The white-collar workers being hit hardest by recession

As unemployment hits 2.2 million, professionals are bearing the brunt. MT met some at Bristol job centre.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Down a scruffy side-road in Bristol's city centre, opposite Chambers Lap Dancing Club, lies the fading art deco office block that houses the city's main job centre. Outside, a pair of grey-faced hoodies are smoking. The doors are opened by one of a number of security guards on patrol. Step inside and you're hit by the fluorescent brightness and relentless plastic cheer of an Ikea store.

Job centres have changed since the '80s. The sticky carpet, dingy furniture and hand-written job cards are gone. Today, there are welcome desks, computerised job points and smartly turned out, smiley staff. The unemployed are 'clients', but despite the best efforts of the Department for Work and Pensions to learn the art of customer service, the atmosphere is grim. This is not a place anyone would choose to spend a Thursday morning. It's where you go when you lose your job.

There's a neat queue at the welcome desks and it's easy to spot the newly redundant - those white-collar workers who have probably never set foot in a job centre before. They stand out in their appearance, with their Hackett rugby shirts, chinos and deck shoes. They look ill-at-ease. Mark, 42, is from Cardiff but has lived in Bristol for 20 years. He doesn't want to give his surname or be photographed, such is his embarrassment at having been made redundant twice in six months. A graduate, he had a lucrative career as a sales recruitment consultant earning up to £60,000 a year, but lost his job in October after the agency he'd worked for for 18 years went into administration. He found a new post in recruitment in February, but lost it after just six weeks when the company was forced to halve its number of staff.

Mark is stressed and demoralised. He has a wife and two children of 10 and seven to support and a mortgage that is frozen until September. They survive on his wife's part-time bank job, his £60-a-week jobseeker's allowance and a £3,500 pay-off. His watery eyes betray the sleepless nights. 'I can't change what has happened over the past year,' he says. 'You can try and analyse it, but there was nothing I could have done. I'm used to having choices, having an income and the security that comes with that. I can't believe this has happened to me.

'I signed on in October,' he adds. 'Before then, I'd never been to a job centre. They do what they can,but it's more of a sticking plaster. I don't think there is any real drive to try and really help people get themselves back into work.'

Mark's strategy is to find a job related to sales or recruitment so that after three months in work he'll be able to reassign his mortgage and stop the hefty interest payments ratcheting up. He sees lots of jobs advertised, but most offer 'bugger-all'. Longer term, he wants to retrain: 'Possibly social work, possibly teaching.'

Mark is one of a new breed of white-collar jobseekers. According to the Financial Times, joblessness is rising more quickly among professionals than among less-skilled workers. In April, there were more than 224,000 people on unemployment benefits who previously held skilled middle-class jobs. That's an increase of more than 145% in a year. According to the Office for National Statistics, sales managers, lawyers, accountants, advertising executives, corporate managers, architects and quantity surveyors have been hit hard. How many of them imagined this time last year that they'd be signing on?

Richard Atkinson certainly didn't. A 50-year-old marketing manager born in Britain but raised in upstate New York, he seems at the end of his tether. Things are still raw. Only yesterday, he had attended a creditors' meeting of the Salisbury-based marketing firm he'd worked for. With three offices, 35 staff and a turnover of £5m, it had given the impression that things were going well. Then things went rapidly downhill early this year and the company is now in administration. Neither he nor his colleagues have been paid since 31 January, but he can't claim benefits because he still hasn't been given his P45. The job centre staff don't seem to understand his predicament, despite his protests. 'There's a limit to the amount of fresh air and credit cards you can live on,' he says in a mid-Atlantic drawl.

The administrators are busy trying to sort things out, but until they do, Atkinson is stuck in limbo. 'I've actually made provision by paying premiums so that if redundancy came my way, my mortgage would be covered, but the MD and the FD refuse to do the right thing. They have cost me a hell of a lot of money right now and that's besides the salary I'd have been paid. I'm a very unhappy guy right now, but I still smile. Just.' His laugh leaves you feeling unsettled.

Atkinson is divorced and has an 11-year-old son, for whom he pays maintenance, but his ex-wife has refused his request for a payment holiday while he finds his feet. He lives in a 'one-bedroom shoebox' in an affluent part of Bristol. It has been on the market for six months. Atkinson is living off his credit card. 'Hopefully, next month the mortgage insurance will kick in, which gives me a 12-month breathing space. I was thinking today that if I got a job elsewhere in the world maybe I could even let it out.'

He has applied for jobs in Dubai and in the US. He has already sent out more than 20 CVs to specialist recruitment agencies and five have come back with a no thanks. 'I don't delude myself that it's going to be easy in the current market, irrespective of my track record and what I was paid previously.' At 50, he's worried that employers will think he's past his prime.

It's obvious Atkinson is frustrated and angry. How's he coping? 'I went down to the pub last Friday for the first time in a long time and had a few too many and that was fine because I woke up the next day and life was okay. It was a relief just to see some friends.'

In March 2008, Bristol processed 5,116 dole claimants. A year later, the figure had climbed to 10,680. Nikki Lewis is the manager at the Bristol job centre, only three weeks into the job. She's busy and has been recruiting to cope with demand. 'The newest thing that we have found are middle managers from finance companies,' she says.

Accountants and those working in financial services have been badly hit - the city is home to many head offices and contact centres. Construction workers, architects and solicitors have also been feeling the pain. And many of the laid-off workers at Honda's plant in Swindon travelled from Bristol. 'There's a sense of resentment and upset,' she says, scanning the room. 'Lots of people who are coming in have been employed for a long time, so we're having to deal with people who don't know the system. The jobs are still there, but people are used to walking out of one job and walking into something very similar.'

