My Job Centre Plus Experience: The real story of trying to find a new job in 2013

jobless

I have a file on my computer containing over 40 detailed job applications for roles that seemed to fit my experience and skills perfectly, which doesn’t include numerous jobs where prospective employers wanted initially to view my CV instead of a specific application form.

I would rather not add them up, but let’s say I have attended approximately 10 interviews, ranging from less than 10 miles from home, to Nottingham and Rotherham (50 miles return), to Birmingham (80 miles by train) and Bristol. The Bristol jobs would not really have been commutable, but nonetheless I gave them my best shot.

I never imagined I would not have found employed work within the year. Maybe I was too confident that I would step straight into new role, or maybe it really is a reflection of the current poor economic climate.

I have tried not to let unsuccessful interviews knock my confidence, telling myself that just because I have not yet found a place where my “face fits” I still have plenty to offer. If I am honest though I would prefer to be self-employed, and it’s only the doubts about getting enough work which hold me back.

A year ago I applied for the Job Seekers Allowance on line, and was given an ‘appointment’ at my local Job Centre, and then promptly received a letter telling me I wasn’t eligible.

Three phone calls later the situation changed and I found I was actually eligible for £69.38 per week for 6 months. No problem there, I thought, as I was sure I would have found suitable paid employment within that time. I dutifully attended appointments, sent my CV to the Job Centre as requested (though no-one ever explained why I was asked to do this as I never heard anything about jobs from them) and continued looking for work.

I kept up my support for voluntary groups to keep my ‘hand in’ and be able to put something meaningful on my CV, as well as giving me the feeling that I was contributing to society.

I did feel bad about being a drain on the ‘social order’, but balanced this guilt with the knowledge that I had paid my NI contributions all my working life. I felt I owed it to my family to make best use of available help to contribute to my job search costs, which is what I understood it to be for.

Only two of the people who interviewed me had paid for my travel expenses – one in Bristol and in Nottingham. The Job Centre paid for my train fare to Birmingham, but this made me feel uncomfortable as after much paperwork from helpful staff I cost the tax payer £60, whereas if there had been a way to claim back expenses, which I was used to doing when employed, it would have costs £28.

Confident that I would have found work soon I still had a ‘fall back plan’ – something called the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme was available to me in case I did not find work after 6 months. I would be allocated a Mentor to help me find the self-employed work I would prefer, and help address my weakness of not being able to market myself effectively (or is it just luck?).

On reflection, I also now realise that trying to combine fitting around the school run, being a parent, made the job of searching for work even harder. It is difficult when you have always worked to ‘switch off’ and become a full time Mum. I underestimated the difficulties and emotional blackmail (self-inflicted) of childcare during school holidays. When I saw the summer holidays looming, I put off starting the clock ticking (for the New Enterprise scheme you have to complete your business plan within 8 weeks) until after the summer. However I continued to look for suitable employed roles when I could.

Then a friend talked to me about a business idea she had, and found a ‘free’ Business Studies course running locally for four months. I could tell she wanted the moral support of me joining her so I decided to enrol on the course, for one day a week, and the intention was to get to get the business off the ground. I would ‘hedge my bets’ and go for the Enterprise scheme at the same time and see which path led to an income first.

My first meeting with my Enterprise Mentor was very positive. He worked for the Chamber of Commerce and was impressed by my CV, assuring me that there was work out there for me to do. With this boost I put energy into compiling my business plan, while conscientiously continuing to work through the business course. I admit I let my job searching slide for a while, but was still surprised to be caught out.

My next appointment at the Job Centre was with an officious “Advisor”, who, having kept me waiting for 35 minutes, chose not to answer my polite question of why I had been kept waiting (I was never seen on time but it was usually just a ten minute wait).

The woman advised me that they had just had a meeting that morning and the rules had changed. I didn’t really know what that meant, but apparently I had not done enough ‘job’ searching, and must do at least 7 things each week to find employed work.

It made no difference when I tried to explain that I had just started on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, or that the aim of the Business course I was attending was to help me start up a business. I advised her that, yes, I had completed forms to declare attendance on the course (and the implications to this were yet another story which I don’t have the energy to go into here).

I told her that I really couldn’t do anymore to find work, and that I no longer received any form of benefit, so really had nothing to gain from ‘signing on’. However, nothing convinced her change her stance, and she told me that “if I didn’t understand she could call her Manager” who would explain the same things to me. I politely declined, as I did understand. When I left she told me that there were complaint forms next to the door on the way out should I wish to make a complaint.

By the time I got home I was fuming. I completed my form to ‘sign off’ and put it in an envelope to post. I clarified with the National Insurance office through a genuinely helpful lady that I had absolutely nothing to gain financially from ‘signing on’.

I actually felt elated, completely liberated and freed from the ‘system’, and sent a polite email to my Mentor thanking him for his support, and hoping it could continue, but that I would be ‘signing off’ as I could no longer fulfil the requirements of the job centre while trying to find work. It felt great having the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to return to the Job Centre again.

Ultimately, amazingly, through the efforts of my Mentor, and almost by return email, I received an apology from the man responsible for the New Enterprise Programme Allowance in the county. A few hours later, I received a phone call and apology from a representative at the Job Centre, who advised me that what I had been told was wrong.

I have to admit that I was most disappointed at not being able to post my form to ‘sign off’ at that point, and the experience still feels like a cloud hanging ominously over my head. Despite this, I am proud of myself that I was able to ‘stick with it’, and am now being supported in my business ventures through The System.

I no longer have to visit the Job Centre. We are lucky to be able to have the support we have in this country to find work, but that certainly doesn’t mean it is easy.

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