Working for a Job agency – A First Hand Account

Where do I start?

A lot happened in 10 years.

I have a history of working in an industry that requires compassion as one of the essential requirements and so bring to my work a perspective based on that compassion.

Years ago in the first round of job network, I found myself unemployed and referred to a Job Network Member (JNM). A young lass 10 years my junior was assigned to me, who felt more than comfortable telling me what to do and how to do it despite my having more experience at job seeking. This experience was insulting, humiliating and embarrassing to the point where I thought I can do better than this…. much, much better. Please keep in mind that despite doing little else than commanding me to be compliant, the JNM expected me to inform them of when I gained employment so that they could receive their payment from the government…. for what? I certainly did not have any individualised or practical help that led directly to my job, my contract was not negotiated, and I was threatened with penalties.

Getting a job I did all on my own in spite of the JNM, certainly not as a result of their presence in my life. All I got from my JNM was what I call “the Attitude”, where every single client was frowned upon and treated like a second class citizen. We were talked down to, patronised, given platitudes and offers of help that never came, we weren’t treated as individuals, I rather felt like cattle being walked through to the slaughter house.

So, after a long, arduous and emotionally painful slog, I managed to gain a short contract as a case manager, where the JNM has one year to work with a client in helping them to secure employment. I was also studying to get my Workplace trainer and assessor – now TAE – at the same time. The contract was not renewed and I was very happy that it wasn’t. The people at the JNM were just as judgemental and critical of their client base as was the JNM I attended. I was constantly being remonstrated for trying to help everyone on my caseload and redirected to breaking up my caseload into 3 categories:

1. Those who would get a job without my help

2. Those who would get a job with my help and

3. The “unemployable”

I was instructed to:

Ignore group 1 and just keep tabs on them in order to make a claim,

Assist group 2 and keep tabs on them in order to make a claim, and

To ignore group 3 all together.

This assessment was all based on a 1 hour interview! Needless to say, I was shocked by the arrogance of it all and the rest.

I then found employment with another JNM as a Job Search Trainer (JST), where the JNM has only 3 weeks in which to assist clients to secure employment. The site was in the red and failing, my first group consisted of 2 people not the required 15. I received half a day of on the job training and then left to my own devices and very little to work with, just a proforma manual that was issued to the clients and no other resources whatsoever! The clients were sitting in the main area reading the daily newspapers and failing to look for work. The site was dead and dull with no energy or atmosphere. If anything, it was dark, depressing and heavy with despair. The JST was expected to run a full day on Fridays and sign up 15 individuals in-between all that; hardly conducive to providing a quality service to ones clients. So, I embarked on an overhaul introducing things like group sign ups, where the introduction to the service, explaining the contract and the expectations of the clients and the JNM were introduced over a 1 hour period to the whole group that included question time and then the opportunity to actually sit and discuss the contract at private and individualised sessions thereafter. I also offered my clients the option of signing the contract on the spot if they felt comfortable doing so as I felt that this too was being mindful of respecting their time and individual desires/needs. Prior to the Friday morning, I would call each client individually reminding them of their appointment with me (this was not being done). I did this not only to increase attendance but to minimise breaching which was mandatory on failure to attend. If my clients couldn’t make it I would explain to them that they had already signed a contract with Centrelink agreeing to participate and that they ran the risk of a breach. I would then instruct them on how to provide me with evidence for their file and re-arrange another appointment: rather than what was previously happening which was instant breaches for non-attendance. I wouldn’t just stress what was required of my clients, I would also tell them what was required of me and what formed part of my job description, by giving my clients this information, I was empowering them to avoid any penalties such as a breach of contract. In short, I did everything I legally could to assist them in making informed choices. I did also give them the choice to receive a breach, which surprisingly some of them actually chose, despite my efforts to encourage them to attend and avoid it. I did not limit my classes to JST, I invited our only case manager to refer their clients to my class as well. We had the spare seats available and it made no difference to my how many clients were referred as they would eventually go back to the case manager for follow up with the actual job search. I also invited my colleague who did job matching to do the same, basically any client who accessed the site was welcome.

