One of the worst things about losing your job is finally making the decision to ‘sign on’.
After I was made redundant, I didn’t rush straight in to the Job Centre, I waited a little in the hope that something might come up.
Sadly, finding work took longer than I expected due, I suspect, to the fact that I was pregnant.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance, that had been nearly ten years ago but the experience was still detestable.
On the morning of my registration appointment, my best friends sent me some words of encouragement, knowing I wasn’t looking forward to it.
One suggested I ‘get dressed up smartly’. Not, she explained, to make a good impression, but to make myself feel better about having to go into that office.
As I walked up the path that led to the building, I felt the eyes of those around me watching and couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking:
‘Wonder how long she’s been claiming.’
‘Dole dossers, why don’t they just get a job?’
Or even, ‘she doesn’t look like the type’.
Once inside, the experience didn’t get any better.
There were no staff there to greet me, I just took a seat and waited for someone to call me over, all the while avoiding eye contact with others in the room.
As I waited, I realised I was doing exactly what I thought those outside were doing to me, I was looking for certain types of people and judging them on why they were there.
Why is that? Why is there a certain type of people that we expect to be asking for help?
I know the answer, of course, years of tabloid newspapers crammed with stories of ‘scroungers on benefits’.
But I really wish that wasn’t the case because in those six or seven visits I made to the Job Centre, I really couldn’t identify a ‘type’ from those sat around me.
There were the teenagers slouched in the plastic seats: some scruffy, some slightly over-dressed.
There were the young Mums trying to keep their toddlers quiet in their buggies until it was their turn.
There were the surly looking men in jogging bottoms and stained t-shirts, who gave up their seat for me when they saw I had a baby bump.
There was the man who looked about my age, dressed in the latest trend, scrolling on his iPhone and keeping his head down.
Then there was me: the 30-something pregnant girl, Smartphone in one hand and car keys in the other. I was either a very surprising addition to the crowd, or a completely stereotypical one.
The truth is, not one of us wanted to be there.
Every single one of us would have preferred to be in work, if only to stop having to make that trip once a fortnight for a meeting that is, in all honesty, a complete waste of time.
Because it is, it really is.
I’ll never forget my experience that first time I signed on in 2009, purely due to the fact that I got no benefit from it at all.
You see, when you claim for Job Seeker’s Allowance you make a commitment about what you will do to find work and then you sign a declaration every two weeks to say you have done that. Simple enough.
On that first visit, I made a list of the websites that I was already signed up to for job alerts, they were all media related and all sites that had been recommended to me while I was at university.
When I showed them to the lady I had my appointment with, she just looked at me blankly. I hadn’t anticipated expert advice, but her words still shocked me:
‘To be honest, there’s not a lot of help we can offer you. You’re best off just doing what you’re already doing.’
With all due respect, I could have told you that without having to trek across the city to visit you.
Sadly, it seems I’m not alone in this experience. I asked my friends and former colleagues what their experiences had been using the Job Centre, the feedback was unanimously awful:
“The job centre made me register for three different types of jobs, how does that seem acceptable? I took myself to hotels and found a job as a waitress to tide me over until something I wanted came up. I didn’t get the job through the job centre.”
“I found myself between jobs having just moved back to the UK from Ireland and they wouldn’t assist me because I had been working abroad. They didn’t offer me any help, they said they were unlikely to have anything to suit my skillset and as they couldn’t offer financial support there was no point in me turning up. I went out and got myself a job in a bingo club.”
“I had to sign on to access my mortgage cover after I lost my job. I was unable to attend one week as I was on a training course, they said they would stop my JSA that week because I wasn’t seeking work. It goes on…! I arrived one day needing the toilet but they couldn’t tell me how long I would have to wait. They made me go to the pub next door and said that if I missed my appointment I’d be marked as not attending!”
“Two months after we went to the job centre we got a letter from the council telling us what our council tax benefit was. We hadn’t applied for that! No wonder the system is failing and people need foodbanks if advisors don’t listen and just tick boxes.”
“My other half recently lost his job and they told him we were entitled to £23 a week through working tax credits. But now our claim is being suspended for four weeks because of the change in circumstances, that’s four weeks without any money. We have children!”
“I was treated like I was a leper… What they fail to see is human kindness. The jobcentre building is full of people who want to work, just as much as it is full of people who couldn’t or didn’t want to. I hope I never have to set foot in the place again.”
These are perfect examples of how badly the system is thought through.
Even the fact you have to physically go into the office to sign on, despite the whole process being done online.
It’s ludicrous, all of it could be done at home, freeing up appointments and the advice of the employees for people who need it far more than me.
Is it really worth the pressure on the limited resources to force people to go in to the office?
And what about the people whose financial or physical circumstances stop them being able to go in?
In the interest of fairness, I should point out there are some services they offer that may benefit some job seekers:
CV writing classes (how this is of any use when every employer wants something different from you I do not know).
Interview practice (optimistic as they have been so far unable to get me to the point of being invited for interview).
And different training courses (none that would have been any use to me though, sadly).
If it were up to me, I’d send every person with qualifications and work experience to the recruitment advisor meeting that I went on after I lost my job.
It was incredibly useful and I am convinced the knowledge that two hour meeting armed me with would have helped me find work, had I not been pregnant.
You won’t be surprised to hear that, when I did find work, it wasn’t through the Job Centre.
And when I look back on that time now I can’t help but wonder what other, more useful things I could have been doing with the fortnightly hours that I spent up there.
Have you had experience with the Job Centre? What was it like for you? Have you any suggestions on how it could be improved? Or, like me, would you prefer to never set foot in their buildings again!? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
If you’d like to hear more about my journey to find work, including my insight into a typical day for a job seeker later this week, please click the ‘follow’ button at the bottom of your screen. I’d love to have you along with me!