What it’s like to be young and looking for work in Britain
Living on benefits, moving back in with mum and dad, enduring unpaid internships – job seekers tell their stories
Interviews by Patrick Kingsley, Leo Hickman and Emine Saner
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 1 November 2011 20.00 GMT
‚After rent I’ve only got £30 to live off after two weeks‘. Ria Shaquan Dwyer (right) and Taylah-Nicole Douglas. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
‚I have less and less belief the longer it goes on‘
James Lawson, 18, west London
I’m looking to become a trainee electrician, but it’s really hard to find anything. I ring companies, email them, anything, but, so far, I’ve had no luck.
I went on an IT course last year, but it didn’t really help me out like they said it would. I was quite disappointed. But earlier this year I passed a construction course with JTL [a training provider for the building and engineering sector].
Every morning, I spend time with Tomorrow’s People [an employment charity working with marginalised adults and young people] volunteering. I hope this will help my CV and show I’ve got a bit of experience. In the afternoons, I spend my time looking for trainee schemes or a part-time job. The response I normally get back from electrical companies is: „Sorry, but we’re not looking for an apprentice.“ Or they want some experience. But I can’t get any experience. It’s like a trap.
I don’t have any family to help me with my expenses. Tomorrow’s People help me with bus fares, but I live in a London Cyrenians hostel at the moment with other 16- to 19-year-olds in the same situation. Some have jobs, a few don’t seem bothered, but most are looking really hard. They just don’t have any confidence that they will find one.
Having experience is more important than having the right qualifications, it seems. But even though I would work for free with an electrician to get experience they can’t do this unless I’ve been through a trainee scheme first.
I just need a break to set up my future. I’m not sitting on my backside like some people think. I’m applying for a part-time job at Waitrose at the moment so I can hopefully show employers that I can work hard. My heart is set on being an electrician, but I can’t hold out for ever. Maybe I’ll give it another nine months. Once I turn 20, companies will be less likely to invest in me if I still can’t show I’ve got experience. I have to keep believing it will happen for me, but I find I have less and less belief the longer it goes on.
‚I don’t want to be on benefits for the rest of my life‘
Taylah-Nicole Douglas, 17, south London
I’ve been unemployed my whole life. I did one year at college, but I dropped out six months ago because I live on my own in a hostel, so I need to work. I wasn’t making any money at college, EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance] wasn’t enough, and things would have got a lot worse after it was cut. I was struggling, so I realised I had to find work.
The problem is, I can’t find any. I’ve only got three or four GCSEs. So I apply for a job, they say they’ll get back to me, and they almost never do. I’ve made 50 applications in six months, through Jobcentres, and on the internet. But I’ve only heard back from about five, saying: „Sorry, you haven’t been successful.“ I haven’t had any interviews. There was one for a chugging [street fundraising for charity] job, but it turned out it was on the other side of London, and so I would have spent more money on travel getting there and back than I would be earning.
I don’t think I have any friends who have a full-time job. This year, half of my class – seven or eight of us – dropped out of college. I think one person out of eight now works in Topshop part-time. The Jobcentre say there’s no jobs going. They say it’s better for me to stay on benefits for the moment. And that makes me feel like rubbish. I want to work. I would work if I had the chance to. I do a lot of writing, so, ideally, I’d like to do something media-based. I don’t want to be on benefits for the rest of my life.
‚After rent I’ve only got £30 to live off for two weeks‘
Ria Shaquan Dwyer, 17, south London
I started writing for a youth magazine called Live. I’ve also done some work experience on fashion shoots. But I really need more than just work experience – I need to be paid. I live alone in a hostel, which costs £55 every two weeks. I get benefits, but after I pay my rent, I’ve only got £30 to live off for two weeks.
I’ve never actually had a job. It’s hard because I don’t have any GCSEs. I’m going for anything, though. I’ve made uncountable applications – at least 200. But you never get an email, you never get a phonecall. It gets to the point where I think, I’m going to give up. But then I remember if I give up, I’m not actually going to get a job. So I keep on going.
Employers need to start taking on people who may not have the right qualifications, but can still do the job. Look at me: I can speak perfect English. I can read and write, but I didn’t go to school. And because I don’t have English and maths GCSEs, I’m labelled dumb. And actually, I’m not dumb.
