· 6 min read · Features

Unemployment: How is Jobcentre Plus coping with the rising numbers of unemployed people?


Job centres have long had a bad press. So how are they coping with the rising numbers of unemployed, who now include highly-skilled executives with great expectations?

When Times journalist Melanie Reid wrote about her director-level friend 'Gill', who had been made redundant, her ensuing tale of the 'humiliation, misunderstanding and Stalinist bureaucracy' she suffered at the hands of her local Jobcentre Plus (JCP) would have done little to improve the tarnished image of the network jobless people love to hate.

"The young woman who interviewed her was ignorant but condescending in manner and kept asking Gill why she was there," wrote Reid. "The official asked Gill what she used to earn and, unbelievably, repeated the figure to nearby colleagues, exclaiming: 'I've never had anyone in here with that salary.' Things went from humbling to comic," Reid continues. "Gill's circumstances did not fit any of the boxes on the official's computer screen. 'Tell me what your job was and I'll do a job search for you,' said the official. 'Operations director for a FTSE plc,' said Gill. 'It's not coming up with anything. What about area manager?' 'Yes,' sighed my friend, by this time a broken woman, 'area manager will do'."


Gill's story is a significant one. Official unemployment figures last month confirmed the UK's jobless total has broken the two million barrier. More and more of them are people like Gill - highly-skilled, highly-educated executives who have found themselves unemployed for the very first time.

But these new legions of Gills will enter job centres that are besieged as much by bad press as by lengthening dole queues. Already chided in 2005 by the House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee for 'catastrophic failures' and 'truly appalling' levels of service, they still have a lot to live up to. According to the Citizens Advice Bureau in 2007, 80% of bureaux said JCP services were worse now than before, while, on the BBC's Politics Show in February, MPs first began voicing fears that JCPs would be unable to cope with the predicted flood of new job-seekers, particularly the well-skilled. It is no stretch of the imagination to wonder whether, in this new recession, the JCP will be up to the task of working with HR directors to alleviate the situation.

Working with major employers

"This recession is clearly very different from anything that has come before," admits JCP's Martin Buxcey. "We're having to respond to change, but it's the speed of change that really is in force here." As the group's employee engagement manager, it is Buxcey's job to ensure the UK's largest employers give him advance notification of redundancies, and to inform them of jobs coming up that can be matched to the job-seeker population. To do this he has account managers working with HRDs in 100 of the UK's biggest companies, including Sainsbury's, Asda, Tesco, Whitbread, Royal Mail and Lloyds TSB. He also heads a Rapid Response Service that works with organisations' staff direct in times of mass redundancy.

Buy-in from the HR community is vital and Buxcey says he wants to spread the message that JCP is responding to allegations of poor service. Up until last autumn, the Government had for the past five years been pursuing a policy of closing one job centre a week, and some claim this has prevented the JCP network from being able to respond quickly to this recession. It has reacted by announcing 6,000 new frontline staff will be hired this year to work with the newly unemployed, and Buxcey is keen to explain what they will do.

"There is rising unemployment, but there are also vacancies out there," he says. "Part of our focus is at least making jobs visible by securing vacancies from employers and recruitment sites. More than 80% of the companies we account-manage use online recruitment as their first choice of recruitment, so our priority is about not just having staff on reception desks, but having them help people to access online recruitment and the Jobcentre Plus recruitment website."

Kiosks featuring the site now replace old-fashioned job cards, and Buxcey's main priority, he says, is to "ringfence upcoming jobs to make them exclusive to our job-hunter clients first". Some of these jobs are easier to claim than others - all NHS jobs, for instance, are listed first on the JCP website, but convincing HRDs they should give their jobs to JCP first rather than rival job boards such as Monster, will be an issue. "There is no automatic upload of jobs on, say, Monster to our site," says Buxcey, which he admits doesn't make the Jobcentre Plus job board a full, one-stop shop. "This is something we're looking at," he says. But could employers' unwillingness to give jobs exclusively to JCP be a sign they don't feel they get the right quality response?

