Surviving unemployment lows: what I learned from an actor’s life

Jenga work

Photo by 'santibon' (Flickr)

A few days ago my husband mentioned an article he had read in the Guardian about Scottish actor Jeff Stewart. I didn’t even know who Stewart was, but the story struck a chord with me so I went to look for it myself.

It was an ‘a-ha moment’. Sometimes you come across something seemingly trivial, which can unlock the key to a deeper understanding of your present situation.

My story
My situation was that I had reached an all-time low after a string of unfortunate job rejections, despite several interviews for which feedback had been excellent.

One thing is is not getting a job for failing to meet its requirements, or for interviewing poorly. That’s easier to accept and move on. Another is to be praised for your “strong CV”, your “outstanding skills and experience”, being told what a “fantastic candidate” you are…only to be informed you haven’t got the job for reasons that have no connection with your competency for the role.

Had this happened in the first few weeks after I became unemployed, I would have put it down to bad luck. But in my seventh month looking for work it pushed me over the edge – I felt literally suicidal.

Much as I try not to rest too long on thoughts about the past that cannot be changed, it has become increasingly harder to get back on my feet after a fall. When you can see no flicker of light at the end of a tunnel, is it even worth continuing the journey? How can you want something so much, work so hard for it and still not be able to achieve it? How can the universe be so cruel, slamming all doors in your face one after another?

Stewart’s story
The lights must have gone out in the life of actor Jeff Stewart too when he was told his role as PC Reg Hollis in the long-running ITV police drama the Bill was to be axed after 24 years. Feeling  let down, he went into his dressing room and cut his wrists but  changed his mind and called for help moments before he blacked out.

That was in 2008. After a complete change of image ( he did not cut his hair for three years) to avoid being typecast as his old character, Jeff Stewart went on to get roles in four films. One of those, Under Jakob’s Ladder,  a low-budget movie made in only 21 days, and Stewart were both winners at the Manhattan Film Festival last month: the film won best period piece while Stewart earned the best actor award.

Newspapers this week have been reporting that Stewart’s award will probably shoot him to Hollywood stardom. The Bill, on the other hand, only survived for two more years after Stewart was sacked.

Jeff Stewart must be glad his life did not end when he thought it was no longer worth living. He told the Sun his suicide attempt was “sobering”.

His story reads like a fable.  He understood that  playing Reg Hollis was not the be all and end all of an actor’s career – there were many more roles for him to play in life, both artistically and literally. As a result, he got to where he needed to get.

Jenga blocks
Jeff Stewart’s success story reminded me that sometimes things you want don’t come your way because what you want is not necessarily what you need at the time. But if you persevere, sweet rewards and greater joys may be in store.

If you have ever played Jenga, you know how the blocks wobble every time a piece is taken out. How many pieces can you remove before the whole tower collapses?

You may also be aware that the blocks you can safely lose are those that will easily come out when you gently tap them with your finger. Likewise, if you treat each blow during your unemployment as a ‘loose’ wooden block you can get rid of because it is actually dispensable, you are more likely to end up winning the game. Remember: those blocks are expendable; there is no need to hang on to them. Let go.

Losing them may momentarily shake the structure but won’t destroy the building, which is supposed to grow taller. Think about this concept for a minute. By disposing of unnecessary “baggage” of past anger, hurts and resentments, whatever they may be, you can travel lighter and faster to your personal stardom.

Not that I am aiming for a career in Hollywood; I simply want to bid  farewell to life on the dole.

I thank Jeff Stewart for the inspiration.

4 Comments

Filed under Coping

One too many interviews got me in trouble with the JobCentre

Yes, really.

Yesterday I was admonished at the JobCentre for travelling to too many job interviews, then snubbed and bullied for daring to claim for another rail warrant to attend an interview next week.

Travel to Interview…no more
I have blogged before about Travel for Interview Scheme (TIS). If you need to travel to a job interview outside your local area, you may be entitled to TIS – if your local JobCentre approves your claim, they will issue you a rail warrant, which can be exchanged for a train ticket on the day of the travel.

This helpful scheme is one of only two reasons (the other one being NI credits) I decided to stay signed on at the JobCentre, as I am not entitled to a single penny in Jobseeker’s Allowance this year for not having paid NI contributions in 2008 and 2009 (I was studying in 2008, unemployed in 2009).

It is the only incentive I have to keep filling in “the six actions I have done to find work” in the JobCentre’s “dole book” and present them to the JobCentre every fortnight.

Well, the bad news is that the scheme has now closed. I only found out because as I called the JobCentre to tell them I had another interview in London (I live on the south coast) next week, instead of the usual invite for an appointment to get TIS, I was summoned in for a “meeting with a personal adviser”.

It didn’t sound good.

So I googled “Travel for Interview” in advance and found out, purely by accident, that the scheme is no longer available. That is according to the DirectGov website, but, in reality, it seems as if, despite tighter controls, each branch is still handing it out at their own discretion.

Investigated
The appointment with the personal adviser turned out to be an inquiry into why I had been to interviews five times outside my local area and still had not landed a job. Was I going for the right type of jobs? Was I preparing myself appropriately before interviews? Had I requested feedback after each job rejection? Could I not find jobs more locally?

I had indeed claimed for TIS five times in the past few months, including two for second interviews, and all of them for publishing jobs. I happen to have more than 15 years of publishing sales experience; and my last job was in publishing… To me it is the fastest and most obvious route back into the job market. But not to the JobCentre.

“Money is tight,” the personal adviser said. I was not to assume I could automatically claim TIS, was I clear, and they would not be able to issue any more warrants for jobs in publishing, as it seemed I was not getting anywhere in that field. Instead, I should go for more general jobs, such as PA, which I could find more easily in the local area.

