How the EU got me a job when the UK was trying to keep me unemployed
I recently voted for the UK to remain a member of the UK. My main motivators were the protections given to us by the European Social Chapter and the European Convention on Human Rights, along with feelings that, as a country with a strong economy, we have a social duty to help other countries to pull themselves up, and the best way to do that is inside the EU.
There is another reason why I’m so convinced that the EU is worthwhile to be in. Many years ago, way back when I was fresh out of university, I was struggling to get a job. I was applying for everything that I had the skills for (and a lot of stuff that I didn’t), and anything that didn’t require any skills at all. In order to not completely drain my savings, I was signed on to receive unemployment benefit at the Job Centre, who was no help at all. They had strict rules about always being at appointments on time, which is fair enough, but never actually saw me at my allotted time. I was always left waiting around, wasting time that could otherwise have been spent learning new skills. They insisted that I go on an “employability” course, which didn’t teach me anything new, and kept me waiting for an hour to have my CVs looked over by an expert who took 10 minutes to glance at them and say that I was doing everything I should be doing. My problem with finding work was that the job market, at the time, was over-saturated. Every job that I applied for had other candidates with the same or better skills, and some of them would have experience. Without experience I was at the back of a very long queue for a job, and without a job I wasn’t able to get experience.
After a couple of months of turning up at the Job Centre twice a month, plus uncountable time in between applying for jobs and attempting to learn new skills, I was still getting no-where. It was time, I decided, to take matters into my own hands. 30 minutes of Googling, a phone call, and a short meeting later, I had found a commercial web development company in the local area who was willing to let me do two weeks of unpaid work experience with them. The first day went really well, and the next morning I went off for my fortnightly Job Centre appointment, pleased at punch about the positive steps that I had taken towards improving my chances of getting a job. My advisor would be thrilled, I was sure, that now I would have experience to put on my CV, I would be able to demonstrate to employers that I could take initiative in a difficult situation, and, best of all, that I would have a solid reference at the end of it. This couldn’t go wrong at all.
After a few minutes of talking to my advisor explaining the situation, I was directed to another member of staff who I hadn’t dealt with before. I can’t remember the exact conversation, but what it came down to was this: even though I wasn’t getting paid for the position, it was still “work”, and it was still more that 16 hours a week (the magical threshold beyond which you no longer qualify for unemployment benefit). I must, I was told, contact my “employer” immediately and tell them that I could no longer work for them. If I wanted unpaid work experience, it must be set up by the Job Centre with one of the organisations that they work with to provide work experience. At the time, as both me and this employee knew well, the Job Centre could only provide volunteering positions as workers in charity shops. That is, without exaggeration, the entire extent of the work experience that they could have provided me. Certainly not the experience of demonstrating my skills at a competitive web development agency, and nothing that I didn’t already have experience in from my stint as a cashier during uni.
I asked what would happen if I didn’t comply with their instruction to cease and desist my attempts at improving my chances of finding a job in a crowded market (in fewer words, naturally), and was told that I would still have to sign-on at the Job Centre every two weeks, but that I wouldn’t be getting benefits. The decision was a no-brainer for me. As I mentioned above, I had some savings put aside and I was more than happy to dip into them to the tune of the £100 that I would have otherwise received from the Government. I wasn’t about the let go of the best opportunity I’d had in months just to appease a mountain of ridiculous red tape. I received the time and date of my next appointment and went back to work. Two weeks later I attended the appointment with the news that I would no longer need their services. I had impressed my gracious work experience employer so much that they offered me some temporary work for £300 a week. In the space of three weeks I had achieved what had been impossible over the past three months. I have never forgotten how incredibly lucky I was to have been able to take that opportunity. I am well aware that the majority of people signing-on couldn’t have afforded to loose out on their much-needed benefits for two weeks, and it angers me when I think of how many people might still be stuck in a hopeless system that actively attempts to destroy genuine attempts at becoming a productive member of society.
So that’s the story of how the UK Government tried to keep me unemployed, now for part two: how the EU got me a job. This part is really much simpler. There is a company called Unlocking Potential. Back when I first encountered them, they were Unlocking Cornish Potential and their premise was simple. They would raise funding, which would be match-funded by the EU, and that money would be spent supporting Cornish businesses through opening up a range of expertise and advise to owners of small businesses. They would also offer funding to help said business owners to employ graduates. As luck would have it, I was a graduate and the employer that I talked about above was the owner as a small business, and a few months after starting temporary work I found myself with a well-paying, full-time, permanent, job. Unlocking Potential wouldn’t have been able to exist without the EU match funding, and dozens (quite literally) of companies wouldn’t have been able to expand in the way that they have. There would have been fewer graduates in employment, and the local economy would certainly have taken a slight hit.
That’s the story of how I got where I am today (pretty much), but now I want to speak about where I am now. In 2010, the UK started to be lead by a political party that I didn’t want and who didn’t win a majority at the polls (306 / 650 seats). That’s fine, it all happened democratically and I can accept it. Five years later, in 2015, the same party was voted in again, this time with a narrow majority (331 / 650 seats) and barely more votes than the previous election. This was still democracy (probably… we’re still to see if they were in breach of election funding rules in the case of up to 29 candidates), and I still accept it, but I started to get very disillusioned. The government who had taken a recovering economy, introduced crippling austerity, caused a double recession, and still failed to meet all of their financial targets, was voted back in on the promise of “we’ll do better next time, honest”, and that immigration would be capped. Well, they didn’t do better, they still won’t meet their targets, and immigration wasn’t capped. The immigration figures in particular were then used against the Government when it came time to hold a Referendum on whether to stay in the EU, or leave it. Almost half of the immigration figures were from outside the EU, which could have been controlled and weren’t. If you add into that the fact that other countries inside the EU have much stricter laws regarding immigration. Spain, in particular, has work permits, residency permits, and rules about how long you need to work in Spain before being eligible for the benefits system. We could have imposed measures like these too, if it was really the desire of the Government to control migration. I have a suspicion that immigration was nothing more than a political tool used to secure another 5 years, and nothing was ever actually planned to be done about it. This would make sense, because EU migrants actually contributed more to our economy than they took out of our social systems.
The net result is that my country voted to leave the European Union a few days ago, and this is the third vote in the past 6 years that seems to have been won by people with completely different priorities to me. I have very little social reach to spread my viewpoints, my vote seeming means nothing, and I can’t see any way to change things in the future. I’ve started to ask myself if I really want to live in a country where democracy leads to decisions that I cannot accept as being the correct course of action for a wealthy country in 2016. Democracy hasn’t failed, it’s just not creating a place that I want to call home.
This has been a much longer opinion piece than I usually write, and I’ve made an extra attempt to actually provide sources for the information behind my opinions. Realistically, I know that I haven’t said anything here that hasn’t been said before. I know that very few people will read this, and those that don’t already agree with me won’t be swayed by it. That’s fine by me, I never want to catch myself telling people what to think. If I ever try to do that, you have permission to slap some sense into me. I guess the only thing I really want to achieve by writing all of this is to get some thoughts out of my head so I can start moving forward again. If you have any comments, or find anything that I’ve gotten wrong, get in touch. I’m always up for a rant or a debate, whichever is appropriate.