Tony Blair's interview had been frozen off the Today programme. My landlord had turned on the central heating; Powergen had said that power cuts could not be ruled out. If you turned up at Kings Cross, Rail Track advised you to go away again. The weather forecast was using words like 'bitter' and 'penetrating'. The newspapers were saying things like 'more on the way' and 'no let up in sight.' Sixteen people had been standing on Tooting High Street for three-quarters of an hour.
As the minute hand swung around to nine forty five, we began to wonder if speaking to each other might be a viable option. We tried shrugging our shoulders and catching each other's eye. Then we muttered words like 'cold' and 'late', just to check that we were real human beings. Finally, someone spotted that the lady carrying a stack of newspapers, six pints of milk and a clip board might well know what was going on.
'Is there anybody in the building at all?'
'I forgot my key. I expect one of the others will be along in a minute.'
A lady with an Eastern European accent shrugged her shoulders at me. 'Last time I come, I was five minute late. They not let me in.'
'No, I am not kidding. I come eight miles to get here. I get here an hour early. I have waited for an hour and a half.'
'The first thing they'll tell us about job interviews is that you should always be punctual' someone suggests.
'This is what they used to do in the old days. Keep you waiting for an hour in the rain. General principals. You had to really want your cheque.'
Someone wearing a yellow jacket and a scarf, turns up. He brandishes a bunch of keys at the lady with the newspapers. They laugh loudly.
The door is opened. A fire alarm goes off. We drift into a large room with a large blue shiny table in the middle of it. The last weeks worth of newspapers are lying haphazardly on it. Some of the keener people start to read the job sections; the rest of us turn to arts or the sports, as the spirit moves us.
'Make yourself some teas and coffees' says the lady in charge pointing to another table, where there is a large plastic tub of sugar speckled with coffee granules of an unknown brand. 'It's free of charge.'
Some of us start milling around the coffee table. Others put their bottoms and the palms of their hands next to the radiators, which are only now coming on. The man sitting next to me pours himself a cup of hot water, takes a tea bag out of his wallet, and puts it in the cup. For the rest of the day I smell nothing but peppermint.
Eventually, the Lady in Charge re-emerges, apologises for the problem with the keys and suggests that we get started 'by breaking the ice.'
No-one but me sees the joke.
We have to ask the person sitting next to us what their name is, what name they want to be known by, and whether they gave us a completely different name simply in order to be awkward. We are then to find out what they are doing at the moment, and what they would like to be doing, and to disallow the answer 'almost anything other than sitting in an unheated room explaining to a total stranger how I managed to fuck my life up so badly that I have been unemployed for over six months.'
The man with the peppermint tea bag turns out to be, not a redundant bricklayer but an unemployed advertising art manager.. I realise afterwards that everyone he speaks to must ask him whether advertising men really wear floral ties and chunky gold jewellery, but then, he gets his own back by asking what sort of computer Once Upon a Time ran on, and whether Dungeons & Dragons was a board game.
What sort of career had he had? Advertising. What sort of career was he looking for? Advertising. In what respect was he looking to change direction? He wasn't. Why was he on this course? Because the Job Centre had told him to come on it.
This theme developed as the morning wore on. Tim already had a job lined up. Lloyd is coming to the end of an accountancy course. ('You should have done something else' explains the Tutor. 'Accountancy is a dying profession. No-one is going to employ an accountant for £18,000 when they could buy an accounts package for £800. I deal in reality..) Tracy, who knew that she wanted to be an art therapist and was, in fact, working as a voluntary art therapist, and trying to get on an art therapy course had been told her benefit would be in jeopardy if she didn't come. Duncan had been a bricklayer for 30 years. 'Och' said the Scotsman sitting next to him 'After thirty years as a bricklayer do ye think he should change direction?'
'Claimant advisors' says the Lady in Charge 'I could punch the lot of them in the face'. She explains, slowly, that this course is not compulsory, that our presence on it cannot effect our benefit one way or the other; that the only compulsory courses are the 'job search review', (after one year's unemployment) and 'Restart' (after two)'If you go on Restart and don't get onto a training course or a back to work scheme, the benefit office will give you a really hard time' She explains, brightly. This course, the Job Review Workshop, is simply for the benefit of people who need to change direction, or acquire some direction in the first place. 'We are going to explore what skills you have, and which ones you need to increase and decrease.'
