Responding to Unemployment

This post was written on the 14th November 2011, unfortunately I did not have time to finish writing it that day – I have now finished the post, however some of the references, facts and opinion are slightly out of date but the core issues and argument are still current, therefore as you read this please imagine it was all written on the above day rather than the publication date.

Today the CIPD is reported to be predicting a ‘slow, painful contraction in the jobs market’ [Gerwyn Davies of CIPD, in the Guardian1] and The Telegraph2, commenting on the current situation in relation to forthcoming unemployment statistics, states that ‘economists reckon joblessness has risen further’. This is a bleak picture for any of the 2.57 million people who are currently unemployed in the UK3, of which I am one.

The irony of my current situation, is that much of my time in my previous job4 was spent working with individual young people who were at the time Not in Education, Employment or Training5. This work usually took one or more of the following strategies;

  • Self-worth – helping young people to realise what they were capable of
  • Motivation – supporting and helping individuals to keep looking for work
  • Employability skills – helping them improve things that may cause a barrier to gaining employment, e.g. anything from their CV to their attitude to others
  • Experience – usually through encouraging volunteering either directly with ourselves or with partner projects
  • Training – usually through me ensuring I was aware of the current available training options and supporting their transition into them.

These strategies, used in combination were reasonably effective in helping individuals to progress, at least in some way towards fulfilling employment. The time I was doing this work coincided with the end of the E2E [Entry to Employment] programme and its replacement FL [Foundation Learning]. Both of these programmes were the logical training route for many of the young people I was working with. E2E, although well intentioned, never seemed hugely popular with young people I came across, despite this however some training providers did have positive results from it. FL by contrast seemed to offer a very promising mix of training and experience, but at the time was slightly misunderstood by young people. Either way, both programmes, the support that I and others like me were providing were all part of a process that was helping young people, many of whom had negative experiences from formal education thus far, into employment. However this model only thrives in a paradigm where there are jobs for young people to go into. No doubt there are many young people who would still benefit from this kind of support, [I would love to still be able to support some young people in this way6], but in a time when there is rumoured to be 1 million young people out of work3 it is not enough, more needs to be done.

I am not an economist, nor do I claim to fully understand the economic situation faced nationally, continently, or worldwide. In our current situation rising costs [in some cases brought about through rises in tax] are reducing the income to business and therefore reducing their need for staff – if the business survives at all. It also seems counter-intuitive to induce job cuts in publicly funded posts. As mentioned, the private sector cannot afford to employ the recently redundant public servants, and neither can those individuals afford to spend their now limited income with business therefore exacerbating the problem. And do not even consider TSOs, who rely on funding from the same restricted public and private pockets. I realise that I am rather simplifying the situation, and restating old political arguments but surely spending money now to invest in jobs saves money tomorrow in benefits, support and the ongoing cost of unemployment. New Statesmen again states that

‘[the CIPD] has called for the government to halt its public sector job cuts until the private sector has recovered. But that’s a message to which George Osborne, besotted with austerity, remains tone deaf.’ 3

Not wishing to fall back to a partisan political argument but from where I am sitting, this seems to be a logical.

In a shrinking job market and increasing unemployment, what is offered to help individuals? The first port-of-call for most people will be Jobcentre Plus. So how is Jobcentre Plus, the government’s front line in the unemployment battle ground shaping up?

Jobcentre Plus [JCP] is rarely regarded highly, and despised by many of the young people I worked with who visited JCP. But perhaps this is due to a misunderstanding of the role of JCP. Perhaps our expectations of what it is there for are just too high, or entirely wrong. The Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] website states that

‘Jobcentre Plus supports people of working age from welfare into work and helps employers to fill their vacancies. It is part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and plays a major role in supporting the Department’s aim to promote opportunity and independence for all through modern, customer-focused services.’ 8

This seems a fair and straightforward description, a service in existence to support potential employees and assist employers. I heard a radio interview 9 with Iain Duncan Smith MP, where he stated that work was always the best option over benefits. I think is fair statement, and in accordance with the aims of JCP, however in practice it seems far removed and contradictory to by experiences of JCP where I have received no real help or support to gain employment.

