Yesterday morning I got a letter from social welfare.
I’ve been signing on for a little while. This summer, I had to give up my teaching job. I kept on losing my voice for days or weeks on end- something my doctor informatively called “recurrent laryngitis”, which I gather translates as “I kept losing my voice”. I’m not sure why it happened. The waiting lists for tests are months-long, and a few weeks of not speaking cleared things up. But I’m still not willing to go back to teaching and risk being unable to speak again. Time to move on to something new.
I’ve been more or less unemployed since then, aside from a column here and there. These things happen. Yes, it’s been a tough few months. But I have some ideas for where I’d like to go next. I think it’ll be okay.
Let’s get back to that letter yesterday morning. It was about a new apprenticeship program that’s being run to get people into IT jobs. I was invited to an information session and aptitude test this morning.
Let’s get something clear: I strongly support people on the live register having access to subsidised education and training. I think it’s essential. And from what I saw this morning, this apprenticeship program seems like a great idea.
But let’s get to this morning, shall we?
Since getting the letter yesterday morning, I had a day to prepare what I needed. The letter told us what time we needed to arrive at. It said nothing about how long we could expect to be there. Luckily for me, I don’t have any caring responsibilities or plans that I couldn’t push back. Imagine, though, if I was someone with kids to take care of? On €188/week, sourcing childcare on a day’s notice can’t be easy. Particularly when you have no idea how much of the day you’re going to need it for.
But for me, this wasn’t a problem. I live a half-hour’s cycle from the training centre, so this morning I pop on my bike. I’ve gotta say- it was a glorious morning. Perfect cycling weather. The air was chilled enough that I wasn’t overly warm. Cycling along tree-lined bike paths in crispy-clear autumn morning sunshine? Life doesn’t get much better than that.
Arriving at the training centre, the reception staff are friendly, and the man giving the information session was clear and helpful. Hearing about the programme, I’ve gotta say I’m impressed. For people interested in the area who mightn’t have had access to education? It seems awesome. I’ve a huge amount of time for practical truing that combines on-the-job experience and classroom learning. Especially if people get paid (not much, but definitely more than the dole) for their trouble.
After a 45 minute talk about the programme, the speaker invited people who were interested to fill out an application form and take an aptitude test, after which there would be one-on-one interviews where the prospective students would have a chance to find out more about the program, and the course.. facilitators?.. get to know if they’re suitable. He also said that anyone who wasn’t interested could leave now- no problem.
More than half the people in that room left. Including myself, by the way- before I went, I asked him if I could get information about other courses or programmes that they run that might be closer to my own interests or fit in better with my existing skills. He didn’t have any information on those- but did let me know that it’s all on their website.
I talked to a couple of people while I was there. As you do. One woman sitting next to me, and a man who I ended up walking next to. The woman? She’s got a masters in an IT field- I can’t quite remember where her exact area was. The man is a recently-qualified accountant who’s looking for work, naturally, in his field.
All of us got the letter yesterday. The man drove in from the next town over.
I don’t doubt that there were people in that room who’re going to get something great out of that course. I wish them the absolute best. But? All three of us- me and the other two people I talked to- were there for the same reason. We had gotten a letter from social welfare telling us to go somewhere, on 24 hours’ notice (assuming that we were at home yesterday morning to open the letter), and were afraid that if we didn’t go it could risk our payments.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that many of the other few dozen people who left when we did felt similarly.
I have no idea why our names were chosen for this. I don’t know how social welfare would choose these people for their apprenticeship: a teacher/freelance writer, an accountant, and someone who is already highly qualified in the area. Two people with radically different backgrounds and skills, and one who has already been educated to a far higher degree in the field than this course could offer.
I can tell you what it felt like to me, though. It feels like neither our time nor our backgrounds matter. I’m sure there were people in that room who did have to arrange babysitters on a day’s notice. I wonder how much that’ll cost? And at least one who had to drive in from a neighbouring town- I wonder how many had to pay out for buses from around the county? On €188/week, dropping almost €20 for a return ticket into Cork and a bus out to the training centre isn’t easy.
I’m sure that this system- send out a lot of letters, bring a bunch of people in, and work with those who stay- is efficient from the social welfare office’s perspective. For the rest of us, though? It’s nothing of the sort.
It didn’t matter to social welfare that at least half the people in the room were just there because they were worried about what would happen if they didn’t show up. It didn’t matter that they had put people out on a day’s notice. And it definitely didn’t seem to matter that a lack of qualifications isn’t the reason why many of us are out of a job right now.
I’ve said it before, but I want to say it again: I’m not grumbling because of an attempt to get people into work. Like I said, from what I’ve learned this morning it sounds like a great programme. And I’m not grumbling because of an idea that I’m somehow better than people who need this kind of thing. I’m under no illusions that a university education makes me better than anyone else. What I am annoyed about is this: that if you’re out of work, your time is seen as having no value. And that so many of us go along with these things because we’re afraid.
I’m annoyed, because talking about this means admitting where I’m at: I’m one of Those People. The ones you hear about mooching off the state instead of doing something useful with their time. I’m annoyed because of this fear I have that anything other than gratefulness is seen as entitlement– the worst thing for a millennial to show, right?
And I’m also annoyed because I hesitated before even writing this. Because I’m afraid, too. I worry that my life can be made more difficult if I criticise this kind of thing. A big part of me wants to just keep my head down, don’t make any waves, stick this out until I have an independent way of making my money again. This is just a small thing, after all.
But it feels like a small thing connected to much larger things: that your time and resources don’t matter if you’re unemployed- despite the fact that if you’re signing, you’re almost guaranteed to be living on very little. That people are afraid of losing that little that they’ve got. That despite the fact that we know that our unemployment rates aren’t the fault of the people on the dole, we still treat people this way. And oh, it feels connected to every other scheme I’ve heard of to get people off the register despite not having jobs they can support themselves with.
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