‚We’re all desperate – so many people are after jobs‘
Alex Moore, 22, Lincoln
Since graduating from Leicester in June, I’ve made about five-10 job applications a week. I must have done about 100 by now. I’m going for everything, really. With my sociology degree, I’m interested in social research and care work, so I’ve obviously applied for that sort of job. But I’ve also gone for retail positions, and I’ve looked at being a teaching assistant. I’ve had four interviews. At the last one, there were 120 applicants for just 20 jobs. And that was to work behind a bar.
Everyone’s so desperate. Across every sector, there are just so many people applying for jobs. And in Lincoln, my local service has cut the bus service back, which makes it difficult for me to get into town for work.
The staff at the Jobcentre are always really friendly and helpful, but thanks to the cuts there’s fewer of them, and so they’re under a lot more pressure. Perhaps if they stopped cutting that kind of public service, the staff might be able to do a better job.
We also need to bring EMA back, so that more young people can go to college without financial burden. There should be job creation schemes that give people secure, properly paid jobs – rather than part-time ones . We need to re-open youth centres so that young people have places to go, and places to get support.
There’s too much negative stereotyping of unemployed young people. They say we’re lazy and slacking – and the constant barrage gets you down. I’m looking for work, and I’m getting constant rejections. My friends are all so downhearted because we can’t get a job even though we’ve got all these qualifications and experiences.
That’s why I’m currently marching from Jarrow to London. We’re making a point. We’re saying it’s not fair that young people, every time there’s a recession, have to pay for the crisis.
‚I’m moving back with my parents to help look after me‘
Lizzie Polack, 23, York
I have spent most of the summer applying for jobs, mainly in admin because I have experience in that, having worked for my university accommodation office. I did a biology degree, and then a diplomacy masters degree, and I would like to go into international relations, but those kind of jobs require internships which I can’t afford to do.
My idea was to do an admin job for a couple of years and save some cash, but the problem is when you apply for an admin job they all wonder why you’re not applying for a politics job.
If I got a job where there was career progression I can see myself doing it for an extended period but it’s just getting my foot on the block. At one interview, they said: ‚You’re obviously academic, why do you want this job?‘ It’s frustrating when they say they don’t think a job is good enough for you.
I’m moving back with my parents and they’re going to help with looking after me, but I don’t want to be a burden on them. I’m old enough to get a job and it’s pathetic that I can’t. I’ve never had any experience of working in a bar or restaurant but when I move out of home I’m going to try and get anything I can. It’s not what I was hoping for but any job is better than no job.
‚The last time I had a proper job was five years ago‘
Lydia Marmorstein, 24, north London
The last time I had a proper job was in June 2006, when I was a filing clerk for a chartered accountant. I suffer from chronic fatigue, so I only lasted a month before they fired me. My illness means I’m more tired than most people, and I’m in a lot of pain. As a result, I couldn’t work straight through the day, and I had to take a lot of breaks. And so they asked me to leave.
Since then, I’ve been focusing on recovery. I’ve volunteered in charity shops, and tried sending off my CV to 30 different employers — but I’ve only had around two interviews. I’ve also just started a part-time course at Birkbeck.
I noticed that many jobs don’t pay very much, but increasingly look for a lot in their employees. They might look for graduates, but not actually pay a graduate salary. They want people to be available all the time, to change shifts at short notice, and to come in at weekends and evenings. That’s a tall order at £6-£7 an hour.
I worry because while there’s all this unemployment, and it’s rising, they’re also trying to cut benefits. What are all these people, including me, going to live on if all these benefits keep going down? They’re already pretty low, and they’re already hard to live off.
‚There are 32 people after every job. How can I find work?‘
Rhys Harrison, 24, Pontypridd
I used to be a chef in America, but I came home to Pontypridd two years ago and haven’t found a job since. I’ve applied for about 200-220 jobs in Pontypridd, Cardiff, Merthyr, and the valleys in general — but there’s nothing happening. In Merthyr there are 32 people for every job, and in Cardiff there’s nine. I have a chef’s qualification, and a hygiene certificate that says I can safely work in any kitchen in Europe, but I’ve still had to broaden my search. I’m applying for supermarket work, cleaning – jobs that people with no qualifications can get. I’ve done some volunteer work with the Socialist party, and with my nan’s church, but that’s about it. I’ve had one or two interviews — but the last one was just to cut meat at a carvery. The most basic job in catering.
The people at the Jobcentre are on our side. But how can somebody find work when there’s 32 people for every job? We need to start paying the minimum wage to people doing work apprenticeships and vocational degrees. We need to start giving people more than just part-time jobs. We need to build more houses for people so that they can move out of their parents‘ place and start buying things for their new homes. That’ll contribute to the economy. But it seems the government would rather have young people stuck in their parents‘ house on 50 quid a week, or £6 a day, not doing anything.