[If you have never been unemployed I hope that the following will be in some way enlightening as to the process that ‘jobseekers’ as JCP likes to call us, go through.]

The process starts with the completion of a long form, taking down every piece of information that might be needed to asses your eligibility. Following this you will be booked in for an initial interview. At this interview the details you entered on the form are checked, information about the financial support you may be entitled to are discussed and usually with a second advisor an agreement signed stating the types of work you are looking for and the steps you will take to try and find it. I have to admit that at the start of my recent time under JCP these appointments were far less condescending than my previous period of unemployment. However they offered little in the way of support. After registering comes the cycle of signing on sessions [usually fortnightly], which entail visiting the office waiting for about 20 minutes before being called to a desk. A process that strips you of identity and personality, and turns you into yet another jobseeker to be ticked off the list. The actual signing on appointment can vary in usefulness and friendliness depending upon which advisor you are seen by, but simply listing a few websites that I have checked, meetings I have attended and calls I have made seems to keep them happy. Never have they offered to help me look for work, and never do they ask about my mental state [something I will come on to later]. After about 6 weeks, of signing on comes the dreaded ‘Back to Work Session’. A patronising hour long seminar, which predominantly explains how JCP works and the stages job seekers will go through and limited information about things such as employment agencies. What I find most frustrating is how much of a wasted opportunity this session is. The same session is delivered to a mixed group which could contain school leavers, 50+ year olds, office based professionals, builders, youth workers, graduating students or any one else who turns up, therefore it is delivered so generally with no consideration of who is in the audience that they might as well not bother at all. Simply streaming the sessions, and the participants could allow JCP  to deliver industry or career stage relevant sessions that actually help people. After this job seekers go back into the cycle of signing on sessions interspersed with reviews with your ‘nominated advisor’.

In my experiences does JCP help the unemployed into work? No. Do they help employers fill vacancies? Possibly, given that most of the jobs they list that I have enquired about have already been filled [but not removed from JCPs listing]. Does it promote opportunity? No. Does it promote independent? Well if this is independence in the sense of a hands-off support for job seeking then yes, they are very hands-off, but if it is independence in the sense of encouraging people to become independent and not reliant on JSA [Job Seekers Allowance], then again it is no. JCP seems to be missing completely their role in encouraging, supporting and motivating the potential workforce of the country and in so doing JCP offices have become simply the face of Job Seekers Allowance, rather than a place to get help to gain employment.

It might be obvious thing to state, but unemployment can be very depressing. No matter at what stage your career was at when you became unemployed, the monotony of sitting at home and looking for work can bring you very low. Through the cycle of rejection letters, or no responses at all, self confidence gradually erodes as does belief in your ability to work and ultimately the motivation to look for work fades and you become one of the thousands of long-term unemployed – either not bothering to look for work or not in a state of mind where you are able to bring yourself to face looking for work. This is where many of the young people I worked with were at and where the support we were able to offer helped them most. The benefit of someone showing they care, someone showing that they believe in your ability to independently support yourself cannot underestimated. As I write this several faces come to mind, as I think of the journey I accompanied them on and wonder, given the changes in the job market, where they are now.

The churches’ responsibility to care for the needy is clear, examples that come to mind include the churches care for widows. I would argue that the church needs include caring for the unemployed in their view of who needs support. The needs are right on nearly every churches’ doorstep and are so easy for the church to engage with and I am sure there are churches that are excellent at this, but my observation is that many are not.

But what could the church do to help if so many others seem to be unable to make a significant difference?

The church can offer hope. In the promotion of Patrick Regan’s new book I have heard the quote “Hope a refusal to accept a situation as it is”10. I have pondered over this definition of hope and whether I fully agree with it, but in this situation it is exactly what is needed. The downward spiral I described above is the exact opposite of this, the feeling that all is lost and you will never have a regular job. Inspired by the hope the church has in Christ, we can all offer some kind of hope and encouragement to those at the depths of depression and hopelessness.

