So what is it really like to work at Sunderland Jobcentre Plus?

Job centre staff rarely fare well when they are portrayed on television or film.

Sunday, 20th October 2019, 8:00 am
Updated Thursday, 24th October 2019, 6:12 pm
A member of staff at Sunderland Jobcentre Plus talks to a customer.

From 1980s gritty BBC drama series Boys From the Blackstuff to Ken Loach’s acclaimed 2016 movie I, Daniel Blake, they are often depicted as cold-hearted and stoney-faced robots who are unable or unwilling to deviate from their hidden paymasters’ merciless script.

Employer advisor manager Steve McCall, speaking at Sunderland Jobcentre Plus, in the city centre’s John Street, paints a very different picture of today’s workforce.

“The joy that people here get from someone finding a job is immeasurable,” he says.

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Sunderland Job Centre Plus staff, from left, Jan Neve, Debbie Atkinson, Steve McCall, Julie Smith and Steven Martin.

“You want to be in the tea room when someone here has helped find a job for someone who has been out of work for a lengthy period of time. It is the only topic of conversation.”

Speaking to staff on a visit to the job centre, their conversation is peppered with the type of buzz phrases peculiar to any industry – and journalism is no different – such as “returnees”, “easements” and “elevator challenges”.

But what is clear in any language to this writer is just how passionate those same staff are about their work and finding Sunderland’s 9,017 current claimants suitable employment.

And yes, I, Daniel Blake, the harrowing tale of a North-East widower’s battle against the benefits system as he is pushed back towards work following illness, also gets a mention.

Job seeker Rebecca Thompson has praised staff at Sunderland's central Jobcentre for the help they have offered her.

Work coach manager Julie Smith says: “People can be terrified to come in because they see things like Daniel Blake. But we are here for them.

“We get them prepared for work. We do not send them for a job interview that they will fail. It is not fair on them and it is not fair on the employer.

“We live in the community. We want people to succeed and it gives us satisfaction to get people back into work.”

This preparation will include CV workshops, maths and English classes and dummy runs of aptitude tests set by particular companies.

Sector-based work academies organised with local employers also offer insights into what different occupations entail.

The “elevator challenge”, in case you are wondering, is part a new mentoring circle programme in which job seekers between the ages of 16-24 spend valuable time with employers and are given 30 seconds to explain to bosses why they should be taken on.

While that same age group are largely computer savvy, help is also offered for the older Daniel Blakes of the world who struggle with technology and the online requirements of applying for the new Universal Credit singular benefit payment.

Often, say staff, their work is about changing people’s perceptions of certain jobs in new industries and convincing claimants that they actually have the skills to succeed in them.

Contact or call centres and the dread of facing abuse through making “cold calls” are a case in point.

Work coach manager Debbie Atkinson said: “In contact centres the majority of people for work inbound services dealing with existing customers rather than outbound services.

“There is also a perception that contact centres do not want older people. That is not true.

“There might be returnees coming back from bringing up three children who have skills in finance from running a family and good time keeping from getting children to school. These are all acceptable skills for CVs.”

As an example, work coach Daniel Pinchen praises a woman in her 40s who succeeded in getting back into work after more than a decade caring for a poorly relative.

“She felt she did not have the skills or confidence and you have to build a picture of what they want and support them brick by brick,” he said.

“Some of her confidence came from attending workshops in maths and English and the IT came from negotiating her online Universal Credit account.

“It got to the point where she felt confident enough to attend a sector-based work academy and she is now working in the care sector.”

While face-to-face advice is still encouraged, Mr Pinchen’s role has evolved as technology has advanced.

Claimants can even now communicate with their personal work coaches via text message if they have family commitments or cannot afford to travel into town.

Among the satisfied job seekers the Sunderland office is helping at the moment is mum-of-one Rebecca Thompson, 34, who moved to the city for the first time from Conwy, North Wales, in July to be with her partner.

Rebecca, whose move north was also prompted by rising housing costs, said: “I have never been out of work in my life. Even when I was on maternity leave I went back quick. You have to as a single parent.

“So to go into a job centre for the first time was quite a daunting experience.

“My job, my home, my family life has all changed. When you have people are sympathetic to your situation, it is a massive help.

”For instance, as I've always been in work, I’ve never had to update my CV and that is one of the things they were helping me with now.”

That help also extends to everyday practical matters.

Rebecca, who was a psychiatric support worker for six years and previously worked in catering, said: “As I don’t know the area, they have also advised me about public transport and how easy or not it would be to get to certain places for work.”

Her updated CV will include the voluntary work she is undertaking with animals, another area of work she would be keen to undertake, and she adds: “As a parent, I need to support my child and get into a work quite quickly.”

While the North-East’s unemployment rate of 5.8% is higher than the 3.9% nationwide average, the job centre still has nearly 300 vacancies on offer with a similar number expected soon as online grocery giant Ocado prepares to open its city contact centre in December.

Jobcentre Plus is also beginning to advertise seasonal posts with Christmas approaching and Mr McCall adds: “Often you hear that these lead to something more permanent for people because employers do not want to lose good staff once they have got hold of them.”

Further details of existing vacancies within Sunderland are available at www.https://findajob.dwp.gov.uk/.