Those days are over. The talk now is of transferable skills. Professionals who worked in finance are encouraged to consider the public sector - the MOD and Inland Revenue have a big presence in Bristol - though there's a limit to what it can absorb. Then there's the new Cabot Circus retail development in the city, which opened in September, providing back office and shopfloor work. The jewel in the crown, apparently, will be the new Primark store, opening in August.

Job-centre vacancies on offer today include a restaurant manager at £25k-£29k a year, a security receptionist at £7.84 an hour, and an alcohol arrest referral officer (whatever that is) at £21.8k. Most jobs are in admin and social care. It's a long way for middle-class expectations to fall.

At the moment, a steady 26% of unemployment benefit claimants come off the register each month in Bristol. Emily James, 25, desperately wants to be one of them. Well-spoken and self-confident, she graduated from Bristol University three years ago and, until February, had been in continuous contracted employment in TV production. 'It's the first time I've been out of work,' she says. 'Companies like the BBC and Channel 4 aren't commissioning big programmes because of the recession, which means it's a complete pile-up of people who work in TV dramas who aren't working.'

She's had a week's work here, another there, and the job centre is no use to her for jobs in TV, where contracts come up by word of mouth.

James is dyslexic and has failed the typing tests the job centre had given her. She's going to try her luck for another month and then consider doing a college course in nutrition to add another string to her bow. 'It's really scary. Me and my housemate are really struggling. When it's a sunny day, it's fine. That sounds ridiculous, but you can go on walks. It's hard not doing anything and you feel you can't really go out because you can't spend any money. I've got £60 a week to live on, which is horrible. I have a two-grand overdraft and £15,000 in student loans. The really annoying thing was that I knew that I was going to be coming to the end of my job on a certain day but because I earn the minimum, I can't save up enough money for when I'm out of work to keep myself going.

'It's so depressing. We treated ourselves to coffee the other day. When you're working, coffee doesn't matter. We sat there and realised that none of us had anything to talk about because we hadn't done anything. We'd just sat in the house, trawling the internet for jobs, phoning people for jobs. Some days - this sounds really bad - you wake up and think: I don't have to get out of bed. What's the point? It becomes hard to do stuff.

'I find it quite difficult, because my parents are phoning up quite regularly asking how it's going, why haven't I tried this or that, or why don't I think about another career? It's more pressure. I don't want to ask them for help because I've chosen this path, this career. I was reading the newspaper this morning and in a way it makes you feel that you're not alone.'

She certainly isn't. A floor up from where James is sitting is another jobseeker, just a year younger than her at 24. Adam (not his real name) studied business administration at the University of the West of England and, like James, has been unable to find steady work since his contract with a merchandiser ended in September. He has had a bit of pub work since then, but now the pub owners can't even afford to give him that. 'You get told at school that if you go to university you are more likely to get a better-paid job, but I should have just gone straight into some manual trade, because nothing has come out of it,' he says.

He's at the job centre for a New Deal appointment, but most of his job-searching is done off his own bat, through the papers and the internet. 'I've had a couple of interviews recently. I'm focusing on the civil service at the moment. It's a bit more stable, and also you can transfer between departments. There are a few civil service jobs here. There's the MOD, and the Ministry of Justice has just been recruiting, too. The Department for Work and Pensions is as well, which is ironic.'

Is he feeling confident? 'Not massively. Steadily, week by week, I'm lowering my expectations. When I first moved back to Bristol, I was hoping for £18,000. Shortly after that I was going for £15,000 jobs. I circled a few £12,000 jobs in the paper yesterday, which isn't really what I thought I'd be doing after university.'

Head bowed, he fiddles with his rucksack strap until his name is called by Michael, his New Deal adviser. He turns and says a polite goodbye.

Back downstairs, things are getting busier as more job-seekers traipse in to sign on. A group of teenagers in tracksuits idle by the doors, chatting. Resignation hangs in the air. Two young mothers sit patiently, placating their bored children while they wait for their names to be called out. The job centre's clients range from the obviously disengaged and demoralised to the anxious and angry. It's difficult to think of any other place where such a cross-section of society gathers.

Tapping on the screen at a job point is Keith Russell, 61, who, unlike Adam, is at the sunset rather than sunrise of his working life. Russell accepted voluntary redundancy as an HGV driver in December and has been looking for comparable work since, but what the job centre classifies as local work can often mean Norwich or Birmingham, and the pay doesn't come close to what he is used to. He's separated from his wife, and his children have grown up. With no mortgage and savings, he's okay for money for now.

'Most of the jobs advertised here have the minimum you expect for driving jobs - from £7 an hour to £8 an hour at the most, and that's starting at four o'clock in the morning. That is considerably less than what I was earning. Maybe we were too well paid,' he adds, his eyes twinkling. 'There was one job I went for. He was advertising for one driver and he had 50 people to see. That was at the beginning of January. To be honest, the job was absolutely crap anyway.'

How does this recession compare to previous ones? 'I've never known it to collapse as much as it has this time,' says Russell. 'When we had a four-day week years ago, it was nothing like what it is this time around. There still seemed to be the work then, but this time, everything seems to have just disappeared.'

With that, he says he doesn't want his picture taken, walks past the growing queue to the welcome desk, through the job centre doors and into sunny St Stephen's Street. Like Mark, Adam, and James, to most of us Russell is just another government statistic. Outside, the hoodies are still there, kicking an empty beer can. They stare at Russell's back as he disappears around the corner and into the Bristol traffic.

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