The church can believe in people. Along with offering hope that situations can change we need to show the unemployed that they are not worthless. I feel that much of the attention on unemployment devalues those who are out of work, making them feel that not only is there no work but that they are the problem, that they are unable to work. We believe that people are created with a purpose, are creative, are given gifts and have talents. We need to constantly remind those around us that they are not worthless.

The church can also love people. Some of the people I have come across were so lonely. With no regular reason to leave home they became isolated from their peers spending the majority of their time alone or with a small selection of family. The church needs to love these people, to go out of our way to spend time with them. Surely we all appreciate the loneliness of a housebound elderly widow, but perhaps we can forget those that are housebound through depression or hopelessness. The Channel 4 Documentary “Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder”11; was a fascinating and at times moving documentary about Mr Wallace who has different but related issues to those I am talking about here. He is shown in the documentary to be isolated and segregated from his community by his extreme hoarding. However one local man12; managed to bring about dramatic change to Mr Wallace’s life. He saw the situation Mr Wallace was in, had compassion on him and offered a small amount of assistance to change things. However this relatively small act brought about huge change, further efforts to clean and tidy up Mr Wallace’s home and brought together the wider community to help. I have no idea if the man who helped was a Christian, he certainly was not the local vicar13. But what he did, and the love that he showed is exactly what the church should be doing.

The church can offer practical support. Along with the Mums & Toddlers groups and pensioners lunches that every church seems to run, why not run groups for the unemployed? Job Clubs, Social Activities or opportunities to learn and practice new skills.

The Church can employ. Why not? Some churches have no funds at all, but others have large reserves or generous members. Churches are now used to employing church leaders, youth workers and worship leaders. If your church needs someone to clean, why not employ someone locally to clean? If you need someone to do the accounts, why not employ someone who is out of work? If you are buried under paperwork, why not employ a redundant office worker? It needs only be a few hours per week or month, but this is a practical way to show someone you believe in them and the benefit to that persons self esteem would be huge. I realise there are complications in employing people, especially for charities, but if your church is in a position to do so, why not?

We seem to be in a mess, with Government and Business unable to make significant difference to the growing numbers of unemployed people in this country. I believe it is time for the church to step up to the mark and do its part. I’ve suggested a few ways that both local churches and individual Christians can make a difference to those in their areas, and I’m sure many are doing so. But I believe that the issues surrounding unemployment are widely overlooked by the church. Why are they ignored? I’m not sure, perhaps because the church does not know what it can do, or because those that are most at need are the hardest to find. But the church can do something and can make a difference to a great proportion of our society, so please do something as an individual or as a church. Not because no-one else is loving the unemployed but “because he first loved us”14.

1 The Guardian, UK jobs market faces ‘slow, painful contraction’ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/nov/14/unemployment-and-employment-statistics-unemployment?CMP=twt_fd accessed 14/11/11]

2 The Telegraph, UK unemployment to rise further in final quarter – CIPD [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/8887966/UK-unemployment-to-rise-further-in-final-quarter-CIPD.html accessed 14/11/11]

3 New Statesmen, The jobs crisis is worsening [http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/11/public-sector-jobs accessed 14/11/11]

4 To see more of my job history go to http://vizualize.me/neilfox

5 See Why I don’t like ‘NEET’ [https://neilfox.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/why-i-dont-like-neet/]

6 The project which enabled me to carry out this work was funded by the YSDF, funding which came to an end late 2010/early 2011. Despite attempts by the organisation to find alternative funding for this kind of work none could be found.

8 Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus [http://www.dwp.gov.uk/about-dwp/customer-delivery/jobcentre-plus/ accessed 14/11/11]

9 Unfortunately I heard this whilst driving and do not know what I was listening to.

10 https://twitter.com/#!/PatrickReganXLP/status/105977036773916672

11 See http://www.channel4.com/programmes/obsessive-compulsive-hoarder/video/series-1/episode-1/obsessive-compulsive-hoarder for a clip of this programme.

12 The man I mention is shown in the clip from 1:41 to 1:51. [Accessed 24/02/12]

13 I will expand on this when the programme becomes available on 4oD.

14 1 John 4:19 [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20john%204:19&version=NIV]

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