She then deleted “journalism” from the list of areas “where I am looking for work” to include “PA”. I now have:

  1. publishing
  2. PA/secretary
  3. event organiser

under the “type of jobs I am looking for”. Curiously, searches on the JobCentre site under those codes still produce jobs in “store cleaning” ,”nursery assistants” and “charity fundraising”…

Once the personal adviser was satisfied that I had not been trying to abuse the system but was genuinely trying to find a job, she printed my new “Jobseekers Agreement”, which I had to sign to show my commitment towards finding work. I was then sent to the floor below to see the adviser who deals with Travel for Interview warrants.

Bullied
The TIS lady received me with the warmth of someone about to interview a mass murderer. Scowling, she spat her words to drive home the fact that she was less than pleased I was travelling out of town for yet another interview.

She reminded me once more I would not be paid any more TIS for jobs in publishing, that any further claims for TIS would be considered on a case-by-case basis.  The conversation that ensued left me speechless and later drove me to tears:

“Where is the interview in London?”

“The nearest station is Sloane Square.”

“Sloane Square?! We can only pay until Victoria. You’ll have to make your own way from there. Sloane Square is not far fromVictoria.”

“….”

“The 12.05 train will get you there at 13.28. That’s an hour before the interview, so plenty of time….”

It suddenly dawned on me this was my punishment for daring to ask for a Travel for Interview warrant. She was suggesting I get there an hour early so that I had time to walk from Victoria to Chelsea. With trainers on, it might take me half an hour. Wearing an interview suit and heels, and if it rains, it could take from 45min up to an hour and my feet are likely to blister and bleed (Update for those who thought I was exaggerating: I have huge, problematic bunions on both feet).

I looked at her eyes and recognised the same crazed hatred I used to see in the bullies at school: those who spat at me for being the only Oriental kid in class, cut my notebooks in half with a knife and scribbled unrepeatable swearwords on my seat.

In shock and humiliation, my mind drew a blank and I had trouble remembering my postcode and my home telephone number to fill in my TIS claim form…

I can understand rules are sometimes harsh but need to be followed. But bullying? Can there ever be any justification for unnecessary cruelty, especially towards the unemployed, who are skint, demoralised and most likely depressed? Isn’t the job of the JobCentre to give support to help jobseekers get back into work as soon as possible?

Wasting money
I noticed the TIS lady wrote down £24.90 on her copy of the document. This is because it costs £24.90 for a return ticket from my local station to London Victoria if you buy it on the day. This is because the JobCentre doesn’t, as a rule, allow you buy your own ticket and claim for reimbursement later.

The absurdity is that, if they did, I could have bought an advance ticket online, including London Underground Zones 1-6, for £13.30 on the Southern Railway website. This would have saved the JobCentre £11.60 and myself the unnecessary humiliation of being “dropped off” in Victoria and told to walk the rest of the way.

How much travel money is actually being wasted by the JobCentre this way, while they try to make savings by restricting the number of times anyone can have their travel to interview subsidised? How much more money wouldn’t they save from closed JSA claims, if active jobseekers were, instead, encouraged to attend as many interviews as they can get?

Thankfully my partner is in work and, although we live on an incredibly tight budget, I can just about buy a London underground travel card once I get to Victoria.

But someone virtually on the breadline may not have been able to afford the extortionate £6.60 that an off-peak day travel card costs for zones 1-2. Depending on the time of travel, you can pay up to £15.00 for a London underground travel card for zones 1-6. That sum could exceed the cost of a family dinner in some households. What if it is a choice between eating or paying for a train ticket to get to a job interview, which, if successful, would mean one fewer benefit claimant for the Department for Work and Pensions and the JobCentre to sustain?

None of this makes sense to me.

Not too many interviews
In 10 days’ time I must present myself at the JobCentre again to show the adviser “the six things I have done to actively find work”. Due to the JobCentre’s ambiguous attitude towards interviews, I now know those entries cannot be six job interviews, as subsidised travel clearly becomes an issue after five interviews, especially if potential employers in your field tend to be located out of town.

I will have to start turning down any interviews I get from anywhere beyond zone 1 or 2 in London, as that is the most I can afford out of my own pocket, in my seventh month of unemployment.

Now I am also obliged to spend a few hours a week applying for secretarial jobs I come across, even though my experience as a PA is so outdated I am highly unlikely to be shortlisted for interview. Although time spent applying for such jobs will take away from time I could spend applying for jobs I am far more likely to get (in publishing), that is what the JobCentre wants me to do.

Again, I question: how many unemployed people are having their jobseeking efforts hampered by their JobCentres by being artificially forced to apply for jobs that are not suited for them at all? And how much precious government money is going down the drain because of an inefficient system that penalises rather than support active jobseekers?

Failure and guilt
More bad news awaited me when I got home. A voice message from a recruitment consultant confirmed I had not got a job for which I had been interviewed twice already.  Four nights without sleep preparing a presentation for the final interview; 16hs of travel in total; hundreds of pounds in train fares. For nothing.

I feel as if I have failed myself, my recruitment consultant, my friends, my parents, my partner, and now also the JobCentre for having wasted two of their TIS warrants. This is not right.

Being rejected from a job hurts. But having to feel guilty for going to too many interviews, and being bullied by the JobCentre before travelling to one is not only preposterous; it is utterly inhumane and disgraceful.

**********************************************************************************************************************

Have you had a similar experience and would like to share? Please leave a comment below or write to me privately if you do not mind being contacted for an interview for an newspaper piece. All names will be kept confidential upon request.

Related articles of interest:

112 Comments

Filed under Interviews, Unemployment

Five tips for a winning interview from the world’s top CEOs

Only recently I was delighted to have been shortlisted for second interview for an exciting senior role. I had been told I was one of two candidates selected for the final stage, so, while preparing for the big day, I kept asking myself what qualities I needed to show, which would make me stand out against the other candidate.

A day after the interview, I came across an article in the The Guardian, which I wish I had read before. It was a piece by Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of the New York Times and author of Corner Office: How Top CEOs Made it and How You Can Too (Harper Press, RRP £12.99).

Bryant’s book is a collection of interviews with more than 70 chief executives about how they do their jobs and the most important lessons they have learnt as they rose through the ranks. In the article, Bryant identifies five common, essential qualities that helped set these CEOs apart, and which they also looked for in people they hired.

