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I have decided to help set up a jobcentre. This may seem an odd decision, but youth employment charities have known for years that the existing model is broken. Jobcentres are a hybrid of industrial era “labour exchanges” and bureaucratic processing centres for benefits. The increasingly punitive sanctions regime means that no one in their right mind would spend more time than absolutely necessary in these outposts of misery. The corporate colour scheme alone (canary yellow and neon green) is enough to induce mild psychosis.
Our intention is to completely change this model by bringing the services to people seeking work in a place where they want to be. The first Creative Job Studio will bring young people together in a proper working environment to receive advice from experts in their field and attend events to help them find jobs. At the same time, the studio – a collaboration with Somerset House in central London – is at the heart of a building housing more than 140 organisations, so it will also help those businesses diversify their workforce.
If we are to succeed, it will not be enough to work with the usual privileged graduates who see it as their birthright to enter the creative industries. We will have to persuade people living in poorer parts of the capital to believe they are also permitted to enter Somerset House’s neo-classical courtyard.Nearly nine years on from the financial crash, we are picking up the pieces of people in their 20s barely surviving, even if they are not signing on. One in every eight workers in the UK (3.8 million people) are now living in poverty. A pattern is developing for young workers in London: high private sector rents, an increasingly casualised labour market and the punitive nature of the jobseeker regime meaning that people are grabbing anything that comes along. This has created a vicious circle of low-paid, insecure work, which can last years.
The Creative Society is helping to run a project called Step Up, designed to support workers aged 18-30 living in poverty to work their way up the creative careers ladder. These are neither privileged individuals nor “snowflakes” afraid of a hard day’s work. They are grafters who find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty. Robbie, for example, is a talented writer in his early 20s with a first-class degree in anthropology, who has worked as a farm labourer to subsidise irregular freelance journalism. Martha, 26, is a costume designer from Northern Ireland with London West End experience who is working full-time in a cupcake bakery because the theatre work is too irregular to pay the rent. Georgina, 23, is trying to make a career as an interior designer while working in a tile shop. Emma, 22, is working as a waitress 40-50 hours a week despite multiple (unpaid) radio internships. And Sam, a young artist, was cycling up to 70 miles a day as a courier until he realised he was too exhausted to do anything else.
Low-paid work has been the traditional route into the arts for writers, actors and artists, but the concern now is that the pipeline of talent into the creative sectors is becoming increasingly restricted, leaving people without contacts or the luxury of parental support stuck in the gig economy.
We are confident we can turn the conventional jobcentre culture on its head, and create a place of optimism and hope. But the real measure of success will be whether we can implant the Creative Job Studio in parts of the country where the challenges are even greater.
A third of the companies and individuals making up Britain’s celebrated creative economy are based in London and the south-east, compared with less than 3% in the north-east of England, where a disproportionate number of young people are not in education, employment or training. We aim to open the studio in Somerset House this year. But somewhere in the north-east would be an even greater prize. Gateshead Creative Job Studio anyone?
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