-specific pre-employment training’ was beginning to sound pretty sweet, even if my experience of the sector in question was limited to copy writing, basic PR and a stint on the school magazine in sixth form.
I met with the lovely and talented Zofia Sharman, head of Amoreh Consulting. Zofia explained her remit: to talk me through my options and offer support and constructive criticism of my CV. This was a relief – without a sales pitch from either of us, I no longer had to be on best behaviour.
I confessed straightaway that I didn’t have much idea of what I wanted to do long-term, but would be going travelling in the meantime. Zofia wasn’t fazed, but commented that it was a shame I’d left my job – why? Well, while I found aspects of the work challenging and interesting, and was able to cope well with the pressure, and many of my colleagues had wanted me to stay, and it was convenient for my location, and the money was OK…
I started crying. Or more accurately, leaking. While I blathered about communication skills and coping with pressure in my R4 Interview Voice, big hot tears were rolling down my cheeks. Zofia was nodding sympathetically, but for the first time I really understood that I had left my job and had no income, no idea of what I wanted to do, and now no hope of getting through the interview with any shred of dignity or professionalism.
Zofia let me snuffle into silence, and swung the conversation around to my travel plans. She recommended that, instead of striking out alone, I consider joining a project or group. She was either being incredibly intuitive about my total lack of any sense of direction or streetwisdom, or had clocked the compass on my keyring and general air of deranged triumph as I entered her office, Google Map held aloft. Either way, her advice to let myself admit that I quite like structure was liberating.
The session ended with a savage dissection and reconstruction of the CV I’d e-mailed in advance. I’d been pretty stoked with my version, having got it down to two pages (‘with space at the top AND bottom!’) and was dismayed to learn that anything over one page is now regarded as flabby and self-indulgent in recruitment consultancy circles. Nevertheless, as we rewrote it, I could tell immediately that the new streamlined format she suggested was punchier and less verbose. It also contained the words ‘available immediately’, which made me feel pleasingly in demand before even sending it to anyone.
Despite my sexy new CV and renewed hope, Zahra advised that I should be prepared to go back to temping on my return to the UK. She reassured my vanity by telling me about a client of hers, a former CEO, who was working full-time behind a bar to pay the bills. Restraining the urge to ask directions to his workplace, I thanked her and left the interview with an ever-deepening sense of inevitability. Given the current climate, temping may be my only option come April.
Coming up next: Christina’s Guide To Successful Temping. Take it from a pro (rata).