I'm at the sharpest of the Sharp End this month: what's it like to suddenly find yourself unemployed and trying to find a job? As an old-schooler, my natural starting point is the local Jobcentre Plus in Brixton. 'The work you want, the help you need', boasts a massive banner inside. Sounds perfect. The last time I went to a job centre was as a student 15 years ago. Back then, I had to scan a wall of little cards, taking 'interesting' ones up to a bored-looking chap behind a desk. And then try to talk my way into a delivery job I didn't really want.
'Can I help you?' asks the friendly greeter. 'I'm looking for work. Can I speak to someone?' Nope, she says, directing me to a bank of computer 'job posts'. One-to-one chats are strictly for signing on.
The modern way is more like a focused internet search, scanning through listed jobs at the computer terminal. Wallpaper hanger? I could do that, but I'd need a CSCS and CIS card. Then there's the cherry-picker operator (need a licence) or the equality-busting, female-only ad for a PA (need a womb). I could be a chef in Thai cuisine, if I knew Thai cuisine.
I could become 'the face of E-On' as a 'home energy consultant', ie, the prick coming round to your door to let you know it'd be cheaper to switch supplier. Or an Avon lady. But everything requires experience, even receptionist posts, so it's pretty much down to cleaning. No experience needed, only a 'working knowledge of cleaning'. Bar work it is, then.
I was half-expecting to see snaking queues of middle-class recession victims. Here there's still a proliferation of jogging pants. And tempers. 'Don't come shouting at me!' yells a staff member. 'You've got a terrible attitude and it stinks!' comes the retort. The last thing I hear is someone telling the other to 'piss off'.
Suddenly, a woman bursts in wailing and lies down on the floor. 'What are you laughing at, c***?' she shouts at the poor staff. Pretty soon she's over at one of the desks, engaged in a high-decibel discussion about her giro. Her name's Mary. She starts shouting about the police. At least she's got what it takes to get a face-to-face meeting.
Mary puts me off the idea of becoming a security guard, despite the promise of £15 an hour. I switch tack and target media roles. There are only three - one in Bristol, one in Runcorn and one in north London, as a political journalist. I have the experience and the salary meets the minimum wage. Get in. I shuffle over to a small wooden booth to call Jobseeker Direct, hoping to get some decent advice at last. After a wait, I'm connected to an adviser, who asks for my NI number and then dictates an email address to send my CV to. I ask why they don't just put the details on the screen. 'Some employers don't want to advertise their details to everyone.' The phone weeds out the feckless.
I leave as a police car pulls up outside. Aside from the journo role, it seems I've taken a desperately long route to £6-an-hour services jobs. I may as well try on spec, door to door. First up, the second-hand bookshop on Coldharbour Lane. No dice. The owner has people queuing up to work there. He suggests Brixton Village, an area that's 'buzzing' with new restaurants. I get over there, popping into a swanky coffee gaff. 'Do you have experience of coffee?' Not beyond one day at Starbucks. 'We're only looking for experienced baristas.'
I try a restaurant. 'Do you have any experience?' asks Lee, the owner. Nope. 'Good luck,' he says. I get the same answer everywhere - from the trendy Ritzy cinema and the SW9 Bar, to Carphone Warehouse. I'm clearly not the first to pimp himself here door to door.
Perhaps it's best to stick to what I know. I head home to the Guardian website, media jobs section. Becoming senior technical manager for video on demand would land me £70k a year. If I could do it. Classified site Gumtree today advertises 26,331 London jobs. Top of the list: teaching English in China and a 'fantastic position for a nanny in Moscow'.
There are only six writing jobs and none convinces me it's for real. Perhaps it's a sign of my age, but Gumtree doesn't exactly scream bona fide employment. That's when I spot an ad for TV reporters covering Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. Finally, something with prospects.