Do you have what it takes to be a future leader?

Luckily for us jobseekers, all five attributes are skills or attitudes you can learn and acquire with, if you don’t already have them. If what you are looking for is not only a job but career progression, focussing on developing these leader characteristics could help you get ahead.

You can read the full Guardian article here, but I have tried, below, to apply the CEOs’ five big tips to an interview situation:

1) Passionate curiosity

Are you passionately curious? Do you ask big picture questions? Do you try to find out why things work the way they do and whether they can be improved? Are you interested in other people’s stories, in human nature?

Bryant says chief executives may exude confidence and authority at external-facing meetings but within their organisation their greatest contribution is their ability to ask the right questions so they can spot opportunities, understand people who work for them and how to get them to work effectively.

“CEOs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students.” 

Perhaps you should prepare some questions to ask at the interview, which indicates a strong interest in the business of the company you want to work for, questions that will show the interviewer you have the “hunger” to succeed. How is business being done now? Where do they want to be in five years’ time and what do they feel they need in order to achieve that ambition?

2) Battle-hardened confidence

CEOs are looking for indications on how well you will perform by checking how you dealt with adversities, even failure, in the past. They will be testing your resilience and resourcefulness. Those who can best handle difficult situations tend to get recognised and promoted.

It is one of the most frequently asked interview questions, so make sure you have a good story up your sleeve, preferably from a professional situation, which will illustrate how you owned a challenge and overcame it with your positive attitude and perseverance. If you have only recently finished school and have limited work experience, a challenging personal situation can be used as an example instead.

3) Team smarts

This is not just about being a team player but the ability to form “ad hoc teams”, “recognise the players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal”.

Employers are looking for people who will be able to build and manage a team and get on with their peers. Are you the linchpin type, who can hold it all together, collaborate with different people, lead, mentor, motivate?

“People who truly succeed in business are the ones who […] have figured out how to mobilse people who are not their direct reports.”

This may not be so easy to prove, as it may be linked to your character and how you project yourself. But practising active listening during the interview, showing confidence without arrogance, even a good sense of humour can help make you look personable.

Your interviewer will be trying to find out if you get on with other people. They may even ask you questions such as “How would your colleagues describe you?” Have the answer in your head before the interview day. Don’t lie, of course, but try to stress qualities that highlight what a great colleague/team worker you are.

4) A simple mindset

Great advice here if you are asked to present a Power Point presentation at the interview (I was!).

One way of proving how clear your mind is is to produce a concise, uncluttered presentation, NOT a long one crammed with data showing off how much research you have done on a topic. You will not impress more by talking for longer than necessary either. Less is more, so keep it simple.

“Lose the ‘Power’ part of the presentation and simply get to the ‘Point'”, says Bryant.

A good leader-in-the-making has the ability to connect dots and find solutions “by asking simple, smart questions that lead to untapped opportunities”. I suppose he is trying to say a smart person should be able to think and communicate even complex ideas with clarity and simplicity. Easier said than done.

Most people tend to either talk too much (my case) or clam up when they are nervous. If you feel yourself starting to do either during an interview, try this trick, which a friend advised me: take a few sips of water (don’t forget to ask for a glass of water at the beginning, if they don’t offer you one) while you collect yourself, breathe in and carry on. Make sure your thoughts are coming out coherently.

Many recruitment agents these days offer interview coaching; get some practice beforehand if you think it will help.

5) Fearlessness

People who will only ever do what they’re told to do, or are only concerned about maintaining the status quo will not be seen as “leader types”. In the competitive world we live in, CEOs are looking for people who are not afraid to challenge and push ahead of the competition. By taking risks. By being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This does not mean you should tell your interviewer your hobby is bungee jumping. In business, you need to be making calculated, informed decisions, even when taking risks, so a balance of fearless and sensible is probably ideal.

You could be asked how you would improve their business if you were in the role. However unusual or risky the suggestions, as long as you can explain your line of thinking logically, you may impress with your ingenuity. But if you overdo it, hoping for the ‘wow factor’, you may talk yourself out of the job. Show you are creative/innovative but back it up with plenty of shrewd business acumen.

Bryant says there is a lot to be learned from CEOs about leadership, as they practise it daily. They have tried and tested their leadership styles and know what works and what doesn’t.

Whether your aim is to one day become a senior executive or your ambitions are much more modest, the fact is employers like candidates with a winner mentality. We all know there are more jobseekers than jobs out there right now, so the more you sound like a winner, the better your chances of landing a job.

Your CV and cover letter will get you the interview. But to survive the interview and beat the competition, you need more than a list of skills and achievements. The following tweet from a recruitment consultant I know says it all:

2 Comments

Filed under Interviews

Too busy to write a rejection letter? What ever happened to good old HR manners?

Among the list of search terms that have been directing people to this blog I often see the query “how to write a rejection letter”. It is comforting to think that some HR staff and managers out there still invest time and energy writing one.

Those are, however, few and far between.

Every jobseeker knows employers these days rarely bother to acknowledge receipt of an application, let alone write back to let them know when they have not been shortlisted for interviews. Some already pre-warn you in their job  ad that it is up to the applicants to figure that out by themselves: “if you have not heard from us within X days, you have not been successful.”

Sadly, not making any personal contact at all with a job applicant throughout the application process has become so commonplace that when they do get in touch, it comes as a pleasant surprise, which we tend to remember long afterwards.

I have written a post before about how much pain rejection letters (or the absence of them) can cause but, ultimately, not sticking to good old-fashioned HR manners ends up hurting  employers too. Just as employers vet candidates for the best skill sets, candidates mentally bookmark companies that made them feel valued because an employer that treats applicants with dignity will most likely also value their employees. Wouldn’t we all like to work for a place that acknowledges our worth?

Mirrors
Whenever I attend job interviews, I use my interaction with the receptionist as a barometer to gauge whether the company has a good or bad work environment. The receptionist is the “face” of the company, and you can discover a great deal about your prospective employer just by observing their behaviour.

