UK unemployment
Image: © Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images

We spoke to a statistician, a Job Centre worker, and an unemployed person about the latest UK unemployment figures

Unemployment, or the figure used to show how many people are out of work and actively looking, is down, the government’s official number guys (the Office for National Statistics) said.

In the three months leading up to February there were 1.56 million unemployed people in the UK, that’s 45,000 fewer than for September to November 2016 and 141,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

UK Employment rate (people aged 16 to 64), seasonally adjusted
ONS chart showing the number of people in employment in the UK

Job vacancies in the UK are also at a record high, Richard Clegg, one of those number guys (OK, statistician) told us. The number of people in full time work rather than part time work is also up. All this is good news, he said, and adds up to what he’d say is a “strong” jobs market in the UK.

But does this match up to people’s actual experiences? We decided to get our heads out of the numbers to find out a bit more about people’s experience of unemployment – the ones who go through it, and the ones who work on trying to get people out of it.

The Job Centre

Hackney Job Centre
Job Centres are a pretty common feature of any UK high street

If you’re based in the UK, you’ll have seen a Job Centre – they’re basically the shop front for the UK government’s work on unemployment, unimposing-looking high street stores with bright green signs. They help unemployed people find work by lining up interviews and helping people prepare for them, but they’re also responsible for administering unemployment benefits – or the welfare payment the government gives to people who need extra help while they’re looking for work.

To try and get a bit more insight into what the unemployment situation in the UK is, the Job Centre seemed like a good place to start. We spent an afternoon this week lurking creepily outside one on the corner of a high street near the Economy office and watched people from all walks of life go in and out – mothers with buggies, young guys, older women. One woman was only there to drop a form off, a couple of people were just there to use the Wifi. Most people didn’t want to talk to us – “it’s all a bit much at the moment,” one said, “today’s not a good day” – which seems perfectly understandable.

The way Job Centres administer government benefits has come up against a lot of criticism, the recent film 'I Daniel Blake' was about a disabled guy who got tied up in the Job Centre system and lost his disability benefit. It was used as pretty damning example of how cuts to the UK welfare system are affecting people’s lives. A few years ago there was also a wave of former Job Centre employees ‘speaking out’ against a culture of “cruelty” over cutting peoples’ benefits payments – one wrote a play about her experiences.


I know I can’t do anything with computers. I hate computers

After the ONS released its figures, we spoke to one Job Centre worker – a guy called Nigel Coleman – in Yorkshire in the North of England, to get a better picture of unemployment in his region, and he was also pretty positive.

His job is to manage and build relationships with employers in his region to “help get people back into the labour market”. Basically trying to work with local employers to ensure jobs go to unemployed people.

The people behind the numbers

People behind the numbers

He says that there are signs that the ONS guys are right, the labour market is “strong”, and employers are feeling pretty confident about their ability to take on new people. In his region in particular, he says, there have been 6,000 new jobs created by just three major employers.

If you take the 'claimant count' in the ONS figures – the data that shows people claiming benefits and currently looking for work (so it’s not skewed by people who can’t look for work) – his region has seen a dramatic fall.

“Let’s pick Barnsley," he says (a town in Yorkshire), “There’s 120 fewer claimants than this time last year.”

That means 120 less people coming through the door of the Job Centre.

“When we look at that figure compared to five years ago, there’s 4,000 less people, and that’s mirrored across the UK.”


It’s a series of small steps to get people closer and closer to employment

But what about the people who are still going through the door of the Job Centre? We spoke to Michael – he’s 30, (even though we probably thought he was 20, he said). Michael’s been out of work for three weeks, and for him the job market feels pretty tough.

He had been working as a laborer, but the agencies he was using to find work had stopped phoning him back. This was his first time at the Job Centre, and he said he was hopeful they’d be able to find him work.

“My English isn’t too good, but I’m hoping to find part time work as a mechanic. I was a metalworker in Italy. I just know I can’t do anything to do with computers. I hate computers.”

The biggest challenge, Coleman says, is to make sure the people looking for jobs have the right skills for the jobs available – a high-skill manufacturing employer offering hundreds of jobs in a local area isn’t going to be able to help if the people in the area don’t have the training and skills to do those jobs.

The point is, he said, when we put Michael’s case to him, it all comes down to the individual. “If there are language barriers, things may be more difficult, then you have to make sure their qualifications are valid or translate into a UK recognized qualification.”

“There are going to be some people that come into the Job Centre and bounce straight out the door because they’re so employable there’s a lot of options open to them.

“That’s a nice easy one,” he says. “But then the other extreme is that they could have mental health issues, drug or alcohol issues. They could have personal hygiene issues or not be presentable. All that means there’s more work to do to get them to a stage where they will be comfortable in front of an employer. ”

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