Jobseeker’s Diary #1 – Unemployed and Underwhelmed in Portsmouth

Funemployedor three long months I’ve tried to find a job in Portsmouth. For three long months I have failed to find a job in Portsmouth. I’ve lost count of the applications I’ve filled out, the CVs I’ve sent on spec and the places I’ve visited to casually enquire if they have any vacancies. Still I feel guilty. It’s only been three months, there are plenty of others out there who are worse off than me.

Like most other people, I’ve been unemployed before, but never has it felt more frustrating, more hopeless than it does right now. I’ve applied to be a play-worker, a teacher, an admin assistant, a data entry drone. Hell, I’ve even applied to work in Asda. Most of the applications I’ve produced have been met with stony silence or polite rejection. At best I’ve managed to get an interview, explaining to the soulless Human Remains Resources people why I’m desperate to be part of a winning team but how I can also work under my own initiative. Right now it is fair to say that I’m looking at my dignity in the rear-view mirror.

Last week I spent all day Thursday and Friday morning completing an application for a position teaching at a local college. The job was, in all honesty, pretty poor. It was only a few hours a week (certainly not enough to live on) and there was no mention of holiday pay or bountiful sickness entitlement. But it was something. The prospect of employment – any employment – pressed all those buttons that people out of work know only too well. Sure, it’s not the best job in the world but it is a start, a foot in the door. If I do a good job, or they expand their courses, or another teacher goes off sick then maybe they’ll offer me more hours. Yes, I thought, if only someone could become so stressed, so pained, so alienated by their work then I could get that job! All weekend I swotted up on old textbooks, preparing answers to questions I might face at a potential interview. I washed my interview costume. I ironed my shirt. I ironed. On Monday morning I received this email:

“Thank you for your application for the above post. However, due to unforeseen circumstances we are no longer recruiting into this position. I appreciate this may come as disappointing news, but would like to thank you for your interest in the post and also in working at our College.”

Not to put too fine a point on it – this sucks. There are already too few jobs available in Portsmouth without businesses, organisations and institutions advertising phantom positions. The last time I was unemployed I would buy a copy of the local paper. The News, on a Thursday and spend a couple of hours scouring the 16-page recruitment supplement. Now you are lucky if there are three pages advertising local jobs and all too often one of these pages is taken up with an advert for some recruitment agency. If you’re fortunate there will be a handful of possible job opportunities hidden amongst the “Work from home!” scams and promises of employment as a personal trainer (once you’ve paid the £200 training fees).

The upshot is that any genuine job opening is seized upon by scores, if not hundreds, of people. My application to work in the office of a local trade union branch was one of 50 they received in the first week it was advertised. A job for a part-time administrator role at an engineering firm in Havant attracted more than 120 applicants. More than 300 people – me included – applied for part-time seasonal work in the gift shop at the City museum.

Even the government know this, not that they would admit it of course. Years ago I remember Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, deny that there was a North/South divide in the country. His evidence? Portsmouth was as poor as any place in the north! Things are so bad locally that the ConDem coalition felt it necessary to create a Minister for Portsmouth to oversee regeneration and redevelopment, and initially appointed Michael Fallon, a hard-right member of the Tory party. Fallon spent next to no time in the city before, like a suicidal sailor press-ganged into service, he jumped ship at the first available opportunity.

Truth be told, Pompey is no different from any number of places across the UK, a victim of the vicissitudes of the market, changes in economic trends and the whims of politicians. For example the government’s austerity measures are actively destroying jobs in the public sector. Where one might once have expected the council or HMRC to be advertising a host of permanent and temporary posts we see instead early retirements, down-sizing and an emphasis on matrix management – whatever the fuck that is. The near thousand jobs at risk in the dockyard are being sacrificed at the altar of international competitiveness, never mind the fact that these skilled engineers could make buses or trains or wind turbines for renewable energy.

Other sectors also highlight the long-term problems of the local economy and the shrinking job ‘market’. At one time the computing giant IBM employed hundreds of people in Portsmouth before massive cutbacks and, while their UK headquarters remain at North Harbour, they continue to cut back. The result has been to leave low-level techs unemployed and the wannabe-upwardly-mobile software engineer types fighting over a diminishing number of insecure, temporary contracts. Similarly Zurich Insurance have been shedding jobs since they left Portsmouth in 2007. The huge glass building they once occupied still stands derelict and empty opposite the town station, providing a wealth of targets for anyone with a catapult or a good arm.

Given that neither IBM or Zurich have been replaced it should come as no surprise that the Hilton Hotel in Farlington, just across the strip of water that separates Portsea Island from the mainland, should announce that it is closing. The Hilton had always positioned itself as a conference centre for the well-heeled, although the only person I ever knew who stayed there was the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, Billy Hayes. Union bosses, eh? Although likely to be replaced by some god-forsaken budget hotel advertised by a comedian who wasn’t funny even in the 1980s, the fact that Hilton are pulling out of Portsmouth says a lot about the city.

I suppose that, in the interests of fairness if nothing else, I should say that there is one area where things don’t seem to be quite so bad. The local construction industry appears healthier than at any time since 2008, the point at which they were the most obvious, immediate casualties of the economic crisis. The space-age Hub has appeared across Winston Churchill Avenue and Ben Ainslie’s plans for a state of the art sailing centre now promises more building work in the next few years. Elsewhere the University has been single-handedly keeping brickies in business, spending millions of pounds worth of student fees on new buildings and renovations across the city.

But it’s a fleeting glimmer. While shiny new buildings may appear in some quarters most of us are shocked at the dilapidation we witness as we walk through the shopping areas in Portsmouth. Fawcett Road is second-hand heaven; North End little more than a strip of charity shops. Even Commercial Road – the main precinct in Portsmouth – is suffering. When Woolworths went bust Primark expanded to create the largest jumble sale in the city, HMV is gone, Toni & Guy likewise. Currys, Pizza Hut and the music store have all closed down. The huge unit once occupied by a Virgin Megastore is now home to a multi-storey Pound store.

Now I have no love for these shops – or any capitalist enterprise for that matter. But the fact that they have gone has a knock-on for all of us seeking a job, especially when you consider that 10% of people in the country are employed in the retail sector. The problem is not the individual stores or shops (no matter how shitty they may be) but the system into which they’re locked. Workers are picked up and discarded at will. Millions of us are looking for work without success; those lucky enough to get a job are paid awful wages and have no job security.

And here is a case in point. A couple of days ago it was announced that Phones 4U was to close. The company was in profit and seemed to be in a reasonably healthy position. Yet because of the desire of mobile phone manufacturers to make an ever-greater profit the company closed on Monday with barely 48 hours’ notice. Thousands of workers have been laid off in the process.

Whether we’re employed or unemployed it seems as though we are all playing some ridiculous game – and I’m certain that the game is rigged.

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