If he/she is friendly and makes you feel welcome, you can be sure the work environment is healthy and staff are respected and well treated. On the other hand, if the receptionist looks obviously miserable, doesn’t make eye contact and continues chatting to a colleague while asking you to sign their guest book, it could be a sign that the company tends to treat staff as disposable commodities and you may not be so happy working there.

Likewise, rejection letters mirror the HR policies of a company. Employers who take time writing to a candidate to thank them for an application, and let them know even when they haven’t been shortlisted, show respect for people and therefore they deserve respect in return.

I understand during a recession some vacancies can attract hundreds of applicants and employers may not have the time to respond to all. But with most applications being sent and received electronically anyway, how much time can it actually take to copy and paste email addresses and send out template letters if only by way of thanking candidates for the the time they have put into the application?

If job ads are an invitation to apply, then applicants are “guests” responding to that invitation, not unwanted gatecrashers. Would you be so rude as to blank out guests to an event you were hosting, even if you did not personally like them?

“Simples”…
Rejection letters do not require time-consuming, elaborate language. Candidates need to know only two things:

  1. That they were not successful in their application.
  2. If possible, the reason for the rejection.

“We  have had applications from other candidates with more relevant skills and experience/who were better suited to the role” is a good diplomatic way out, as it stresses the fact that the candidate didn’t ‘fail’; they were simply ‘not suitable’ for that particular position.

The noblest letters conclude by inviting the unsuccessful candidate to apply again in future for any openings they may have. Despite being the bearer of bad news, such a letter leaves you feeling positive about yourself. Who wouldn’t feel flattered being invited to try again in future?

The candidate may eventually forget what you said, but he/she will never forget how you made them feel. If you come across them again in business or social circles – and that is a real possibility – they are far more likely to return your kindness. Remember: the Internet and social media have reduced the six degrees of separation into three or four.

Winner
One of the most touching rejection letters I have ever received was from a major trade publisher in North London. I had been called for an interview as a result of sending them a speculative letter, but did not get shortlisted for a second round.  Their message was so thoughtfully worded, it made me think they must be a wonderful company to work for.

“Dear [my name], Thank you for attending the interview for the position of xxx and apologies for not coming back to you sooner.

Unfortunately, on this occasion I am sorry to inform you that we will not be inviting you back for a second interview. If you would like feedback on your application or interview, please let me know and I will follow this up for you.

I hope that you will not be discouraged by this news and I hope you will consider applying for a position at [company name] again in the future. Please continue to check our website for details of all our current vacancies.  Kind regards, [HR officer’s name]”

Communication
While many jobs list “good interpersonal skills” and/or “excellent customer care” under required skills, very few employers actually seem to display those qualities themselves.

Just as in polite society people will make a judgement based on one’s social skills, the way an employer treats jobseekers interested in working for them can change their brand perception for better or for worse. Information sharing through virtual walls, microblogging sites, private messaging and blogs has never been easier. Poor (as well as great) reputation can travel fast…

Businesses need to understand good communication is not just about talking to customers. It is about keeping all communication channels open and fluid; and that includes knowing when and how to reject jobseekers gracefully.

5 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

10 must-have items for your interview day (ladies’ version)

Interview days can often feel as they’re ruled by Sod’s Law. Just because you are nervous and desperate to avoid delays and unnecessary waste of time and energy, the universe seems to be conspiring to slow you down and test your nerves.

I nearly missed my train en route to an interview this week because I misread the platform number as 15, instead of 5, and had literally three minutes to run back to the correct platform on pin heels, carrying a large handbag and a laptop case. I never prayed nor sweated…nor swore to myself so intensively in my entire life… As the commercial says, “Should have gone to Specsavers….”

Dozens of things can go wrong between the moment you step out of the house until you arrive at the interview. On a day when you want to look as professional and tidy as possible, you need to be as prepared as you can for all eventualities.

I thought I would share below my list of 10 practical things I always carry with me for interviews, which have helped me keep my respectability despite mishaps along the way. Please feel free to add your own suggestions. This one is a lady’s version, but if enough male readers leave their tips, I will create a new list and update.

1) An extra pair of tights (=stockings in the US)

Tights are misbehaving creatures at the best of times. All you need is for the edge of your ring, or a broken nail, to get caught on the nylon, and RRRRRIP….another one goes down the dust. This happened to me two days ago on the way to an important interview, although the tear was on the heel travelling upwards. Luckily I had a pair of reserves in my handbag, so I could change into them. If I were only meeting friends, I may not have bothered but arriving for an interview wearing a suit with a huge ladder down your legs will make you look as if you don’t care about your appearance…. You can buy tights inexpensively from pharmacies like Boots or from supermarkets. Or traditionalists from Marks & Spencers. Believe me, you will never be sorry you have packed this.

You can also avoid troublesome tights but opting to wear a trouser suit instead of skirt or dress.

2) Oil blotting tissues 

Invaluable if you’re going to an interview in the summer. The ones I am using now came free with a magazine, but you can get them cheaply from Boots, Superdrug, Body Shop, Muji, etc. If you happen to have to run for a train, as I did, the sweat can make your face shiny, your makeup may have started to run… Or you may get stuck for 20 minutes inside a broken London underground train on a very stuffy day.

If you want to look cool and confident as you arrive at your appointment, blot out that shine. Aim for a matt look. (A compact powder top-up can also help). Sweatier types, add to that a small wash towel or a handkerchief to wipe yourself dry before your interview clothes get drenched.

3) Deodorant (for top-up)

I forgot to take this with me last time so had to make do with a little perfume instead. Even if you have showered and applied deodorant before leaving home, a long journey in a hot summer days can make the cleanest jobseeker in the world start to worry about their body odour.  If your interviewer catches any unpleasant B.O. wafting from your direction, you will certainly lose some precious first-impression points.

Don’t forget nervousness can also make people sweat. Always have a mini deodorant in your bag for extra confidence.