Another change I introduced was stripping the newspapers of any content other than job adverts and the rest of the newspaper went to a local vet for pet litter. This needed to happen in order to stop clients from being distracted by the daily news, the lack of job seeking activity was adding to the depression associated with failing to find employment. Instead, I made myself present in the main room, sat at the same table with them and physically helped them with their job search. I rewrote many of the subjects so that they were easily digestible and to reproduce and assessed each client on competency, ensuring that they were walking away with a skill for the future, rather than someone writing their resume for them. I used workshopping not lecture style training and did a needs analysis before every single topic and modified training to each group each week (easy enough to do if you know your material). In doing this the clients wrote their own material (resumes, application letters etc.) and had much of the say in how they represented themselves to employers, they weren’t taught things they already knew. I was simply there to edit and advise. If I had a particularly diverse group, I would ask permission of the more advanced clients if I could buddy them up with those who needed a little more guidance. I introduced having access to tea and coffee just like many employees have at work and also introduced the 3 job limit. Centrelink contracts then stated that if a client was able to perform a job recommended for them, regardless of what it was, then they were obliged to attend an interview or face a breach. An extreme example would be someone with a doctorate being forced to attend an interview to sort recycling. One does not need to be an Einstein to see how that would end. So, I introduced a goal setting topic that encouraged my clients to choose either 3 diverse jobs in the same industry or the same job in 3 different industries. By returning the choice of employment back to them, I was returning power back to them, thereby increasing their motivation and hope for securing gainful employment. By providing a limit, their energies were not spread too thin, yet they could still play the numbers game to increase their chances of success.

Remember, I had none of this when I was a client myself, but I wish I had.

By the time I had settled into this second job, the main room was buzzing with energy and activity, we were achieving and often exceeding our 15 client target and we were getting outcomes that met the employers KPI’s and that were also directly in line with the desires of the individual client, thus resulting in job retention. There was laughter and camaraderie, there was support and activity, there was self paced and self motivated and above there was hope.

In all my time with this second company, only 2 clients wound up returning and they specifically said they wanted me personally to assist them. Every so often a group of clients would “reward” me for my efforts. One group even held a ceremony and gave me a certificate of achievement, which I still have and hold dear. We were a small team at this site and so it wasn’t too hard to influence my colleagues in treating the clients with dignity and respect. The outcomes we achieved as from something so simple as compassion, resulted in my bringing the site back into the black, we survived that tender round and were set to move on to the next round. My managers, however, could not see eye to eye with me. This too was a short lived contract of only one year. I did visit some time later, I can’t remember what for, and the site was back to the dark, depressing den of despair. That site closed down on the next tender round after mine, for failing to achieve the minimum 3 stars.

There was a third company but that job placement did not last long. Again management disagreed with how I perceived my clients, sadly I cannot repeat what I saw going on at that site as these activities would be best described as illegal and wroughting the system. I didn’t last long as I couldn’t be a part of that.

Then I went to Centrelink, 40 jobs were vacant and 3,500 people applied; I was one of the successful candidates. The staff were good to me and did not want me to leave, they even encouraged me to transfer to a more suitable department, but you cannot be compassionate and work at Centrelink and survive.

I DO believe that the majority of folk on unemployment benefits would rather be working; one must remember that I have, more than once, been one of those folk myself. Yet, working at Centrelink, I also did have dishonest customers who either did not need benefits and had worked out legal loopholes, or those who were simply working in the black and receiving benefits as well, with their employers as willing accomplices. This too was a one year stint, I found that in order to protect myself emotionally, I was becoming dispassionate and, yes, this was as a direct result of the dishonest clients. They were very good at fooling a bleeding heart like me. It was only after the mandatory financial investigations, that were a direct result of working in an office in an affluent part of town, that we discovered hidden or redistributed funds or people working in the black.  …and here I was thinking that these poor people were as desperate as they claimed to be. Of course I had genuine people who were needy present to me; but what I found astonishing was how many folk really were trying to manipulate the system. I mean really. Being a compassionate person I was able to develop trust. I had people volunteering what “naughty” things they were doing. I had to leave, I couldn’t cover for them, I personally would have been held legally liable if I did, yet how can one be compassionate to a customer who has millions when the next customer has zero? So, one becomes cold, hard and distant. Yet, I stress that this is a survival mechanism, staff at Centrelink don’t start out the way they end up.

