Can’t find a job in the UK? You’re not trying hard enough

Unemployment in Britain could reach 3 million this year, an entire new welfare-to-work industry has sprung up, and the Government still thinks its main task is to get the 'work shy' stacking shelves. Barbara Gunnell asks how, in this Government's vision, has a lack of jobs become the fault of the job seeker?

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How many unemployed does it take to change a Government’s rhetoric? More than 2.67 million, it seems. The new jobless figures released this month raised unemployment to a 16-year high and once again showed young people over-represented among the jobless. But still the talk remains of getting “work shy” benefits scroungers into “hidden jobs”.

In 1981, the reggae group UB40 (named after the unemployment benefit form of the time) used to sing “I am the one in 10” because one in 10 of Britain was on the dole. Now more than one in five 16-24 year olds are seeking work.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is one of several organisations which believe this figure will edge close to three million by the end of the year. Its Winter 2011-12 Labour Market Outlook, published this month, is particularly hard for a government to shrug off since it is based on reports from members of the redundancies they expect to announce and the hirings they expect not to be making. Their reasoning is simple: there is no predicted growth in the economy and therefore there will be no boost to the numbers of jobs available.

So far the Coalition has stuck to its position that there can be no deviation from its austerity programme: claimants need to be redirected into work by bribes, nudges or shoves. There is no question of devising new policies or strategies to slow down public sector job losses or to support private sector job creation schemes.

David Cameron even appears to find unemployment rather annoying and “unfair”. Not on the unemployed but on “hardworking families” who pay for the benefits. Speaking from the escalator of an ASDA supermarket in Leeds at the end of January, he asked of the assembled workers: “Are you happy that your taxes are going towards families where no-one is working and they’re earning more than £26,000 in benefits?” He went on to praise his hosts for the creation of 5,000 jobs (many so low-paid the taxpayer will be topping them up with tax credits) and for their apprenticeship scheme (also funded by taxpayers) and for offering opportunities to young people (many of them unpaid work experience). His message? There are jobs for the determined: get working.

Iain Duncan Smith who as Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions ( DWP) must surely be asking how much higher unemployment can go before job creation becomes a political necessity, is also stuck in the “fairness” groove. Of Cameron’s proposals to cap benefits at £26,000, he told the Daily Mail: “It is not fair to trap somebody in an expensive house which they cannot afford then to go to work on the back of, because they would lose their housing benefit if they went to work – so they are disincentivised from going to work.” That is not an easy sentence to read but fortunately the message has been put more simply by his colleague Sayeeda Warsi, Conservative Party co-chair: “If you can work, you should work”. The Conservative Party’s task is to end “Labour’s something for nothing culture”.

Maria Miller, a Coalition work and pensions minister, has an even simpler answer: “There is no shortage of jobs”. Earlier this month, Miller offered the BBC a variety of explanations for high unemployment figures (transcription via the Guardian): “If you actually look at the facts and the figures, there's 400,000 jobs at any one point in job centres. I was up in the Wirral on Friday talking to one of our local job centres there and there isn't a shortage of jobs; what there can be is a lack of an appetite for some of the jobs that are available so we've got to make sure people have got the right skills… I don't think it's a lack of jobs at the moment; I think it really is making sure that we've got people knowing where those jobs are. Every family should be a working family.”

How, in this Government’s vision, has a lack of jobs become the fault of the jobseeker? Those with long memories will remember that an earlier Employment Secretary, Norman Tebbitt, was ridiculed when in 1981 he suggested that the unemployed should not riot, but, as his father had done in the Thirties, instead get on their bikes to find work. But when, a year later, unemployment hit three million for the first time since the Hungry Thirties, neither the Prime Minister nor her Employment Secretary dared argue that there were jobs but that the three million jobseekers had the wrong attitude, or the wrong skills, or needed special coaching.  "As we can expand the economy so there will be more jobs available in the future," Norman Tebbit told parliament. Small comfort, but relatively straightforward.

What we hear today, and not only from the Coalition government, is that the unemployed themselves are to blame. They need retail apprenticeships (stacking supermarket shelves) or compulsory training in writing CVs, or a better attitude from their non-working families. If a dozen applicants chase one job, eleven of them are losers who need to smarten up, or get different expectations.

The experts

In Bait and Switch, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2005 book about white-collar job hunting in the United States, the author discovers what it is like to be a client of that giant industry of career experts who promise to help the unemployed into well-paid rewarding work. She submits herself to personality and aptitude testing, takes classes in cv writing, is taught how to network, how to strengthen weak skills and how best to lie about her past jobs and experience. It turns out that however much Ehrenreich networks and reframes herself, the jobs are simply not there.

“So after almost seven months of job searching, an image makeover .. an expensively refined… résumé, and networking in four cities, I have gotten precisely two offers … with no salary, benefits or workplace provided.”

What Ehrenreich had discovered was that there is a lot of money to be made out of jobseekers’ anxieties about their inadequacies and of blaming the unemployed rather than the job market.