4) Plasters

For your feet. If you are like me and normally live in flat shoes and trainers, you may find yourself in agonising pain wearing court and/or high heels, particularly on a warm day, when your feet are more likely to be bloated. Apply plasters on those “problem corners”, which most rub against your shoes, before putting the shoes on, to prevent blisters. If you suffer from painful bunions, invest on some good-quality bunion pads and protect all sensitive areas.

Carry plenty of extra plasters with you. Blisters or no blisters, you can’t take off those shoes until after the interview, so save yourself the pain and the tears. Get plastered!

5) Flats (feet again)

A comfort-loving girl’s best friend. Your feet will thank you for a change into them, after you leave the interview. Plain, light ones are the best (rather than anything fancy or designer items), so you can carry them discreetly in your handbag. Large supermarkets and discount stores sell them at laughably affordable prices  (I think I bought mine for £6 at Sainsbury’s).

6) Pocket tissues + wet tissues 

Most ladies seem to carry tissues in their bags anyway, but I find having one small packet of wet tissues (about a pound in most shops) is indispensable, especially if I am travelling a bit further out for the interview and need to eat/drink on the way. What if you get something sticky on your hands and there is no water in the train’s toilet? What if you spill coffee on your suit? Better be safe than sorry.

7) Breath Mints
Mints, Mints & lots of Mints... Apart from body odour, what can be tremendously offputting for an interviewer is bad breath. Use your common sense.  Avoid eating anything too garlicky on the day before your interview, as it may still be on your breath the day after.

I brush my teeth and use mouthwash before leaving home anyway, but as most of my job interviews have been out of town (=long journey), I always need to eat again on the way. Chewing gums can be good for cleaning any food debris from between your teeth when you are on the go, but minutes before the interview, pop in a couple of strong mints to clear any remaining food smells from your breath.

8 ) Pocket-size mirror

It is always a good idea to do a final check in a mirror for any signs of smudged mascara, lipstick, messed up hair, etc before the interview. There may or may not be enough time for a visit to the toilets before the interview, so better have that compact mirror ready as a backup. You may have groomed yourself perfectly before you left home but train journeys, hot weather, rain, humidity, all of these things can have a disastrous effect of your appearance. The last thing you want is to walk into an interview looking like a slob.

One tip about make-up: aim for professional look, not drag queen. Be wary of wearing very bright red lipstick unless you are applying for a job in the sex industry. It can give all the wrong messages…

9) Umbrella

Did you check the weather forecast before you left home? If there is a chance of rain, pack in a compact umbrella, even if you have never used one in your life as you love walking in the rain… You want to arrive there looking dry and smart, not like a bedraggled rat. As with all items so far, look for a small, light version so as not to overload your bag. My emergency brolly cost £1 at a pound shop.

10) Pen & paper/notebook

Not everyone does this, but I like to take notes during an interview, as the interviewer will usually tell you about the company and the role. Annotating can be useful in many ways: a) it shows you are interested enough to write things down, b) the notes will help you expand further on points discussed if you’re called for a second interview, c) having something to do with your hands will help you feel less nervous (BUT don’t forget to make regular contact with the interviewer or it will look as if you are avoiding them!), d)  it can help you look more professional.

I always jot down beforehand some questions I would like to ask during the interview and some key words on subjects the interviewer might want me to talk about. Basically, I use the notebook as a cue card. I personally like reporter notebooks but you may prefer a smaller memo pad. If you do take a notebook, have your own pen(s) ready so you don’t have to ask for one. It shows forethought: you have prepared for it; you are organised, a very important skill in any position.

What do you normally take to an interview that has been helpful?

 

Products and images shown:

  1. Bare Cooling Ladder Resit Tights Open Toe Tights (7 denier) from Marks & Spencers £4.00
  2. Natural Powder Facial Blotting Tissues from Body Shop (£4.50 for tea-tree ones)
  3. Lemon & Coriander deodorant from Neals’ Yard £7.50
  4. Clear plasters (pack of 40) from Superdrug £1.69
  5. Wet anti-bacterial handy wipes from Boots £1.05
  6. Black pumps from Marks & Spencers £19.50
  7. Photo of mint assortment by pshegubj on Flickr
  8. Aluminium Compact Mirror (S,M,L) from Muji  (£3.95-£7.50) – image from Muji US
  9. Totoro’s umbrella from,well, the magic forest in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation (£priceless)
  10. Reporters Notebook from Asda £0.53

5 Comments

Filed under Interviews

Fairy Jobmother? So fairy tale…

Did you watch Channel 4’s Fairy Jobmother this week? It makes compelling viewing if you are a jobseeker yourself.

The programme follows the same tried-and-tested format of dozens of other Channel 4 programmes, as a blog in The Guardian has pointed out, where a hero figure arrives to rescue people in a difficult situation, exposes their faults, makes everyone (and the audience) cry,  teaches them new life/business skills, leading up to an inevitable happy ending.

On Tuesday night’s programme three out of four people on benefits ended up being offered jobs. That is a 75 per cent success rate, but, if you ask me, completely disproportionate to what happens in real life. Had this not been a television programme with a supernanny for jobseekers doing a great deal of hand holding, the outcome would probably have been very different.

Employment expert Hayley Taylor, for all her straight talking – or maybe because of it – is quite endearing. But her waving a copy of The Daily Express at the four benefit claimants, while telling them Iain Duncan Smith, “the Head of Employment”, had said “there ARE jobs out there” but “people are being too selective about the jobs they are going for” infuriated me.

Of course we are selective about the jobs we go for. Not everyone is cut out to do every job. And if Mr Duncan Smith really said there are plenty of vacancies and it’s our fault we are not finding them, he has not been reading his own department’s stats on redundancies and companies’ spending cuts.

Every time I go to the JobCentre, my adviser looks up “publisher” and “journalist” on her computer for any relevant jobs in the area. Due to some inexplicable coding error on their system, this is what comes up:

Can Mr Duncan Smith honestly claim that if I am still out of work after four months and two weeks of intense search, it is because I was too picky about going for store cleaning manager jobs when my training and experience are in the media industry?

