Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Middle Aged Woman Seeks Employment

Having failed to secure an interview for a job I would have been really interested in, I'm back to scouring the job ads.

I've been out of the workplace for four years now. My voluntary severance in 2009 coincided with M's transition to high school, something we knew was going to be hard for her, so my being at home for a year was actually really useful. It was never my intention to become a full-time carer; that just happened as her needs became greater and her ability to cope with education diminished. That one year turned into two, three......

Now, though, we are a no-income family, eking out the OH's redundancy pay and permanently at the mercy of IDS, the Witchfinder General of the Coalition, and his latest bout of cruelty. One of us has to find work pretty soon, and the other will have to carry on in the carer role. So far, I've been looking at jobs that I know I can do, in fields where I think my strengths lie - school admin, and public/third sector.

I'm not being greedy or unrealistic. I appreciate that in today's jobs market, my absence from the workplace, together with my advancing years (!), mean I shouldn't expect to go back in at the level I'd reached after 20 years, so I've been looking at jobs I think I have a realistic chance of getting. 

I've had a couple of interviews, both of which have been fairly positive, but worryingly the feedback suggests that I am possibly overqualified/experienced - one comment was "You have a great deal of relevant experience, but much of it at the corporate level." In other words, "You were a manager. Why on earth are you applying for jobs on half your previous salary?". 

What's a woman to do? One politician tells you that you're a Job Snob for not accepting a minimum wage job  you could have done with your eyes shut when you were 18, while another simultaneously tells you that your problem is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit and ambition.

Well, I'm not 'entrepreneurial'. An entrepreneur is that exceptional person with an original idea and the the ability/confidence to risk all to bring it to fruition so we cannot, by definition, all be entrepreneurs. Even if I had an idea for a business/product, try building a business when you're caring for an autistic teenager. To enable her to have the independence she wants in adult life, we have to hover permanently in the background, supporting, advocating, protecting (from a distance). Just about the poorest business model I can think of for a new venture.

What I was, and could be again, was a diligent and conscientious worker; not wildly ambitious (at least not in terms of salary), but happy to do a good job for a decent employer. That seems to be out of fashion, though, especially the 'decent employer' bit. I'd be a great PA - I'm organised, can act on my own initiative, am personable and approachable. I have lots of transferable skills and can turn my hand to most things.

What I can't do, though, because of my particular home circumstances, is devote my every living breath to my employer and sacrifice the needs of my family to my job, which appears to be the subtext to most person specs which specify "flexibility." Regular routine is important to M's wellbeing, which means not having to work odd shifts, weekends, etc, at short notice. My previous career with a local authority allowed for this. A 35 hour week, without overtime or weekend working, with reasonable pay and annual leave entitlement. True, I could probably have earned more in the private sector, but I was happy to settle for less in return for the routine. 

So, it's going to be a challenge. Discrimination legislation notwithstanding, I know my age is against me (although annoyingly, the older I get the further away successive governments move the retirement goalposts). There are plenty of bright young graduates with seemingly worthless degrees fighting for the same jobs, and it feels unfair to be denying them a future when I've already had one crack at the career whip. The saddest thing to come to terms with is that I have peaked - I'm unlikely ever to reach the same salary or position that I worked so hard to achieve in my first 20 years of work. Social mobility has gone rapidly into reverse.

So, if anyone is looking for a diligent, if disillusioned, new employee I'll happily provide you with a CV. Maybe I should take out an ad....?

Educated and articulate woman seeks meaningful employment. Over 20 years' varied experience in public administration, but no experience at all in flogging stuff no-one wants or needs over the phone. Hard worker, but resistant to exploitation, and with challenging home circumstances which may result in regular physical and mental exhaustion.  Used to dealing with challenging situations, so unlikely to be fazed by some 19 year old 'Area Manager' who feels like throwing his weight around. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Youth is Wasted on the Young.... so the Tories are Abolishing It.

