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Government Training Schemes

I have been reading lately about the systems for the unemployed and people being asked to get practical work experience with local companies – unpaid but still getting their benefit payments. The companies are being accused of getting free labour. Also there is a scandal about a company called A4e (Action for Employment) who are alleged to have used false time sheets to claim for trainees or even no-existent trainees. Worse that the owner of A4e is a govt minister. I remembered the systems when I retired in 1987 and how much some companies were frauds about so called “training schemes”.

I retired from BT at the age of 57 so I would have to wait nearly nine years before I could get the normal old age pension on National Insurance. I got my full BT pension straight away and a lump sum of redundancy payment. I needed to complete the full National Insurance payments by either paying in a lump sum or working, etc to get the payments credited. As advised, I duly signed on as being unemployed and then, after a while, a scheme was introduced for training and work experience. A government scheme but it was run by various companies for payment from government funds. My first training sessions involved going to Chelmsford and completing forms listing my previous experience of work, my skills, etc and having interviews to find out what sort of work I was best suitable for. The result of this was that I should take on some form of nursing work. I couldn’t see how that related to my years of management and office work with the GPO, BT, etc. Next came the requirement that I travel daily to Grays Thurrock for several weeks to do IT training and to get me used to working with computers. And to think that I had been using computers with BT for years and been writing large programmes for my work there. I went and was paid my travel expenses. The classes were with about 20 people (mainly youngsters) sitting in a room with computers at the rate of two or three persons for each computer. We filled in on-screen forms to prepare our CVs. This had to be done in turn, of course, with the others watching and noting all our personal information. Next, we played computer games which were fun but of no proper use for any future employment. If a wrong key was pressed and something went wrong, we had to call the supervisor and wait until he came and with a few rapid key presses he got things back as they should be. “There you are – all OK now” he said and away he went. Learning how to cope with computers! I spent most of my time helping my companions and teaching them about computers.

Next came an assignment to go to a training centre at Black Notley near Braintree. This was based at the hospital there in a set of the old rooms formerly used for treating TB. I was sent to work (to train!) for woodwork. We had some benches and tools and in an old air raid shelter nearby there were piles of old furniture bought at local markets. This furniture we had to tear apart to get timber for our training. There was one young man acting as our supervisor. Most of the trainees were incapacitated (mainly mentally) and I could not see them ever getting paid employment using sharp woodworking tools. I shuddered sometimes when I saw them “working” with sharp chisels. At one time the supervisor said that he had made an arrangement with a local garden shop for us to make some bird tables. He was the only person who was allowed to use power tools (safety!) and so he cut up timber into the required shapes and we nailed them together. Mainly, while I was there I occupied myself making little boxes and carving initials, crests, etc on the lids, making little shelves for our bathroom or for storing my floppy discs, books and other things. Once, I happily passed the time making a model galleon for my grandson. This was much admired. Basically I was left to do whatever I fancied to do. I thought that this company were being paid with public money for training me and what a fraud it all was. In the spring a scheme was started for training in gardening. I was not allocated to that but I watched through the window a group of youngsters trying to erect a poly-tunnel with nobody to instruct them. They had been just left out there with the materials. It so annoyed me that I went out and helped to get the thing up and secure and then spent my time instructing them in how to prepare seed trays, sow seeds and take cuttings. I quite enjoyed myself doing something that I liked doing and knew about. I enjoyed the gardening, the instructing and the pleasure that these youngsters got from it all. The programme was that when the flowers and plants were sufficiently grown they would be sold at a local market. The company would get the money and the trainees would then be able to get horticultural work. I didn’t think that any of them would ever do that.

I got to Black Notley every day by a minibus that called at Latchingdon on its way from collecting a teenager at Burnham-on-Crouch. It was a meandering journey picking up people. Into Maldon, to collect some “travellers” nearby, then on via Chelmsford, Cressing, Terling and other remote villages. We usually arrived at Black Notley around about 9.45 to 10.0am. And to get home again we had to leave by 4.0pm so not a lot of the day was spent in actual training. Sometime there was a minibus problem and then I used my own car and claimed travelling expenses. But I got my NI stamp credited and some dole money.

Next they started on a scheme for installing insulation in elderly people’s houses. This was the fitting of plastic draught excluders on doors, windows and letter boxes. I joined a group of three or four trainees and one drove a van which we loaded up each morning with the materials and tools. We did about three places each day and these were spread all over Essex so much travelling occurred. Quite an interesting job but soon learnt. If we were near Braintree, where the driver lived and it was lunch time, he took us to his home for 60 to 90 minutes. This was a council house and was in a terrible state. Curtains were never opened and the place a real tip. He lived there on his own because his wife/partner had left him. Here we ate our sandwiches and watched in a dark room various quiz shows on the TV. The driver, whose name I have thankfully forgotten, smoked cigarettes that were certainly not tobacco. We all refused offers of smokes. Some months later I was taken to Norfolk to do an Insulation Installer Test and duly came home with a fancy certificate of my skills. Next, with the same team, we switched to doing roof insulation. Again much travelling about with the van stuffed with rolls of insulation material which we had to collect at a warehouse in Colchester every morning. This sort of insulation was a job that I had done for myself before. There was much skimping of the insulation and I disapproved of this bad work hidden away in roofs. The houses were mainly those of pensioners or people on housing benefits but in some cases people who paid for the work.

At Black Notley, there were a few trainee girls who were supposed to be learning Office Skills. They answered the telephone and made notes and chatted and gossiped and made things with scraps of cloth. Things like little dolls and toys for their friends.

One day it was announced that a scheme of computer training would be started. This interested me though I was still doing the insulation work. A small room was fitted with about six computers – scrap ones from a BBC Computer and Schools programme. I saw some youngsters (of doubtful mental capacity) sitting there with a manual beside them. One day, when we returned extra early from the outdoor work, I went in to see what these youngsters were learning. The computers had just sufficient memory to get them booted up. Everything else, programs, data, etc had to be stored on floppies. I helped them with problems, mainly wrong characters used when typing in simple BASIC programs from the books. I enjoyed their amazement when the program actually worked and they saw simple geometric shapes magically appear on the screen. It was time to go and I told them to save their work. Work that had taken them all day with no help except from me. There were no floppy discs provided and they had to switch off and lose everything. Next day, I protested about this and was told that The Company could not afford floppy discs. This was a well known national engineering company who were being paid to train people for future employment.

My next assignment was based at Colchester in an old warehouse type building. Here there was training in plumbing and building and engineering. I would have like the plumbing and building though I had done both these jobs myself as a handy man Do-It-Yourself type. But I was sent to learn shorthand. The instructor was a very pleasant and enthusiastic ex-teacher. Because of my life long interest in language, scripts, phonetics, etc I had a good knowledge of Pitman’s shorthand and had used Gregg’s system as well. The teaching was good and I was able to get a better speed than I had managed before. I was actually learning something of use! The teacher was much frustrated by lack of materials, notebooks, pencils, etc. I thought that I would see out my unemployed and training time there and then leave with credits towards my full pension.

I then heard that the girls back at Black Notley (the office staff!) had left due to pregnancy. I was instructed to abandon the shorthand classes and go to work back at the office. I went there and asked what pay I would be getting for doing all their office work. The reply was “None at all – I was being trained”. I refused and was promptly told that for my remaining few weeks in the scheme I would lose the dole (sorry, Employment Training Benefit). I was quite happy about that.

That is my experience of government training and the “get you back to work” schemes. It appears that nothing has changed and it is all a great fraud.

Arthur Cox.

April 2012.

And now I wonder why I ever bothered with all this.

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