Former security guard Dave, in Tuesday’s Fairy Jobmother, had the best answer for that:

“My arse!”

Guilt
Taylor throws at her benefit claimants the sobering figure of £87 billion, which the UK government allegedly spends in welfare annually. Welfare is a broad term. It cannot mean the entire sum is being used on jobseekers’ benefits. With 2.46 million people currently unemployed, according to the Office for National Statistics, even if all of them were older than 25 on £67.50 per week, the math doesn’t add up.

I doubt guilt-tripping the unemployed for money being spent on them is effective either. Not all unemployed people are professional loungers, who would rather be supported by the government than actively look for work.  Many have a genuine reason for being in the situation they are in.

Taylor says lack of self-belief is one of the most common characteristics she sees in those who have been unemployed long term. I empathise – the most confident types can easily start to doubt themselves after one too many rejections on the job front.

What one does for a living should not but does ultimately define one’s sense of self-worth. 

I recently attended an event for journalists in London. In the registration form, I was reluctant to write down my occupation as “unemployed”, so I called myself “freelance journalist”. The problem with that euphemistic expression is that new people I meet at such events invariably look at my badge and ask:

“So what type of freelance journalism do you do?”

My answer, “Well, I’m actually unemployed at the moment,” is a guaranteed conversation killer.

It helps if the other person has a sense of humour and can react with a “Oh? That type of freelance!” accompanied by a suitable giggle or a wink. But, in this case, I was talking, for the first time, to a rather well-known investigative journalist I greatly admire, and I noticed her eyes glazing over after that..erm…revelation. My heart broke.

Should I have said, “I write for the Guardian…actually,” with a posh accent just to keep her interest? And why is it I felt so humiliated having to admit that I didn’t work, was desperately trying to work but couldn’t work because no one wanted me.  The guilt again.

I could have told her I was a successful international sales manager with a long career in publishing, who speaks several languages, had jet-setted round the world, achieved amazing targets, esteemed and respected by customers and colleagues, etc. I could have told her I had a career break and trained as a journalist and passed all my NCTJ exams first time round with excellent grades, when I am not even an English native speaker. That I have a portfolio full of cuttings and have been praised for my writing by various other journalists. That I am proud to call myself a journalist, even if I don’t work for the Guardian.

But no. None of the past achievements seem to matter. Because I am unemployed. And that makes me into a nothing. And I must be doing something wrong because Mr Duncan Smith says so. Because I am not going for the cleaning jobs the JobCentre found for me. Because unemployment makes me feel guilty and s**t about myself all the time.

Guilt does not help a jobseeker move forward, as it is a self-defeating sentiment. Self-awareness perhaps, but never guilt.

Picky?
Throughout the past few months ALL recruitment agents I have talked to have been saying one thing in common:

“Companies are being very specific about the type of experience they are looking for in a candidate. They want someone who has done exactly A, B and C; nothing deviating from that. They are very risk averse at the moment.”

That means that unless your past experience is a photocopy of what it says on the tin of their job description, you are unlikely to get the job. No employer wants to take chances gambling on your “transferable skills”.

Is it not fair to say then it is the employers who are being ‘selective’?

Taylor says motherhood gives you time management and prioritisation skills that can be applied to many jobs. In the fairy world she comes from maybe.

Fairy Jobmother has been in employment too long. Caring and lovable as she may be, she is, sadly, out of touch with  jobseekers’ reality.

9 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

Needle in a haystack: the JobCentre adviser with a human touch

One drop of water helps to swell the ocean

Photo by Ygor Oliveira

I wrote this draft post in 2009, when I was first unemployed (I went on to do a maternity cover job in 2010), but decided against publishing it at the time. Having re-read it now, I feel it is a story worth sharing.

Amidst all the aggravation I have been experienced at the JobCentre, I must admit I was very lucky to have been allocated a friendly young lady as my personal adviser. I know nothing personal about her, I don’t even remember her name anymore – JobCentres are not exactly conducive to sociability – except she was probably Scottish because of her accent.

Visits to the JobCentre for “signing on” seldom last longer than 90 seconds from the time your name is called to the time you leave, but today she asked me how my interviews had been going.

In the past three weeks I had had one interview a week, all proudly reported in writing on my JobCentre “book”. You would think they don’t really read anything you write down, wouldn’t you, but this lady more than once showed evidence she actually did.

I wad pleased she asked.

Not that I had any good news to report: only the day before, I had been rejected after a first interview and had had a little cry, as it was a job I had been extremely keen on.

But the fact that I had been making so much effort to find work and someone was actually showing interest felt like a drop of water in my personal emotional desert. It meant the difference between dealing with a human and dealing with an automaton.

I told her I was going to another interview that same afternoon and was crossing my fingers that would finally be it. To which she responded:

“So hopefully we won’t see you in the near future.”

Her comment made me preposterously happy. Under different circumstances I would have taken those words with a massive pinch of salt (after all, this is the JobCentre, not some motivational clinic), but I knew she wasn’t a cynic –she did mean it kindly.

The situation reminded me of Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. In his autobiography, the cyclist describes his awe-inspiring battle with testicular cancer. During his aggressive treatment, with drug cocktails poisonous enough to kill an elephant being pumped into his body, Armstrong is touched when his chemotherapist tells him, ‘I hope I never see your face again.’ The passage had made me cry.

I do not feel it is fair to compare the work of  JobCentre staff to that of a cancer specialist, but both their jobs, which are meant to help the client/patient, are also bound to make you feel ill before you feel better.

Unemployment nearly killed me too. If I could have only one wish to a genie in the bottle right now, it would be for just one day when I didn’t once have to think about looking for or applying for jobs, spending hours perfecting cover letters, only to be rejected or never hear back from the employers.

Try doing the above non-stop for 365 days and staying sane.

I only saw my nice adviser lady once more after that; then, to my disappointment, a new adviser came on board. Whether she left her job or was transferred to a different Centre I will never know.