A similar lesson is being visited on jobseekers in the UK on a grand state-sponsored scale. As unemployment has nudged its way towards three million, an entire new welfare-to-work industry has grown up with it. It even has a trade association, the Employment Related Services Association. Some companies, such as Serco have long experience of taking on former public sector functions. Others have grown out of the voluntary sector with genuine expertise in hard-to-solve areas of unemployment. Yet more have emerged in response to recent governments’ specific welfare-to-work policies.

The privatising of job-seeking under the Work Programme  has been one of the more astonishing examples of how a government determined to shrink the state can turn anything into a good business proposition. Like most such handovers to the private sector, the privatising of job-centre functions was sold as a win-win-win situation. Private contractors win by being rewarded when they find jobs for the unemployed; jobseekers win by landing a job; taxpayers win by having fewer claimants to support.

At least, in theory. What, though, happens when the transition from welfare to work is stalled? When there are simply not enough jobs to go round?  The best analysis of this that I have seen came from Richard Johnson writing in the Guardian. A former contractor for Serco, he realised that the tendering process meant that those most in need of special help were unlikely to get it. Instead, the imperative would be to fill jobs with easy cases (the applicants most likely to find work anyway) and pick up the payments.

In January, the National Audit Office (NAO) expressed similar concern. It reported its doubts that the private firms which had taken on £3-5 billion worth of Work Programme  contracts would be able to meet targets and its fears of  “curtailed standards”. It noted that past welfare-to-work schemes had not been successful and suggested that the latest scheme was introduced too hastily with “increased risk of fraud and error”. The NAO also revealed that several companies that had bid for new work had been paid £63 million by DWP for cancelled contracts under earlier welfare to work schemes. In other words, they’d already been paid for no results at all.

How many people will be helped by the new Work Programme? DWP believes that 36 per cent of those referred will find work. NAO thinks this is optimistic. It estimates that the likely success rate of the group “easiest to help into work” will be 26 per cent. This compares with the estimated 25 per cent success rate of earlier welfare-to work schemes (which the current Government considers to have failed). In other words for all the millions already diverted to private contractors they are faring no better, maybe worse, than the Job Centre staff they replaced.

The trade association ERSA responded with insouciance: ‘We welcome these early indicative figures of Work Programme performance levels.  The welfare to work industry is working extremely hard to help all customers find sustainable work even in the context of challenging economic conditions .”

Surely someone in Government now needs to respond: “But your industry was brought in precisely because of the challenging economic conditions.”  But it won’t say that because the dogma is that the experts are here to get the poorly motivated and  work-shy ready and willing to work.

Blaming the jobseeker’s lack of skills or enthusiasm blinds policy-makers to creative solutions that could be effective, for example offering tiny investment grants for taking on trainees or apprentices not with the big companies but in the forgotten small industries at which Britain has excelled in recent years (computer games, animation, music). Another area that has remained almost unexplored by this government is one that should have appealed to entrepreneurial Tory spirits. One surprising statistic in the latest employment statistics is how many people are trying to go it alone; set up micro-businesses or simply practise their skills on a freelance basis. Why not offer bursaries and grants for jobseekers to switch to self-employment rather than hand them over to supermarkets as free shelf-stacking labour?

In a bid to bring down the shocking figure of 3 million unemployed in the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government encouraged introduced an Enterprise Allowance Scheme which paid £40 a week (in 1981) for those willing to come off the dole to become self-employed. The charity New Deal of the Mind has argued in detail that this scheme could work equally well today.  Its founder Martin Bright was one alumni of the programme; so was Julian Dunkerton who founded the immensely successful clothes label Superdry, along with Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller and the journalist Deborah Orr. 

The idea that every unemployed person has either a problem of  “attitudes” or “lack of skills” (or both) is not only false, it is cruel and disheartening to those desperate for work. Take the case of  Cait Reilly who is taking a case under the Human Rights Act claiming that mandatory work experience is, in effect, “forced labour”. A geology graduate, she says she was asked to stack shelves in Poundland for no pay or risk losing her jobseeker’s allowance. Reilly pointed out she was already undertaking more relevant volunteer work at a museum. She had experience of shop work and had no need of any more. 

Maybe more worrying than the incident itself was the astonishing comment of the Secretary of State for employment, Duncan Smith, who called her a “snooty so-and-so” who believed “she shouldn’t stack shelves because she’s intelligent.”

She certainly does seems more intelligent than Iain Duncan Smith about the consequences of unemployed graduates like herself taking unpaid shop work. “We were doing exactly the same work as the paid staff,” she told the Daily Mail.  “It makes no sense. If the Government subsidises high street chains with free labour, they don’t have to recruit. It causes unemployment rather than solves it.”

This goes to the heart of the problem. All of us have a stake in lowering unemployment. And of course it is right to give some categories of unemployed a better chance of finding work. Without doubt, we must find ways of improving the life chances of young people by helping them to get the qualifications they need. But shuffling around a diminishing pool of jobs so that the welfare-to-work industry achieves its targets is not the solution.

To read more articles in 50.50's Centrestage debate on building a truly inclusive society, click here

 

 

 

About the author

Barbara Gunnell is a writer and editor based in London. She has worked on a variety of national newspapers including the Financial Times, the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the Observer and the political weekly, the New Statesman. She is a past-president of the National Union of Journalists. Barbara is the Editor of the dialogue Voices for Change on openDemocracy 50.50