I’m not an economist, but I think they should also lower the rates on special interest loans, and help people start their own businesses.
‚There are a lot of unpaid internships but it’s not feasible‘
Lisa Mitchell, 24, Newcastle
I graduated last year in politics. Because I’m involved with the Labour party and it was the leadership election, I volunteered for about three months on Ed Miliband’s campaign, then the contract on my house in London ran out and I moved back home to Newcastle.
I was in and out of work for the year, and was unemployed for about six months before working in a warehouse for a while and I’ve been looking for a job since the summer.
I started out applying for the kind of jobs I wanted to go into, like being a parliamentary assistant or working for charities. Then, when I heard nothing, I started to apply for anything. I’ve handed my CV into bars and restaurants. I’ve applied for admin and retail jobs, and Christmas temp work. I haven’t had any responses. It is frustrating because you never know where you stand. I have applied for around 100 jobs and I haven’t been for any interviews.
With the kind of career I want to go into, most of it is happening in London and the more you are out of that circle, the harder it is to get back in and you lose the experience and contacts you’ve built up.
There are a lot of unpaid internships but it’s just not feasible. Most are in London and even if there was one in Newcastle, I wouldn’t be able to afford to do it. I’m living at home with my mum and she hasn’t got much money so I need to support myself.
You get to the point where you get up every day and you’ve got nothing to do because you’ve got no money to go anywhere, and you sit in the house all day. You lose energy and drive, even though I’ve always been quite ambitious.
The job I want to go into is something I love to do, so I have to remember how it felt when I was actually doing it and know that it’s something I still might get to do again. But I just can’t do it right now while the economy is like it is.
‚The job-seeking system isn’t set up for graduates‘
Andy Crow, 24, Kendal
I used to project-manage around 10 Aids projects in sub-Saharan Africa, but I was made redundant last February. I signed on the day after I lost my job, and since then I’ve probably applied for around 50 jobs. I’ve never been picky about where I work. But I’ve had just two interviews, and I’m currently volunteering for my local MP.
I was last unemployed at the end of 2009, and since then it seems that the number of vacancies in the non-profit sector has fallen slightly. But the main problem is that the competition’s much more fierce. You’re looking at least 100 applicants for every position – particularly the middle-ranking positions I’m going for. And when you’re up against people with 10 years‘ experience, and you’ve only got four, it’s quite hard.
The job-seeking system isn’t really set up for graduates, or people with a lot of previous employment like me. All the training and support they have is fantastic if you’re 16 and haven’t many qualifications. But the jobs they point me towards – and I have to apply for them – often aren’t particularly suitable.
I’m in a much better position than many other people because I’ve been able to move back home to Kendal. It’s a bit weird. I haven’t lived here since 2005 and all my friends have moved away. I don’t know that many people here any more. But it could be worse. My rent is minimal.
‚To date, I have applied for 836 jobs‘
Tom McKay, 22, Northumberland
I started to apply for jobs in December 2009 when I was at university studying PR. I thought it would be sensible to apply for graduate trainee schemes via the Milkround and Prospects websites. But I soon got the sense that it wasn’t going well.
To date, I have applied for 836 jobs and I still haven’t got a permanent graduate job. I got a few interviews, but I’m finding it harder and harder now. There are just so many graduates around and now there’s a whole new crop who graduated this summer which has made the job hunt much harder.
I went for a part-time sales assistant job at a jeweller and there were 160 applicants. Nine people were chosen for interview, but I wasn’t one of them. I think some employers are now discriminating against graduates. As an experiment, I applied for a job at Clinton Cards. On one application I put down my degree and on another I didn’t. I was called for interview on the second one. They clearly want someone who is going to be permanent and not constantly be looking for a graduate position elsewhere. I know a few people now who are not mentioning they are graduates.
I work some weekend shifts at a local pub, but that’s it. I was starting to get quite depressed a few months ago as the interviews seem to be drying up – I was getting one or two a month last year — but I feel a bit better now that I have something to do. I would love to get an unpaid internship, but there’s just none around. I just take each week as it comes now. I’ve got two interviews next week – a beverage assistant at a hotel and a trainee croupier at a casino.
I’m living at home and my parents obviously hope that I get a job. I can’t afford a car, so I will take a bus to wherever it takes me and look in windows for jobs.