A day in the life of a jobcentre
If the Blair and Brown governments have ever wanted to create a utopia, Selly Oak’s jobcentre gives you a pretty clear sense of what it might look like. The carpets and furniture are all in deep, warm tones: oranges, blues and purples set off by photographs of apparently grateful faces and reassuring slogans – “Make a new start”, “Jobs for everyone”, “Yes, you can retrain”.
By the entrance, two staff stand sentry behind desks simply labelled “welcome”. To their right, a steady procession of people flit their fingers across pristine touch-screen installations that spit out receipt-like summaries of the jobs currently available. This place was opened in 2007, and you quickly sense it runs on two articles of faith: that even if unemployment is still rising (the most recent figure puts it at 2.47 million, the highest for 14 years), anyone who enters here will somehow get a job; and that a life on benefits is no life at all.
There was a stabbing here last week: at 1.30pm on Friday, a man who had just used one of the centre’s “warm phones” (via which people can chase vacancies) lunged at a security guard and left him with a knife wound. Staff here are still shocked by what happened, a reminder of the dangers that can occasionally intrude.
Indeed, one of the first things you notice is a behavioural tic whereby the staff pepper their advice and instructions with empathetic touches – “I’ve been on benefits myself”, “I know what it’s like to be out of work” – designed to neutralise any tension before it even appears. The abiding atmosphere is almost impossible to read: as far as I can tell, it’s a strange mixture of the low hum of public-sector efficiency and almost palpable anxiety, as proved by my encounter with Jason, a 38-year-old father of two who comes here for a catchup interview every week.
Until this time last year, he worked as a car valet at a local chauffeur company that once employed more than 40 people but is now down to half that number. Redundancy, Jason says, came as a shock – but his life since then seems to be built around a grim routine that throws up no surprises at all.
“It’s just more and more hard,” he says, nervously. “Every time I come back in here, there’s more and more people. I’m applying for 20 or 25 jobs a week, but I never hear anything back.” He and his wife, he says, have learned to adapt to their newly tight circumstances, but they’re burdened by “a whole load of debt”. His plan is to retrain as a driving instructor or “do something on the valeting side” – but in the meantime, he has to report here, assure the requisite advisers he is searching for work, and wait.
Selly Oak jobcentre is averaging 160 new benefit claims a week. The number of staff has increased by half to more than 400, a good deal of whom are recession victims themselves. Today, 15 or so management trainees are in a first-floor meeting room, being educated in the art of running an operation like this one; among them are people made redundant by such big players as Toyota and Nationwide Building Society.
The news may currently be full of headlines about economic recovery (“Mergers back, factories busy, shares rising,” says the Guardian on the day before my visit), but in this part of the UK, the story has yet to include green shoots and sunlit uplands. In fact, the plotline for many people here stretches back further than the current downturn – most notably, to the closure of the nearby Longbridge car plant in 2005, when local jobcentres processed 6,500 new benefit claims in a single weekend.
This month, the West Midlands was confirmed as the UK’s biggest regional unemployment casualty, in a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. Behind that headline lay a long run of bad news taking in Motorola and Woolworths, hundreds of jobs in law and finance, and, back in June, the closure of the city’s LDV van factory – plus the ongoing contraction of a part of the local economy that gets far too little attention: temporary and agency work, which sees thousands of people losing their jobs with little notice and zero compensation.
Death of the dole queue
If, like me, you last set foot in a jobcentre years ago, what now greets you is little short of jaw-dropping. The old vacancy-cards-and-queues model – as depicted …