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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Things every jobseeker should know (and JobCentres don’t want you to) – Part 1: dodging 0845 numbers

I have not updated this blog for a while now. That is because I had been working. After nine months doing a maternity-cover job, I am back on the dole and have more stories to share.

Except I am not. On the dole.  But more on that in my next post.

This being my second round as an official, government-stamped jobseeker, I felt like a hardened “veteran”, ready to take the old bull by its horns, or in Job Centre-speak, face the dreary sign-on days with a (forced) optimistic smile, a (pretend) calm demeanour and my jobseekers’ “book” filled out every fortnight with “the six main things I have done to find work”.

I was surprised by a few  new discoveries, which in turn infuriated and saddened me. If you are unemployed, and about to claim JSA (jobseeker’s allowance), you might like to be aware of them too.

Most Job Centres now seem to offer you only 0845 telephone numbers to make your initial inquiry about signing on. These are numbers that are supposedly charged at the same rate as a local call from a BT landline but can cost a small fortune if you rely on mobile phones. Remember: it takes 30 minutes or more to apply for JSA on the phone.

What can you do:

1. Go to SAYNOTO0870.COM, and search for a cheaper standard telephone number, or even a free one. Not all JobCentres are listed on that site though, so if you can’t find your local one, try option 3 below.

2. Borrow the phones from your local Job Centre Plus: if you have the stamina and patience, that is. My local Job Centre is only two minutes away but they also only have a couple of phones and are usually occupied by people who have had the same idea. Note that at a Job Centre you will have no privacy either.

3. If you have Internet access at home, don’t bother with the phone: apply for your JSA online – you can do this now on the Directgov site. It can take you up to 30 minutes, as there are quite a few forms to fill in (you can save and return to it later if you can’t finish in one go), but , believe me, it will save you a fair amount of stress.

On the phone, chances are you will be kept on a queue for a long time, or the Job Centre’s computer system will crash half way through the 30-minute telephone registration (this happened to me) and they will ask you to call again later.

4. Free numbers ARE available for the JobCentre, surprise, surprise. It is only when you have clicked on this button

 

on Directgov.uk site that the free 0800 numbers are finally revealed on the next page:



 

 

5. Free numbers are also revealed if you ring the 0845 number: yes, that’s right. You will find that when you call their 0845 number, you are referred to the same free number above.

So why not make these 0800 numbers available and searchable from the start?

Job Centres are deliberately burying their freephones away to avoid being inundated with “irrelevant” calls. The 0845 numbers are supposed to work like a firewall, discouraging time wasters to ring in – that is the explanation I received on the phone from the Brighton and Hove Job Centre, which still offered a local enquiries number.

When paycheques have stopped, savings are low and every penny counts, it can feel like the last straw.

Am I really a time waster? Ironically, it feels as if the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) is wasting my time and (hard-earned) cash to make it as hard as possible for me to claim a basic taxpayer’s right.

I came across this fellow Jobseekers’ Rant blog today, which made me nod in agreement. It is true: buying newspapers to look for job adverts, taking public transport to go to interviews, buying paper and ink cartridges to print out your CVs, all costs money.

For a jobseeker on a £60-plus allowance a week, a £20 spend a week on buses and trains means a third of the allowance gone.  I catch myself becoming a hermit, going out less and less, as once I step out of the house, money starts rolling out of my purse. Money I can’t afford to waste.

By phone or online, once the application form is submitted, an adviser should call you within two working days to set up a first appointment for you at your local Job Centre Plus.

Then the fun begins…

If you have never claimed JSA before, you may benefit from browsing through this Jobseeker’s Allowance Survival Guide, which gives you a brutally honest picture of what to expect and what rules you will be expected to play by.

More tips in my next post here, but if you have any to add, please feel free to share them in the comments’ section.

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Week 26: off the dole and onto…Tarot cards?

If you claim jobseeker’s allowance based on national insurance contributions, your eligibility for the dole is for 182 days, or roughly six months. Mine ran out last month, so a fortnight ago I was summoned by the JobCentre Plus to the so-called “week 26 review meeting” , where a personal adviser is meant to draw up “a three-step action plan” to improve your chances of finding work.

What amuses me about JobCentres – and God knows there is very little to be cheerful about them – are the colourful personalities of the advisers you come across; if you are lucky, that is. There is nothing else to smile about.

Rehab?
My week 26 appointment was with a tall and lanky male adviser with long hair and a bushy moustache, who looked to me like a modern version of a hippie from the swinging 60s. I remember thinking he’d look good in a flowery Hawiian shirt and bell bottoms.

I always try to see the funny side to every situation, so I was secretly delighted.

My “beatnik” adviser turned out to be no dopey-head tough, but a straight talker who wasted no time in exposing his personal views on three-step action plans for jobseekers. He said:

“The fact is there is only one action possible for a person in your situation; and that is for you to look for a job and find one.”

I immediately took a liking to him. 

The reason most people find visits to the JobCentre degrading is that unemployment is treated as if it was a anti-social addiction, such as alcoholism, which needs to be treated “in steps”.

Does it not suffice that we spend day in and day out doing nothing else but looking for work, applying for work, thinking about work? In the view of the JobCentre, if after six months on the dole, you are still unemployed, you are doing something wrong that needs to be fixed, never mind the recession.

Terminally unemployed
At week 26 in my…condition, I am now classified as a “stage three customer”, a term with a distinctly morbid ring to it, as in “stage three cancer” or “terminal patient”. And, as a terminal jobseeker, my adviser tells me I am entitled to certain additional types of support, which I take it as being the JobCentre’s equivalent of palliative care.

Certain local colleges offer free crash courses to “help you get back to the workplace and support you with continued training once you are in a job”. Would I like to learn new skills, which could “open doors to a new career”?

All very well, until you read the small print on the training courses actually offered: health and safety in the workplace, food safety in catering, door supervisor (for bouncers??), first aid and…erm…. Tarot card reading.

I am not ungrateful, mind. I would love to learn Tarot card reading, and would appreciate being able to predict when I am likely to find a job. But how a Tarot certificate on my CV would enhance my chances of employment I am still struggling to comprehend.

But that’s only because I have the small mind of a bourgeois woman and am reluctant to accept fortunetelling as a career in its own right…

The best remedy
In order not to lose your sanity, you must learn to laugh at the foibles of the JobCentre. What little advice and support they have to hand out is not applicable to anyone with any level of decent education, let alone a degree. (Read graduate Kate McCann’s experience with the JobCentre Plus under Related Links below)

The truth is: on this crusade to claw back into the job market, you are a lone knight and your own imagination and resourcefulness are the only weapons that can save you from defeat by your own despair.

Everyone needs a card up their sleeve. Whether it will be the Tarot kind or not is up to you to decide.

Indeed, some jobseekers have found very imaginative, and amusing, ways of looking for work, without resorting to help from the JobCentre. Find out more by reading my next post

* Related links of interest:

Out on our own (Guardian): graduate Kate McCann on how JobCentre Plus is letting graduates down
– Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) report on UK labour market

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