May 2009 – St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia
When Centrelink asked, ‘What can we do for you?’
I replied without hesitation, ‘Help me to get a heavy truck driver’s licence.’
Being able to drive heavy trucks would open employment prospects to a number of production departments which utilised heavy transporters and wouldn’t require previous experience. They refused.
When I signed my Activity Agreement for Job Club training with my current Job Support Network Provider, The Salvation Army, I was asked the same question by M, the support staff member. Coming off five solid months of contract work, with the tenuous cradle of a fresh network of film and television contacts in Melbourne, I repeated my request for assistance to obtain a truck driver’s licence.
M murmured discursively about needing the specific category of truck licence before she could make inquires.
‘Well it’s for the big trucks – the articulated kind.’ I responded.
Her uncomfortable silent enunciated a big loud inevitable ‘No’.
I also ask if the Job Support Network would pay $75 for the Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) racket… ahem, I mean training and certificate. It is required in Australia for persons to legally sell or serve alcohol. I told her how I had just trialled at a Acland Cellars for a bottle shop attendant position two days previously. Hospitality and bar work had been my survival occupation through university and formative years scrounging together an Orwellian existence in the UK. I explained that if I did get the job and was asked to start straight away I wouldn’t be able to and it could affect my chances. M said she’ll look into it in a dismissive tone then stressed Job Club training was the priority right now.
It’s now the last two days of the two week Job Club training program. As we complete the last two modules on covering letters and résumés now more than ever the weaknesses and flaws of the course become evident. And it is a shame to see the revised Job Club training program falls apart since I always felt the self-reflective and motivational elements of the course valuable and rewarding.
Paramount to the last two modules and job seeking in general is the ability to write articulate and concise cover letters and résumés specific to individual job applications. But Job Club training assumes as a model for its classes that every participant can write effectively. It doesn’t help or teach people to write because it can’t – it doesn’t have the time or resources. It only explains the necessary and desirable elements required for a successful job application. Not everyone is eligible for Job Club training and the criteria are unclear to me.
Q, a Chinese man who appeared in our class one morning could neither read nor write English, and his pronunciation was barely comprehendible. But then again he got a job in two days and left.
J, our supervisor, has an unenviable and difficult task. And she cannot help those participants who have rudimentary literacy and computer skills.
I finally complete the class work phase of Job Club training. I opt to work unsupervised for the last week and am required to log 44 hours of further job search and training to complete the compulsory three-week course.
In many ways I believe the Government run job search and training programs in the late nineties was better. Resources may not have been as high but they accurately corresponded to attendance numbers. The training courses were more cohesive because a class was established and everyone attending started at the same time.
It is unclear to me whether today the outsourced Job Support Network Provider centres are controlled by the pressures and whims of monthly quotas to maintain their government contract. I was lucky enough to commence my recent Job Club training at the start of a new class. But there didn’t seem to be any strong succession of course development or defined structure linking class to class. It is a fluid program consisting of 15 independent modules, which demand an ordered progression. It seems training courses 12 years later are designed for staggered and flexible attendance. I started with three other people, but each day saw a handful of new faces with some people starting and others returning after periods of casual work.
With world finances plunged into a global crisis, catch phrases come thick and fast. Rudd’s uncompromising ‘Earn or Learn’ policy sounds right out of a Hollowmen brainstorming session. I imagine the seminal remark when first uttered infecting a table of suits with smug, satisfied smiles. Such words of intention are dangerous because through repetition and implication, they hypnotised people to believe they are action themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with Rudd’s ‘no tolerance’ concept and I doubt too many disagree. But it’s simply stating the obvious and nowhere in the press have I seen journalists explain the rhetoric and make me believe it is something new.
I’m not campaigning against mandatory activities. And I don’t want to sound ungrateful, or belligerent to the benefits system. I’ve travelled extensively around the globe, through poor nations and spending prolonged periods in subsistence communities. I am blessed to be born and living in a nation that actually has a Job Support Network and allowance to help the unemployed and disadvantaged. But nowhere beyond benevolent-warrior social workers, charity spokespeople, and alternative media does anyone seem to challenge how ludicrous the pervasive idea of the insouciant dole blugger infesting our benefits system is, especially given the unsupportive low rate of the Newstart allowance.