In a speech that was otherwise so stultifyingly dull that the twittersphere ran out of synonyms for "piss-poor" after 15 minutes, David Cameron offered his vision of a "land of opportunity" to the young of Great Britain:

'Housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance will be denied to people under the age of 25 if the Tories win the next general election as part of a "bold" move to prepare school-leavers for a tougher economic world, David Cameron has said.' 
Guardian - http://bit.ly/16hv56z

'A Conservative source has told the BBC the manifesto will definitely contain a commitment to end the automatic entitlement to housing benefit for the under-25s, as suggested previously by Mr Cameron.'
BBC - http://bbc.in/16hvHJA

'Under-25s would not be able to claim benefits under all-Conservative government, David Cameron says.'
Telegraph - http://bit.ly/1buZUp3

(H/T to the 'Nobody Likes A Tory' Facebook Page for pulling out the salient points)  

I don't know about you, but to me this doesn't scream "Land of Opportunity"

Get a job, work hard; be made redundant at 23 and be denied any financial help (even though you'll have been paying tax/national insurance).

Work hard at school, pass your exams, go to university; then be unable to move in order to take a job because you won't be eligible for help with any housing costs, even if those jobs are in expensive housing areas.

Oh, and if you HAVE worked hard and passed your exams and gone to university you will, of course, have been saddled with a lifetime's debt before you even start to look for a roof over your head.

And if your parents live in social housing, they'll probably have been evicted from the home in which they actually had a room for you, courtesy of the Bedroom Tax

And god forbid you're unfortunate enough to NOT have a loving and supportive family who are prepared to stick with you through thick and thin; or you have an abusive parent who resents you being a drain on already stretched household finances. You're stuck with 'em, whether it's safe or not. 

You'll note that the financial responsibility for the nation's young adults will now fall on their parents - since we're clearly infantilising the next generation, I'm eagerly awaiting the extension of Child Benefit to all children from 0-25.

Conservatives hate the Nanny State, apparently, but seem happy to inhibit the life chances of anyone not born to privilege, and dictate how adults should live their lives well into their twenties.

Of course, it's the usual  back-of-fag-packet policy making which doesn't bear any examination before its obvious flaws emerge, but that doesn't mean they won't press ahead with it if elected in 2015. 

To any young person who says "I won't bother to vote; I don't understand it/they're all the same/politics is boring", etc. THIS is what is being planned for you by the Conservative Party. No matter how disillusioned you are with mainstream politics, it is vital that you vote - it's a crappy system, but the only one we have. Direct Action is great, but doesn't actually gain seats in parliament and whatever the SWP tell you, there will not be a socialist utopia by next Tuesday, no matter how many copies of Socialist Worker you buy, so it's really a question of 'get out and vote.' 

I strongly suggest you vote in 2015. And not for these scum-sucking excuses for human beings.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Failing to Learn From History.....

All the whispering about the new Universal Credit software system leaves me with a distinct sense of deja vu. The same warnings about government IT projects not having a good track record, the insistence from on high that things are "on time and on target," the same assumption that melding several disparate IT systems into one seamless entity is a fairly simple task.

Back in the early days of the Labour government, the piloting of the new Education Maintenance Allowance was carried out by a number of local authorities, using a range of assessment and delivery methods, including vouchers, bus passes, etc and a cash payment system. My local authority opted for the latter and developed software which utilised a system which is widely used in schools to create an integrated assessment and payment module. 

A couple of years later, the government decided to pilot another new payment for learners as part of the Skills Strategy (remember when governments actually had strategies?). The Adult Learning Grant, which was intended to help those over the age of 19 who wanted to return to full time education to improve their qualifications and thus their employability, and the DfE* again asked my local authority to run the pilot using similar software to that which had worked for EMA. Creating a new ALG module was a fairly simple addition to the system and required only minor tweaking to take account of the different eligibility rules for new new scheme. A team was set up to run the pilot in a few areas across the country (not locally) to determine whether a central assessment and payment body could process applications from differing geographical locations. The first year, very small in scale, worked well and the following year it was extended to take in more regions.

When the time came to roll the EMA programme out nationally the new provider (a well-known government outsourcing specialist) developed its own software system to process applications. There were the inevitable teething troubles, with students failing to be paid, or their applications not showing up on the system, etc, and we gloated slightly as we watched the private sector tripping itself up through its refusal to listen to what it had been told might be pitfalls before they started. Eventually, things calmed down and students started getting paid on time.

In the meantime, we had also undertaken a couple more pilot schemes, all of which had different entitlements and eligibility criteria. Again, new modules were created within the main software suite, but all were free-standing and custom-built to serve a specific purpose. Year on year (and you'll note, re: UC, not just a few months of piloting) these schemes were developed and implemented, trying things out, keeping what worked and abandoning what didn't (online application was one of the elements abandoned) until the government could be sure that everything was working well.

