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Donald hoped the Work Programme would help him, but he soon became disillusioned. This is how he experienced the two-year mandatory programme.
Until recently I’d worked all my adult life, 29 years as a bus driver. If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d end up losing my home and my job, I wouldn’t have believed you. But following an accident and a heart attack (which meant I no longer had my driving licence), that’s exactly what happened.
At first, being unemployed seemed like a temporary state of affairs. But after just nine months, my advisor at the Jobcentre Plus office told me that I was being put on the Ingeus Work Programme. At the time, those words didn’t mean much to me; that was to change.
My advisor told me that I would have great career opportunities – an 80 per cent chance of employment. They sounded like great odds! At last: the help I needed. She opened a drawer and showed me a congratulations card. It could soon be mine, she said.
She also read me some of the fine print; the duration of the programme was two years and they were mandatory. An alarm bell sounded – but only distantly.
For this was the start of something. I was enthusiastic about the whole “life-changing experience”, as my advisor put it. At my first appointment I was given lots of encouragement: they would train me up, give me support, and help me with my people skills and everything else I needed to move on.
My first weeks were a shock to the system. Supposedly, I would be in employment within six months. But there was more stick here than carrot; it was made clear to me that if I missed any appointments without good reason, I would automatically be sanctioned.
Quickly, my enthusiasm turned to anxiety and despair. I felt like this was about hitting targets to get individuals of all ages into any employment, whatever their experience or attributes.
The sheer volume of people arriving in the building staggered me. They crowded into the brightly strip-lit room, some huddled on cheap plastic chairs with anxiety etched on their faces; others were forced to stand while they waited to see the advisors. Free tea or coffee from the vending machines didn’t really cut it.
The overall sense, from clients and advisors, was of being overwhelmed. Advisors sat elbow-to-elbow, discussing what were once private and confidential matters that could have a profound effect on people’s lives in an open office to be heard by all. What’s more, most of the advisors I saw did not seem understanding or empathetic.
My second advisor thought I should go for an interview at the Student Loans Company. At the interview, I was the oldest person there by decades. I passed all the practical and theory tests but I had no experience of call centres, and I didn’t want the three-month contract that was on offer: the time it would take me to get back on to benefits was not worth thinking about... We came to a mutual agreement that it was not the right job for me. I went back to give my advisor the less-than-good news. The congratulations card stayed in the drawer.
My reward for this was to be transferred to another advisor. She said that I had to come in to the office – fully suited and booted – for a series of mock interviews over the next three days in preparation for an interview for a security job at Glasgow airport. I protested again that I was unsuitable for this employment because of two convictions dating back to 1994. Her reply was that I would automatically sanction me for six months if I didn’t show up.
I believed her.
I came for the mock interviews, but I didn’t get the security job.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that after that I was then told to come for mandatory three-hour sessions of cold-calling every Monday. A dozen or so individuals were given a folder with endless lists of companies. We sat on banks of desks opposite other candidates making humiliating call after call. I spent plenty of time on similar tasks. Printing out 300 CVs at a time, handwriting addresses and stuffing them into envelopes to post out cold to lists of companies was another favourite.
I became more demoralised every time I went into the building. The very sight of it made my stomach turn over. After a year, I was told I had to go on placement for six months. I completed the placement but no paid work followed. On my last day, the Work Programme supervisor informed me that he was compiling a mandatory report on my development. I was not allowed to see it.
I have to say there were some benefits. I improved my computer skills. My CVs are now constantly updated and have a more professional layout. I was able to attend meditation sessions to help manage stress, something I still continue. I learned a lot from the mock interviews and could put it into practice when I had a real one. But sadly, I still had no job. Back to square one.
I became disillusioned in the following days, weeks, and months.
Then I came across flyers for volunteering. This appealed to me greatly. I started working with the Building Preservation Trust and am still there, helping out with admin, research and building tours. I’ve also been volunteering with the Pavement. It’s been great for my self-esteem and personal development. I have learned many skills – and without the stress. So here’s to volunteering. Maybe that’s the way ahead for me.
We contacted Ingeus for a response. Paul de Pellette, Ingeus director for Scotland, said: “We are really sorry that this person hasn’t had a positive experience of our programme. We always aim to deliver the best possible service and people’s feedback is extremely important to us.
"We regularly ask our clients what they think of our service and usually what they tell us is very positive, but if it isn’t we do our best to learn from it. We are extremely proud to have supported over 45,000 long-term unemployed people in Scotland into jobs since 2007. We do this based on every client’s individual needs and this usually includes a number of different kinds of support such as confidence building, sourcing vacancies, interview skills, as well as health and wellbeing support.”
A spokeswoman said everyone who wanted a private interview space was entitled to ask for one.