Wherever she went to, she will probably be making other people smile.

Thank you, my little Scottish adviser lady. Thank you.

3 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

What to do when jobseeker fatigue sets in

Photo by Arndt Nollau

I have noticed one of the most frequent search terms for people who end up at this blog is “what to write in the JobCentre book”.

I do empathise.

If you are “signed on” with the JobCentre, you will be familiar with the huge pressure that finding the fortnightly six entries to go into your jobseeker’s “book” can place you under.

With a raging recession out there, eating jobs away like a hungry monster, you are lucky if you  find two relevant vacancies to apply for every couple of weeks.

I have, in the past, applied for jobs I wasn’t really interested in, or knew I didn’t qualify for, just so I wouldn’t be penalised by the JobCentre. We all know it is not quantity but quality of applications that count; but JobCentres have quotas to meet, money to save, and they have been known to jump on the opportunity to stop jobseekers’ benefits as soon as there is a valid excuse, as reported here by the Guardian.

Sometimes a bit of creativity helps. Remember: not all six entries have to  be job applications. A call/visit/email to a friend/family member/recruitment agent asking about vacancies counts as one action, so use your imagination.

The problem is what to do when jobseeker fatigue sets in and the very thought of writing yet another application makes you feel violently ill.

There are only so many different ways in which you can re-word your skills and achievements on a piece of paper without inducing yourself into a mental coma. And how many of those letters are actually going to lead to an interview, let alone a job offer?

I am not a pessimist, but more often than not, it is pain without gain.

Job hunting IS a job in itself. You perform the same old going-through-the-motions day after day after day, as if you were an assembly line worker, except with no payment, often without any feedback, as many companies don’t even bother to acknowledge receipt of  applications.

Where does one find the motivation to keep going?

Below are some of the tactics I use to combat fatigue:

1. Give it a few days’ break and do anything but apply for jobs. If you have just spent days perfecting a particularly difficult application letter, chances are you are drained and need time to recover. It is difficult to be creative when you feel fed up.

2. Go to a library or bookshop,  or surf the Net, and look up tips for attractive CV layouts. Give your tired-looking CV a makeover: perhaps your current one is not making you stand out in the crowd. A new, eye-catching CV may make you feel more confident when the next job comes up.

3. In fact, while you are at it, refresh your cover letter as well (though this is best done when you are applying for a specific job, not during the rest period in-between). The nausea may not go away but it will make you feel a little less repulsed by the idea of sending out your 50th cover letter.

4. Learn something new and fun, maybe a skill you always wanted to learn but never had time for because you were working. This will give you a concrete target to work towards and targets keep people motivated. I have been teaching myself shorthand since I became unemployed and loving the challenge of eventually achieving the speed of 100wpm. Look for something that excites you, whatever that might be: card making, knitting, photography, painting, meditation…

5. Find and attend free or low-priced events and gatherings in your local area, where you’re likely to meet interesting people. One of these people may even lead you to a job, you never know. Make new friends and keep yourself intellectually stimulated. One of the worst aspects of unemployment, I find, is the social isolation and mental apathy you can easily fall into. Unless I have an event or meeting to look forward to, I can spend entire weeks with no motivation to step out of the house.

6. Stories about people finding work through Twitter are not uncommon. It can be an excellent place to cast your net wider and find unexpected work in a very sociable way. I have landed a handful of odd jobs through Twitter myself, and people I have never even personally met have been incredibly kind in pointing me towards any relevant work opportunities they hear about. Of course this is more effective if you have been using Twitter for a while and have some presence among your followers, but it is never too late to start.

Even after implementing some or all of the above, you may still be feeling like the bear in the photo above: no energy to even get out of bed. Sometimes no amount of positive thinking or positive actions can bring you relief and “sleeping it offis the only way to cope.

Finally, don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Accept that this is how you feel today but be aware it is only a temporary state of mind (‘I feel miserable’ instead of ‘I am miserable”). Tomorrow will always be a new day.

I will share with you a motivational video about an Australian man who was born without arms or legs (ignore the Korean subtitles), which never fails to remind me that, whatever problems you have in life, there is always something to be grateful for.

What worked for you when you couldn’t take any more?

6 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

Smile, you’re at the JobCentre (Or: the day I was told off for being on time)

My appointment was at 9.10am. The JobCentre is only a couple of minutes’ walk from my home, but I arrived at 8.55am to make sure I wouldn’t be late.

As the Centre opens at 9am, there was a small queue of people clutching their grey “sign-on books” at the front door.

The sight of the local jobseekers made me shudder. Gathered in a small mass like that, they were like a visual representation of the common people’s mood in the current economy (something like the images in the poster below).

This is the one day I become a character in a Charles Dickens’ novel.

How to Overcome Depressionphoto © 2008 Kevin Dooley | more info (via: Wylio)

Long-term unemployment is a slow-killing cancer on the spirit – and it shows on how you look. You stop caring what time you get up, what time you go to bed, what you wear for the day. You are not going anywhere or see anyone, why bother?

I just hoped I didn’t look as dreary as some of them did. I had pledged myself I would stay upbeat this time and have a positive attitude throughout. I made a mental check that I had washed my hair and put some lipstick on before I left home.

At 9 o’clock doors opened and the small crowd of six or seven people streamed in. T., who always stands at reception, was directing each one to the first floor. When my turn came, I put on the most friendly smile I could muster and said to T. I had a 9.10am.

His response stunned me: “Is it sign on?” He rolled his eyes and shifted on his feet. ” Could you NOT queue at 9.00am please?”

Me: “Erm…Why?”

T.: “Because it’s busy and I’ve got to get these people through first; people coming at 9 get in the way. So could you go back out and come back later?”

It was cold and drizzly outside. I wasn’t going to literally leave the premises, so I stepped aside and hung around behind T., trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, not understanding why I felt I had to be inconspicuous.

There was an empty sofa behind T., but he had not told me to take a seat. I didn’t want to risk another telling-off.

