Kelza: Modern Day Workhouses and The Employability Racket

My path through education and the job market has not been a smooth one. Like many millennials, I followed the route of academia, taking a gap year in 2010 before proceeding to university.

It was not the gap year that many kids dream of. Where some explored exotic lands, I found myself stuck in a disjointed, dysfunctional job market. Where some went backpacking, I spent my time on buses to various work programmes, aimed at getting people like me into work.

Starting From the Very Bottom

We were on benefits throughout my childhood. Dad had a lot going on that prevented him from job seeking – including raising three young kids. Our situation deeply entrenched us in poverty. I decided that during my gap year I would get a job to ease the strain on my Dad, and to save up for university. I started claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance to keep us going in the meantime. 

All I could find were low level retail and administration jobs. At that point I figured this was fair enough, as I didn’t have a degree. I sent off application after application, sometimes up to fifteen emails a day with CV and cover letter attached. As days turned into weeks into months, I became desperate enough to try my chances with jobs that listed a degree as a requirement. 

Did I get a job through this relentless applying? Unfortunately, no. Instead, I passed through a series of courses, all aimed at taking on the unemployed masses and making them work-ready. 

The Cycle Begins

The first of these was The Prince’s Trust Team Programme. A friend referred me, and this was also the course that actually did me any good. It took me out of the comfort zone of academia and placed me with a variety of other young people. Our goal? To overcome our struggles and complete a residential week, a community project and a final team challenge.  

The Prince’s Trust shared with TNG and A4E one dismal commonality. Each had a module focused on CV and cover letter writing, as well as interview skills. I excelled in these, though, and the Team Leaders were adamant that with what I had produced, I couldn’t possibly go wrong. In fact, I ended up coaching some of my less confident teammates, grammar-checking their work, and advising them on how to get through mock interviews. Surely this spoke volumes about my employability. 

If it spoke volumes, then it was speaking into the void. I finished the programme and renewed my job search, applying for the same low-level positions in the evenings while gaining unpaid experience as a journalist in the daytime.

A Futile Search

In hindsight, the search was probably pointless given that I was due to start university in Belfast in the autumn and would no longer be in the area. However, I wanted to avoid sanctions – I would have to deal with ticking these boxes. I didn’t want to risk putting additional financial pressure on my Dad for my last summer at home. 

After a few weeks of dire luck, Jobcentre Plus enrolled me at TNG. On a personal level, the folks running the course were lovely. The course itself was bleak. Every day we sat in a grim meeting room being taught how to write a CV and a cover letter. I brought in the ones I’d written with the Prince’s Trust. I was told they were fantastic; that I would have no trouble finding employment with skills like these. Sound familiar? 

Wednesdays at TNG were our dedicated job search days. We would all sit in a computer room, scouring Indeed, Monster, Fish4Jobs. Eventually, the staff at TNG began letting me skip Wednesdays to focus on my work experience as a journalist. I sat in the newsroom working on my assignments, suspecting that I gained more from my Wednesdays than those poor folks sat in the TNG computer suite did. 

The Same Faces Again and Again

Some people there had been on the same Prince’s Trust team as me. At the time, I was glad for the familiar faces. Looking back on it, though, I realise it was cause for concern.

At the Prince’s Trust, I had watched young offenders gain a decade’s worth of maturity in several months. I had watched people kick alcoholism and drug addiction. Kids who had started the course unable to speak a word ended it stood at a lectern speaking to an audience about their trials and successes. So why were some of us now stuck on a course aimed at making the unemployable employable? 

The other people there were quiet – alternatively, they were surly young adults who might occasionally mutter their disdain. It might sound like they were just being lazy, but I believe their attitude was a cover for despondency. Some of them had been through this system several times already. How could you not be despondent, feeling like you were just a number? How could you feel anything but miserable, knowing you were being used to justify a budget being splurged on something completely ineffective? 

Back Into the Cycle

I went to university but dropped out quickly because of mental illness. Back home in England, I was desperately unwell. My Dad couldn’t afford to support me. What I needed was therapy, but I resolved not to let Dad struggle, so I buried my illness deep down and entered the fray once again. JSA, the same old CV and cover letter that I “couldn’t possibly fail” with, and then application after application, failure after failure. A temporary Christmas job at NEXT was a brief glimmer of hope when I otherwise felt like a zombie. It didn’t last – of all the temp staff employed, only a handful made the cut. So the cycle continued.

A Breakdown of Communication

During this nightmare, my younger brother was in an all-too-familiar cycle of his own. Job Seeker’s Allowance, job applications, he’d gone through the Prince’s Trust as well, and he was getting nowhere. He ended up at A4E and told me tales that could have come from my own life story: CV writing, cover letters, interview skills, days dedicated to job searching… 

My brother had it worse than me. He had to deal with the added complication that their appointments often clashed with Jobcentre Plus ones. My brother tried desperately to rearrange things to attend both. 

Unfortunately, it was to no avail. It wasn’t for want of trying – he was being punished repeatedly for A4E’s ineptitude. Because of this breakdown of communication, my family suffered for months.

Little did I know, this horror story waited in the wings of my life: a short while after NEXT, Jobcentre Plus pushed me on to the next work programme, A4E. Mercifully, I avoided the worst of what my brother had experienced. I had applied to Wilko before starting A4E; they took me on for Christmas and then made my contract permanent. I have worked ever since. 

Making My Own Success

I went back to university, graduating with a First in Fine Art and English Literature in 2019. I remained in retail until recently– but it took a couple of years of networking to escape into something befitting my abilities.

I often think back on the cycle of work programmes I went through. What they aimed to teach me, what I learned, and what part of it all came in handy while I struggled to find employment. 

I also think about the things that went right during this period of my life: my time as a journalist, and the Prince’s Trust. I learned more from these experiences than I did at TNG and A4E: communication skills, project management, confidence, teamwork, empathy. These were things I had arranged myself, with no pushing from a work programme. 

The Truth About Work Programmes

After I escaped the work programme cycle, the government’s welfare-to-work scheme came under fire for its ineffectiveness. The Public Accounts Committee expressed concerns that companies who won contracts to deliver such programmes were engaging in a practice referred to as ‘creaming and parking’, wherein job seekers more likely to gain longer term employment and generate a fee were prioritised over people who were less likely.

It was something I witnessed myself while at these programmes. As a bright, academic and well spoken kid, I was ‘creamed’; given full support, and then trusted to leave when they saw I was capable. Many of my peers who came from more difficult backgrounds were ‘parked’. I used to feel guilty about being sent home while the others would remain stuck in those dismal little computer rooms, staring at screens filled with jobs that weren’t fit for life.

Low Bars and Missed Targets

These companies missed the aims of their contracts, with only 2-5% of people finding long term employment, which the government defined as a low six months in work. I wonder how many of the successful cases were like me, with things already in the pipeline by the time of enrolment. At the very least, the programme was not suitable for people who were already work ready in terms of skills and qualifications. 

I realise now, years later, that work programmes such as the ones I found myself on were not fit for purpose. The Prince’s Trust should have been all that I needed; TNG and A4E were like Groundhog Day, rehashing the same things that I had learned during our employability module on the Team Programme.

The folks at ground level were earnest people who accepted that many of us didn’t want to be there. We were in a cycle where we had to do these courses or face sanctions. No amount of CV writing classes could fix things, because the issue wasn’t the quality of our CVs or the skills that we had. 

A good CV couldn’t undo the 2008 economic crash. A cover letter wasn’t a magic wand that could get us into the jobs that we had trained and studied for. We now lived in a world where those jobs were few.