As the BBC is covering people’s experiences with the new, more severe sanction system at the Job Centre, I thought it was high time I put my own experience with the Job Centre into words.
The Job Centre came into my life at the very end of my Ph.D. At a time when I was broken, both financially and mentally, they succeeded in making me feel worse. This blog documents my time on benefits, where free money is anything but free.
Any normal person doing a Ph.D can expect to run out of money in the final year of the process.
Funding councils are becoming wise to this, and many students nowadays can expect to receive 4 years of funding, as opposed to the 3 that I received.
(Do I think this new system will work? No. I think that students will still spend a year finding their own arse, and then supervisors will work them for longer.)
So, I spent 3 years carrying out experiments, ran out of funding, and moved home to write up. During this time I was being supported financially by a very understanding boyfriend. Despite this, I wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t have enough money to feel comfortable in my living, and I certainly wasn’t comfortable with the fact that I was using his money to indulge in my own education. I felt like a waste of space. A drain on him, as well as a drain on my friends, family, and supervisor.
Writing up and becoming a doctor took about a year. At the end of this process, I did not feel any better about myself. For now, I was a very qualified Bum.
I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had no idea what I could do. Seeing friends with doctorates gaining jobs gave me an idea of what I should be earning, but I had no idea what skills I possessed that might be relevant to any particular job. I’d just spent the last 4 years focussing on one tiny research area in a highly abstract subject, and all I knew was that I didn’t want to be a teacher.
My boyfriend wanted me to be happy, and was willing to allow me the time to make the right decisions about my career. Job Seeker’s Allowance was supposed to lessen my burden on him a little bit, and give me back a degree of independence. Little did I know that the Job Centre would actually make me feel worse about myself and my choices.
I want to make it clear that I didn’t register for Job Seeker’s Allowance while I was still writing up, because I wasn’t actually looking for jobs at that time. If I had done that, it would have been benefit fraud.
Some people do, because they have no other choice.
Not everyone has access to the sort of financial support that I had. For some people, the only choice is benefit fraud or prostitution, if you want to complete your thesis. And trust me, you want to complete your thesis. The pressure to complete can be overwhelming. (This, and the whole mental mind fuck of being an early career researcher was described beautifully in another blog I read a little while ago.)
Some people are driven to suicide whilst trying to write up.
Yes, it does get that bad.
It kind of makes benefit fraud look less criminal.
So, you begin the process of Signing On, which is an incredibly murky process indeed. If you ask people how to go about doing it, you get all sorts of responses like ‘just turn up’. Turn up where? ‘Phone up first’. Phone who? ‘Take all your documents’. What documents?
So I Googled it. The correct way of starting the process is to fill in an online form, which is followed by a mandatory interview at a Job Centre.
From the very beginning, you can tell that this system is not geared towards people with higher educational qualifications.
Exhibit A – Title options (From The Department for Work and Pensions Online Registration Portal).
The Job Centre is not prepared for people with doctorates, and people with doctorates aren’t prepared for the Job Centre.
During my JSA Application interview:
“So tell me what you’d like to do.”
“Well, I’d like to do science communication, maybe some form of science writing?”
“Umm, I don’t have those options on my drop down list. We’ll just put journalism. Do you need any help with your CV?”
“Um, no thanks, I think it’s pretty good already.” I hand it over, and the interviewer looks at it like it’s a lost Shakespearian Sonnet, but doesn’t read it. It is clearly above the calibre that she is used to.
“Ohh! I’ll just take a copy of this then.”
(Many copies were taken of my CV. Only one was read.)
As a new applicant to the process, I was allowed 13 weeks grace to gain a job in my desired field. After that, the Job Centre would withdraw my Allowance if I didn’t apply for any and all jobs that they deemed suitable.
Just 13 Weeks.
From the very beginning, you can also tell that the system is not geared towards treating people like decent human beings.
Exhibit B – the language they use (From the Government Website Job Seeker’s Allowance – How to Claim)
“To complete your claim you must go to an interview at your local Jobcentre. If you don’t, you won’t get any JSA.”
At the initial interview, they ask you to sign a Claimant Commitment. This governs how you spend your jobseeking time. You must fulfil a certain quota of jobseeking activities every week, e.g. checking sites where jobs are advertised; completing a certain number of job applications; contacting a certain number of people in relation to jobs. All of this is determined by your initial interviewer.
You must then keep a diary, documenting these activities, which is regularly scrutinised by a Job Centre Agent before determining if you may receive your Allowance. And I do mean scrutinised. The one thing that Job Centres do well, is reading your jobseeking diary. The diary is their tool for determining who is a serious jobseeker, and who isn’t. And it’s guilty until proven innocent. It must be highly detailed, in order to pass muster. Completing the diary is almost as rigorous as filling in a job application, and takes as much time too.
If the agent determines that you have not fulfilled your activity quota, you may be subject to sanctioning. In this situation, your diary is passed to a Central Office, who determine if a sanction is to be applied, and the severity of the sanction, i.e. the time you must spend without your Allowance. In the worst case scenario (at the time), Jobseekers may not be eligible for Job Seekers Allowance for up to two years.
As a new starter, I was asked to report to weekly meetings with a Job Centre Agent for the first 13 weeks. I would be assigned a personal advisor by the first letter of my surname, who would give personalised jobseeking advice.
