How unemployment is different this time around

The last time I was unemployed was 1998. Now, the reality is that there are not enough jobs.

Unemployment is up. As a jobseeker, this comes as no surprise. But what has surprised me about being unemployed this time around is how different things have become, and how much harder it is to find work.

I was last unemployed when I graduated from university, in 1998. To find work, I simply popped into an employment agency, showed I could use a computer and type things, and was offered a series of placements, despite having hardly any work experience. It was pretty straightforward, and I managed to hack a living quite merrily until the fateful day I started working as a journalist. What was the big deal about unemployment? It seemed to be a simple task to find a job, and earn a half-decent living.

This time around, I thought it would be that simple again, so before I was made redundant I popped into a few employment agencies, CV in hand. With much more experience and a wider range of skills than I had back in 1998, I thought it would be even easier this time to glide into temping, or some kind of work. I was wrong.

I knew things had changed when I couldn't even see a human being. "Send in your CV by email," said the weary receptionist at the first place I tried.

"But I've got it here, in my hand, here it is."

"No, it needs to be on email."

So I stood there, in reception, and emailed it using my phone, to someone who was sitting three feet away.

"We'll get back to you," they said. They didn't. And they weren't the only ones who didn't. I must have applied to every employment agency around here, and applied for every job that I think I could reasonably do. Nothing. I've filled in dozens of application forms, repeating the same information again and again, and sent my CV off enough times to kill a few trees, if they'd been printed out. It's been like having a job, but without the money. But still, nothing. It's got to the stage where I regard the terse "Dear Candidate" rejection email as a kind of near miss.

I thought it was something to do with the stigma of being a journalist, as if working in a poorly respected industry meant people perceived you as hacking phones and upsetting grieving relatives all day. But it wasn't that. This is the reality for a lot of people out of work at the moment; there just aren't the jobs to go around. As well as that, for those lucky enough to be on the books of an agency, they're being paid almost the same rate for work as they were paying me all those years ago, when I had a full head of hair. It's as if all the time in between never happened, but I look in the mirror and I realise it has.

So, it's the Jobcentre every two weeks to collect the 60-odd quid I get for having paid national insurance for the past 13 years. They call it Jobcentre Plus nowadays -- I think the "plus" is "plus a sense of grinding ennui and despair". The people inside are helpful and kind, and do their best for me, I know, but I have grown to feel sick about my fortnightly visits to sign on. That building is Svidrigailov, taunting me, teasing me, forcing me to confess... confess to a sense of hopelessness. You can't hide it when it's staring you in the face. Those who have been doing this for some time tell me I'll face pretend applications, literacy and numeracy tests, training courses to show I know how to use a computer, all to ensure I'm really trying my best to get a job. The humiliation will be complete, although I don't feel sorry for myself. I'm just disappointed that I can't do any better.

All that said, I think I'm extremely lucky. It could be so much worse. I'm fortunate enough to be able to scrape a couple of hours' work here and there, and my partner works hard to pay the mortgage (you don't get housing benefit if you've got a mortgage) and the bills while I dick around at home, doing nothing except writing and applying for jobs that I won't ever get. There will come a time, quite soon, when I will do something -- anything -- rather than this.

But I am lucky to have that choice. I hear stories from others about how much worse it is if you're disabled, or claiming long-term sickness, and are facing the barrage of suspicion and contempt from those who think you're faking it, or putting it on. Compared to which, me being on Job Seekers Allowance is really a small, and hopefully temporary, inconvenience. But it's an inconvenience that a few more people are having to go through than before. And it's an inconvenience that seems a lot harder than it used to be.


Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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