"There is a mindset among employers that we don't always send the right people," he concedes. "Our response is that we need to provide people with the right attitude and, in an ideal world, we wouldn't send someone who we felt was borderline to an interview."

The JCP preference for online recruitment has meant that more, not fewer, candidates get passed to employers, but Buxcey says employers can't have it both ways. "We used to offer a sifting service, but now job-seekers apply direct. Employers told us they preferred to have a choice of people so they could see the range of talent; so we can't be blamed for a small number of unsuitable people getting through."

Defending JCP is something Buxcey is used to. "It's difficult not to feel frustration," he says wearily. 'But the staff who work here really do want to help people. Some criticism is hard to take. "

The bad press JCP has to endure has included everything from the operational - 21 million calls apparently went unanswered in 2005-6 - to the embarrassing. In 2007, for example, Llandudno's JCP was lambasted for allowing one company to advertise for £100-per-hour escorts, while last year an erotic internet site in Cardiff advertised for nude web-cam models. While the next crop of 'Gills' will probably not want this line of work (since 2003 JCP has had a duty to advertise any legal job it gets offered), Buxcey admits this very different set of people could stretch the centres' resources.

"They're a different customer base, and their expectations are also very different," he admits. "If a company is downsizing it's our job to work with administrators and with the company to work out what's happening, and to see if we can match people up with any jobs available. But it's definitely about how we can work in partnership with businesses and HR departments. The idea is to link organisations and JCPs together. The better relationships we have with employers will help this, and I have faith that our account manager service really helps. There are so many more skilled people entering the market, but what we and employers cannot do is let them drift into long-term unemployment."

Perhaps senior-level execs finding themselves unemployed have too many expectations about what will happen to them. Buxcey says most (65%) unemployed workers come off their Jobseekers Allowance within three months, because most find a job within six weeks. This, he adds, is why more detailed advisory and retraining services do not start until after that.

But another reason Buxcey may breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to dealing with the year ahead is because of this: most high-skilled people in the dole queue may actually end up doing what Gill eventually did - leverage her own networks to find work. While this may not be the greatest advert for what the JCP can do for the new breed of skilled jobless, it does at least fit with Buxcey's philosophy of letting the strongest "cope for themselves", leaving what he and his account manager teams do with HR departments for really helping those in need.

Read about the experience of one jobseeker in our Worker's Woes blog at http://communityhrmagazine.co.uk

- Latest Jobcentre Plus figures show 93.8% of case vacancies are filled in the timescale employers set for it

- More than 90% of calls that come into Jobcentre Plus contact centres are answered

- 62% of employers who advertised a vacancy with a Jobcentre Plus office said the job was eventually filled by someone who approached them via JCP


Jobcentre Plus still has a long way to go before it meets the needs of its users, according to these comments from a forum on the website, www.jobseekersadvice.com:

Samw6688 says "I actually think the job centre is useless. They don't help you find a job. I've signed on three times and go for my fourth tomorrow. All I do is sign a piece of paper and leave, with no help in finding a job... Has anyone else had this trouble?"

whizzwanaB replies "The job centre doesn't really want you to find jobs - they just love making themselves feel important by getting you to fill out their forms. Most of the people working in the job centre can't get jobs themselves. They only reason they work there is because their benefits would be stopped."

Gary1979 says "I went to sign on and used their stupid touch-screen things. I put a job search in for 10 miles around my area and what I got was Birmingham and Dundee, but I live 30 miles from the south coast. When I told a woman there, she said: 'Yeah, sometimes they do that.' I'm trying to start up on my own and they couldn't be more unhelpful if they tried."

Account managers working with HR professionals have been responsible for
helping thousands back into work. The organisations have hired the
numbers opposite direct from JCP in 2008
Royal Mail 3,825
Asda 3,082
Marks and Spencer 1,333
NHS England 732
Randstad 507
BUPA 324
John Lewis 307