I didn’t meet my personal advisor for 6 weeks. For week after week, I was passed from pillar to post. It turned out that my designated attendance day coincided with my personal advisor’s day off, and it took 6 weeks for anyone to notice.
During those first 6 weeks, I realised something. Dr. Job Seeker is perceived to be a very different person from Joe Bloggs Job Seeker.
How I saw myself: “I can’t do anything. I have no experience. I know I should be looking at jobs that pay well, but for the life of me, I can’t think why anyone would want me.”
How my mum saw me: “She can do anything. She could walk into any company. In fact, I’m sure her phone is ringing with nonstop job offers, and that’s why she hasn’t called.”
How the Job Centre saw me: “Uppity Job Seeker thinks she’s too good to clean toilets.”
The Job Centre could not perceive of the skills and experience that I did have, and neither could I.
To address this, I made a lot of enquiries about volunteering and gaining work experience, however this seemed completely unfamiliar to the Agents. Every week I was told something different about what The Rules are.
It seemed that the Job Centre was very keen for people to attend workshops (e.g. writing a CV, interview skills); and volunteer at places that are internally coordinated, e.g. volunteering in a charity shop if you are interested in working in retail. Those types of development activities have established guidelines (and Government policy backing). The Job Centre is not prepared for self-starting, career-driven professional development; for example, internships, work shadowing people in management positions because you need managerial experience.
The biggest problem is their mantra that you must be able and available for work.
How can you be able and available for work if you are contracted somewhere as a volunteer?
How can you fulfil your Claimant Commitment activities if you spend more than 16 hours a week doing unpaid work?
Naturally, there will be jobseekers that try to abuse the system. The ridiculous constraints try to prevent this, however I am talking here about a system that does not recognise the value of work experience for career development.
Thankfully, I was eventually blessed with a personal advisor who had been to university. He recognised what I was trying to do with the work experience. He used his discretion, and a timely news story to argue that I should be allowed to carry out a grand total of 6 weeks full time, unpaid work experience, whilst still receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance.
These experiences have been hugely beneficial to my career prospects, and helpful in determining my future career path.
This was his only concession from the Job Centre Dogma, however. The Job Centre is not interested in putting people in careers. It exists to put people into jobs. It exists to reduce the number of unemployed people, by any means necessary.
As the weeks progressed, my personal advisor became less and less encouraging about the choices I had made in my job search activities that week. Instead of “I see you’ve applied for this job. It sounds exciting, what does it entail?”, he would ask for ever more detailed explanations about why I had chosen not to apply for certain jobs.
There’s only so many ways you can say “This science job requires a detailed knowledge of X, which I don’t have.”
I don’t think there was ever a time when he wasn’t completely baffled by my choices. Despite his university education, my personal advisor was almost completely unfamiliar with my career path to date, and what options were open to me.
It’s hard to feel like you’re getting personal advice when they can’t understand what you’ve done, or what you’re trying to do.
As we neared the end of my grace period, my personal advisor was encouraging me to take up teaching and tutoring positions. Jobs that I had experience in, but really didn’t want to do at the time. Just for the sake of having a job.
It ground me down. As the weeks wore on, I began to question my choices. Was my Ph.D really worth everything that my mum thought it was? Or should I just get a job, like everyone else. Why should my visions be any more lofty than the people around me?
And every other week, I Signed On.
They call it Signing On because you physically sign something. An Agent checks your diary, asks you a series of questions, and then both of you act as signatories on a document. A document testifying that you still have not succeeded in finding a job. Gosh darn it, you’ve been trying, but for one reason or another, you’ve failed. You know that there are plenty of jobs out there, because you checked 16 places, spoke to 4 people, and wrote 6 applications. But no one thought that you were good enough to do any of those jobs. Nobody wanted your expertise for any reason, paid or unpaid. But you’ve got to live, don’t you. So the Government will tide you over for another fortnight.
Every signature removes another little bit of your dignity, particularly if the Agent can manage the whole process without making eye contact.
Every week I was reminded of the fact that I’d let myself down. I’d let the Job Centre down. I’d let society down. And that reminder came in the form of a signature, which might as well have been in blood as biro.
I suppose the purpose of the signature is to act as a deterrent to people who are not serious about jobhunting. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to deter people. In fact, I was told by a former Job Centre employee that Agents can tell who is serious about jobseeking, and who isn’t, and it’s just easier to leave the non-serious jobseekers alone. Trying to stop fraudsters from receiving an Allowance is just too much hassle.
Which begs the question, why do they continue to give serious jobseekers such a hard time?
Why are they prevented from doing activities that would be beneficial for their employability? If they are evidently serious about jobhunting, why are they forced to overly justify their application choices? Why are they pushed into jobs that they will likely leave due to unhappiness? Why don’t their qualifications seem to matter?
Thankfully, I got a job. I opted for the familiar territory of research, and had my previous suspicions confirmed. Research isn’t for me. I’m not happy, but I have had an income for a short time.
Through circumstance, the institution I’ve worked at has an excellent programme for the professional development of researchers, who are encouraged to work both inside and outside academia. I have taken advantage of this. By being proactive, I have also been able to use the institution somewhat for the benefit of my personal and career agendas. So, my time hasn’t been wasted, but this hasn’t come without cost.
I still don’t know entirely what I want to do with my life, all I do know is that I would rather throw myself off of the Job Centre than go inside it again.