You may have noticed a thread happening here. I just could not find a place in the Job Network, now Job Active system that lent itself to a compassionate individual who treated their clients with the dignity and respect that one would want for themselves. My approach was either not tolerated or abused. To say that I was starting to lose heart is an understatement. Yet, my own past personal experience was so intense that it spurred me on to continue.

My final destination before returning to – we’ll call it my compassionate work – was a very large JNM; I was with them for many years. Again, the site I started at had nothing, not even a client manual. I had to draw on my past experience and create a whole new department single handedly with no training. I did have support insofar as my first line manager was an understanding individual who had an open door policy, but other than that for the first year I was on my own. This was where I felt “the attitude” again, from the staff.

Now this is most probably something I should not say out loud, more so for the distress that it will cause, but… all I ever heard in the lunch room was staff disparaging their clients. Never once in all my years working in JN did I hear a positive thing said about a client. I was constantly astonished at how well staff had mastered the ability to find fault even when a person presented well. I would often speak up in defence of the clients. Sadly, this did not lead to any changes in attitude, rather, I was shunned, spurred, no longer tolerated and often the source of their bitching and gossiping. Luckily, we were in a large enough premises that I could effectively operate in isolation… and I did, for many years. Such was my belief that one can achieve better than expected results simply by being humane, that I stuck it out to prove a point. Not only had my own personal experience left an indelible memory, but it was the principle as well. The irony is that I was most likely the only staff member actually practising the code of conduct and respecting the clients rights.

Job Network then – I can’t speak for Job Active now – was a high turn over industry, I am guessing from the pressure placed upon its members to achieve targets. I can’t say that I ever felt that pressure, as I truly believe I had stumbled upon the recipe to success. All and any new staff were trained by me and lesson one was dignity and respect! Lesson two was walk a mile in their shoes. Every staff member I ever trained was asked have you ever sat in that chair? When they answered no, I informed them that I had and that my experience was so bad that I intended to do better. This usually worked at getting their attention. Sadly, you can’t fight the herd mentality. Once those individuals left my tutelage to progress with the company, I found that they folded and yielded to the toxic culture of disparagement. The pressure to conform, to fit in, to avoid being treated the way that I was is so intense that even those who know better or those with the best of intentions yield. Eventually, I gave up and returned to my previous career.

I did once again find myself unemployed, sadly we cannot predict how the wheel of fortune turns, and where once there was prosperity, all of a sudden there can be abject poverty. Again I was at the mercy of a JNM. When the manager looked at my resume, they remarked in astonishment that I could teach them a thing or two. Sadly, this individual did not tweak that it was only by the grace of God that they too did not find themselves in my shoes. I was forced, yes, with the threat of a breach to study Job searching techniques in hard copy and provide evidence that I had done so. I called the authorities to complain, they agreed with my complaint and yet failed to achieve a meaningful outcome for me. I received, no assistance whatsoever, and yet was constantly made to comply with time wasting activities that directly impacted negatively on my job search. What is it they say? The more things change the more they stay the same? Anyway, once again, via my own efforts and with no thanks to a JNM who couldn’t even achieve something as basic as getting a confirmation; I found my own employment single handedly.

The population on benefits is so diverse, that it is hard to tell the needy from the greedy, the honest from the dishonest, those able to represent themselves well and those unable to. Assets tests can be manipulated or a horrible mistake made. Working an illegal job without paying tax is made easy when employers are willing accomplices and yet under employment is on the rise as a result of bona fide employers restructuring to meet the needs of a changing job market. Being forced by  JNM’s to jump through hoops that one has been teaching for 10 years regardless of staff stating in astonishment, “you probably know more than me” so that they can meet their legal requirements whilst at the same time failing to provide meaningful assistance all speaks to a flawed and complicated system.

So… it isn’t perfect, it can be a nightmare to navigate through, it can be emotionally damaging and it can wreak financial hardship rather than assuaging it; but from one who has been on every single side of the system, I can say this.

I am so very grateful we at least have one.