In contrast to the resplendent weather three weeks ago Melbourne is expressing its signature desultory mood as I walk the two kilometres for my final appointment of job training. I have logged in excess of the required 44 hours in the last week – four hours over the current full-time national average.
My supervisor J. gave the class a list of how to make up the hours. To complete the hours I had to draft a revised cover letter, improve my curriculum vitae using the new template of rotating the most pertinent of twenty Verified Selling Points (VSPs) to correspond with the majority of my job applications, answer seven FAQ’s from a list of typical interview questions, and finally a combination of job search, networking and research.
We could also make up the hours by completing self guidance modules, which obstensibly replicated work already done in class and may sound redundant – but shit, sometimes there’s a natural limit to the amount of effective job search you can do each and every day.
So I take to the meeting my portfolio of completed work, including six self guidance modules which are merited with a value of two hours. I also have a worksheet of total hours log, which additionally shows over four hours of internet research, and 3 significant networking meeting that took up approximately one and a half hours each. However M, the support staff member assigned to me just left on holiday to America – good for her, she deserves it.
Sat in her place is C, a plastic young thing with distracting fake eye lashes and name born of the suburbs. Immediately, I feel frustrated and confused because it feels suddenly like the rules have all changed. They don’t make any sense and C, who fails to explain them adequately keeps repeating, ‘I just explained that!’
She greets my chagrin with obstinate and intolerance and the meeting soon becomes heated and farcical. She attributes minimal hours to each of my completed tasks and appoints a total well below what I had logged and the required 44 hour minimum. And each time I protest that it meets J’s criteria she snaps, ‘One hour – that’s it.’
Just like Centrelink’s job diaries, where I must list ten employers that I have submitted job applications to, C wants to keep all my work because of course it’s only useful to me. I say I need it so she says she will at least keep the front pages of each module I completed, and viciously rips each cover page off displaying only the module title, my name and date as proof. Proof of what I wonder.
In the face of bureaucracy unemployed people are armed with very little except to be facetious. It’s childish I know, but when she demands proof of my research and network meetings I apologise that I didn’t videotape myself.
Now she’s angrier than me.
‘Where’s their business cards?’ she hollers.
‘They don’t need business cards. It’s the media. They drink Sancerre over lunch – I have their names and numbers. You can call them up.’
I’m offering proof, but she wants cardboard and apparently she can’t call them up because then she wouldn’t be doing her job. I start to realise this is no longer about proof or trust – this is a game where paper, any paper can have meaning; web page print outs, cover letters groomed for specific positions, and now she wants HR manger phone numbers and names.
I’ve worked harder than I have in any other week on the dole and suddenly feel I’m suffocating badly in bureaucracy like Robert De Niro in Brazil. To make sure there’s no more misunderstanding I was told three and a half pages equals ten hours so I return the following week to log the additional final hours to complete job training.
I want to ask if there are any developments for a trucks licence and RSA certificate training because I’ve heard nothing more since I signed my Activity Agreement. But she makes sure there’s no confusion to the end of the meeting.
‘This meeting’s OvA,’ she barks and turns back to her computer and starts typing like I’ve already left.
I meet two of the girls on my course outside sharing a ciggie who bonded like sisters. They say they both got accepted to do their Cert IV training – a $1500 course paid for by the government.
I would have applied for that course. It was mentioned in our class, but when I investigated the details I realised it was a budget version of Cert IV training that took three months to complete because they only hosted one class a week. Through my networking efforts I had already been offered a short-term contract back in Manchester that started in six weeks – and so that’s what I decided to do because I wanted to work.
My reservation towards ‘no tolerance’ policies and broad training schemes isn’t in their intention or design. It’s the reality that bureaucracy tends to be the bigger, stronger brother that overshadows effectiveness and progress. And it can fail to meet the specific needs of certain industries of unemployment. So has much changed in the last twelve years on unemployment services? Not really – but don’t tell Rudd because he’s on a roll, trying to get the alcopops off the kids by taxing the fuck out of them and encouraging the youth onto hard liquor.
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