T. shepherded the last of the 9 o’clockers upstairs, then turned to me again and said he was sorry but I really should not come at 9 o’clock.  Had he not finished ranting yet? My emotions swung back and forth from shock to sadness, from outrage to compassion.

Yes, compassion. Had T. had a bad morning? Had one of his colleagues been taken ill and he had to do their job today? Had his wife left him? Was he having PMT? I don’t mean to sound sexist, but his behaviour reminded him of when we ladies are having hormonally challenging days.

Attending the JobCentre feels like a prisoner on bail having to report to the police at fixed days and times. Not that I have ever been in prison, but unemployment is, at any rate, a lonely cage of despair. Why a modicum of respect and dignity cannot be spared to jobseekers is beyond my powers of human comprehension.

T. suggested I go do a job search on the JobCentre’s job-search machine “for five minutes”. I was obviously still in his way. Obediently, I  walked to the job machine and clicked on “Local Jobs” trying to ignore the fact that “Avon lady”,  “Sales assistant – energy” and “Judo teacher” were not exactly my cuppa tea.

At 9.10am, I was finally waved upstairs to go see my adviser. This was my first sign-0n day this “season”. I said good morning to the adviser with my professional saleswoman smile on and proudly handed in my grey book, in which I had listed the six actions I had taken in the past fortnight to find a job, including one interview.

I am not sure if any of the information on the book gets entered anywhere but the motions are the same with every jobseeker. This is how it usually goes (every fortnight):

Adviser: “Let’s see if we can find you a job. Is it still publisher, sales manager and journalist you are looking for?

Me (Hmm. Publisher is the place I want to work at, not the profession but never mind): “Yes. [smile]”

A: “How far are you willing to travel? I don’t think there will be anything for you in this area.”

Me: “London?”

A.: “No, there’s nothing in Sussex…and there’s nothing in London either. Any questions?”

Me: “No.”

A.: “See you in two weeks.”

Me: “Yes.”

On the way out, I smiled and said good bye to the security guard but tried not to make eye contact with T.

I had exhausted my smiling quota for the day.

59 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

Things every jobseeker should know (and JobCentres don’t want you to) – Part 2: travel costs

(This the second part of my series of tips for jobseekers. You can read Part 1 on how to avoid 0845 numbers here.)

Sadly, my  jobseeker’s allowance application was turned down.

This came as a shock, as, when I started working again last April, I was told by the JobCentre that if I took a temporary job, which was the case, I would be able to sign back on very quickly once I had finished it.

What I didn’t realise was that “signing back on” did not mean being paid jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). Bizarrely, one can be registered as a jobseeker without receiving any jobseeker’s allowances.

Two years’ work or no dole

The grounds for refusal were that I had not paid enough National Insurance contributions in tax years 08/09 and 09/10 – the two years when I was studying/not working. It took me three phone calls, all of them to an 0845 number, until a helpful adviser finally explained to me that having worked and paid taxes in 2010 did not make me eligible for claiming JSA this year, nor will I be eligible again, until I have worked for two consecutive tax years.

This is not something even JobCentre employees may not be fully aware of. If you have not worked (and paid NI contributions) for TWO CONSECUTIVE YEARS prior to the tax year in which you applied for JSA, you are not eligible to the dole. Even if you are middle-aged and have worked your entire life, only those two years prior to your unemployment are what counts. Fair? Unfair? Let’s not even go there…

Are there any other benefits I can claim?

Yes. Housing benefit and council tax benefit (call your local council re these), working tax credits, etc, which are means tested: you will have to declare the amount of savings you have, and your partner’s, if you have one. If your partner works, you must declare his/her income as well. Beware that, as a general rule, only households with an income or savings of less than £16,000 are likely to be eligible. It is worth making enquiries anyway.

Are there any advantages in staying signed on if my claim has been turned down?

a. As long as you continue attending the Job Centre on your sign-on days, every fortnight, you can receive NI contribution credits. This means you can continue to build up your state pension entitlement. Read up on it on this page on DirectGov.com.

b. Here’s a valuable tip your JobCentre may not have told you about. JobCentres nationwide have been affected by government cuts, and money is being trimmed wherever possible, so unless you ask about it, they may not offer it to you. DO ASK.

Even if you are not eligible to JSA, or even if your JSA has ran out (you can only claim for so many weeks), as long as you’re “signed on”, you can ask your local JobCentre to help cover costs of your “travel to interview”.

JobCentres can cover your travel costs to job interviews IF they occur outside your area. If you are not sure if where you are going is within that area or not, ask your JobCentre.

What do I need to claim travel expenses to interviews?

You must be able to provide proof that it is a genuine interview at a genuine company. If the interview was arranged by phone, ask the company or recruitment agency to send details to you in writing – a letter or email including contact telephone, contact person’s name and address should do. The JobCentre often calls your interviewer or agent to verify you did attend the interview.

As a rule JobCentres can only give you vouchers in advance, not in arrears, so make sure you call them as soon as you the interview day and time are set, even the day before. They will give you  an appointment for you to come (with your evidence) and collect a RAIL VOUCHER, which you can give to the train conductor and exchange for a suitable train ticket. No cash is handed to the jobseeker, obviously to prevent fraud.

If you need to drive to the interview, you must prove that is the cheapest (or only) way to get there. Should you need travel so far that you would require an overnight stay, the JobCentre may also be able to contribute towards your accommodation costs (don’t expect a five-star hotel of course).

If you’re going anywhere that takes more than, say, 40min to get to, it is worth checking with the JobCentre about any financial help you may be entitled to. But ask nicely.

The ‘travel to interview’ vouchers are about the only motivation I now have for staying signed on, while enduring the morally degrading experience that JobCentres can be. With return train tickets to London from where I live costing almost £20 (at off-peak times), and with no dole money to rely on, this perk is a life saver.

For those on the breadline, struggling to feed themselves or their family, JobCentres are also expected to start giving away food vouchers from April. More on this BBC article.

You’ve heard it here first.

204 Comments

Filed under Unemployment