I am worried by the idea that I might leave the course with fewer skills than I went in with.
She explains the various ways the Job Centre can Help Us Back Into Work. There are various schemes with cheery names like 'Just the Job' 'Back to Work' and 'Failure's Club'. Last year, we were entitled to do 21 hours of study a week. Now it is 16. In April, it will be cut to 10. The Scotsman starts ranting about trades unions. 'Are ye telling me that people with a trade are gonnae go to a site and say, I'll do the job of work for ye for no money to show you that I'm able? The unions are there to stand up for the working man. They'd nae stand for it. Never in all my life....' But each job that is advertised can get as many as a thousand applications, so schemes like 'Job Trial' are necessary to give us the edge. There are two and a half million people claiming benefit, but perhaps eight million are looking for jobs. The government will certainly introduce Workfare in April, whereby everybody will be required to work for their benefit.
I try, slowly, to get my brain around this concept. It does not compute. An image wanders into my head of eight million unemployed people being asked to join 'Ditch Diggers Club' or 'Road Sweeping Initiative'. They would tear up their draft cards and chant 'Hell, no, we will not go' outside parliament, or else drop out and join peace camps in the middle of motorways.
'So what you are saying' says the Scotsman 'Is that we need a change of government.'
'I am not saying anything' says the tutor 'I am simply telling you what the reality is.'
We move onto a new exercise. Consider the career of Administrator. What transferable skills would such a person have? Such skills surely, as punctuality, attention to detail, ability to obey instructions, ability to work under his or her own initiative, ability to work alone, ability to work in teams, ability to operate machinery (e.g. photocopier), ability to talk on the telephone. Each of these suggestions is enshrined on a flip chart. With the greatest possible gravity, the tutor asks: 'What jobs would punctuality be important in?'
There is a general silence. I resist the temptation to give the answer 'Running career development workshops'. Eventually someone suggests 'In most careers.' The tutor is pleased. In most careers. Now then, in which jobs would attention to detail be important. Someone ventures that it would be important in nearly every job. This is the right answer. So, what career would require people who had the ability to obey instructions? Not only concentration camp commandants, but, well, now you come to mention it, nearly every career...
Well then: we are to make a list of our own 'transferable skills'. We are given a check list of transferable skills which we might have. Being approachable. Being assertive. Being diplomatic. Being neat. Being patient. I start to mentally compose my CV. 'I am a bad-tempered, tactless, impatient, easily malleable person and would therefore be ideal for the job of school teacher, politician, railway ticket inspector. The above would do no good on a CV, I am told. It does not use 'Action Verbs'. To avoid this pitfall in the future, I am provided with a list of 'action verbs' that I should use when compiling my CV: analyse, arrange, administer, accomplish...
The final exercise of the morning is to activate a computer which will assist us in adjusting our ideas about what careers we ought to apply for and eventually attain. It lists various attributes of a job, and asks us to assign scores to them based on our aspirations. It appraises the results, and then authorises a list of approved careers for us.
The machine advises the Scotsman to become a Roughneck. It suggests that I would make a good Market Research Executive Public Relations Officer, Campaign Organiser or (mysteriously) an Occupational Psychologist. I wonder if I have been too profligate with the 'like very muches' and do the program again, only claiming to 'like very much' things that I would not consider a job without, such as money. P.R mysteriously vanishes from the list, Civil Service Executive is straight in at number one and Occupational Psychologist obstinately remains in the top ten.
And finally, we get to talk to the tutor. According to the letter the job centre sent me 'The aim of the workshop is to assist you with...a one-to-one interview with the tutor.' I wondered if this meant that the whole thing was going to be a little daunting? I
When I explained that what I wanted to do was consolidate my publishing skills, she became positively enthusiastic, and arranged an interview for a course in advanced Desk Top Publishing. First thing in the morning in Battersea, quite the wrong end of South London.
'What did you think of this course' said the final form of the day.
'You bastards.' I wrote. 'You send an incoherent letter to the wrong address; you make me wait for an hour in arctic conditions you force me to sit through hours and hours of management drivel that could easily have been squeezed into 20 minutes and then you get me on a course that I want to go on and deprive me the pleasure of telling the job centre that their workshop is a complete shambles!'
My advanced Desk Top Publishing course starts in April: the same month as Workfare.
Penetrating and bitter; more on the way; no let up in sight.