And then came  the 'big idea'.......

"Let's roll out all these grants and EMA nationally, through one contract and one central computerised system." they said. Of course, this meant that only the big players could tender for the work, as EMA was a huge deal. Thus, the local authority which had a proven track record on development and delivery was effectively prevented from tendering to run the 'small' schemes as a contract separate from EMA.

The national 'learner support' contract was unexpectedly awarded not to the company that had already been running EMA for 3 years but to another BPO company, so the computer system they had devised and improved on was now also surplus to requirements and a new, integrated system had to be built (another outsourcing giant had already dropped out at the bidding phase when they realised they would have to build their own software rather than inherit an existing one). 

Those of use who had been brought across (against our will) to the new private contractor were told that we were "the experts" and they would need our expertise to get the new system right. It won't come as much of a surprise to learn that our warnings that certain things wouldn't work (based on having tried and rejected them at the pilot stage) were largely ignored and that this, coupled with a few genuine technical problems, resulted in a disastrous first year, with backlogs and missed payments, (rightly) unhappy students and a call centre overwhelmed with enquiries and complaints. The new integrated system was so bug-gy that eventually, ALG was returned to its old system for processing and payment.

As a result of this debacle, the initial national contractor lost the contract and the former EMA contractor was brought in to rescue it. We were all TUPE'd again (although the original BPO's senior management all left shortly thereafter) and another attempt was made to build an integrated assessment and payments system. 

"Close, but no cigar", as the saying goes. It was better, possibly because the 'new' contractor did at least have some prior knowledge of what could go wrong, but the integration of all schemes never did come off in the time I was there. All the schemes had different eligibility criteria, so the algorithms required for determining entitlement were fiendishly complicated. Some were paid weekly in arrears, others were paid termly, or part-termly, in advance, some were dependent on weekly attendance being confirmed, others weren't. The attempts to bring across historical data (vital for fraud prevention) proved almost impossible. And none of this involved real-time data!

When I left, by mutual agreement (we agreed that they didn't want a manager who knew a scheme inside out and backwards), the problems still weren't fully resolved. And I'm not sure they ever really were, right up until the time the coalition pulled the plug on EMA and ALG as being 'unaffordable.' 

I don't think I've compromised any commercial confidentiality here. Anyone who knows about education will know who was who, and there's nothing here that hasn't already been covered in the media. I just worry that if one of the country's biggest (and least incompetent) outsourcing 'big guns' struggled to create an integrated system for something as relatively straightforward as student finance, how on earth (given the alarm bells already ringing) is UC going to be introduced without causing mayhem for millions of Britons on the lowest incomes and the most precarious financial situations?

*I've used 'DfE' here for simplicity's sake - the department underwent several name changes during this period and I can't remember what it was at this point.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Thoughts on the Bedroom Tax

All this talk of spare bedrooms - sorry, under-occupancy - reminds me of a press article a couple of years ago about the MP for Devon East, Hugo Swire. In this capacity he is my sister's MP. He was apparently disgruntled that his allowance was cut to £9,756pa, the equivalent of a one bedroom flat. It was also, coincidentally, a little more than the annual rent my sister was paying for the rather small house she was thrown out of after the initial 6 month let because the landlady saw the opportunity to make a bit of money with a cash sale! 

This is in addition to his main £1m family home in London. Apparently, if 'forced' to give up his Devon home, a rather splendid - and large - farmhouse near Sidmouth, he would be unable to bring his family down at weekends and his constituents would see less of him. Of course, he could move the family to Devon (it's not like he's going to lose his seat any time soon) and keep a flat in London - Devon has a load of independent schools they could attend, and even one state grammar school!

The story about his 'whingeing' was, of course, denied, but it got me thinking - surely his reasoning that he needed somewhere for his children to come and stay at weekends is exactly the same as all those social housing tenants whose children/grandchildren visit them on a regular basis, but who are now being told that this is no excuse and that they should just put their family up on a sofabed? 

While it's undoubtedly true that MPs are in a unique situation where they are 'dual-sited', one can't help feel that some are still taking the piss somewhat. 1) Decide where your family home is (constituency or London) and keep your family there and 2) have a one bedroom apartment at the other 'site.' If your family want to visit, just make sure you have a sofabed handy!