Today's Job Centres an introduction to how they became part of every jobseekers life

History of the Job Centre

The Jobcentre Plus is an agency of the Department of Work and Pensions which provides support for people currently out of work and seeking employment, as well as helping those claiming a range of state benefits, including  Jobseeker's Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance or Income Support.

The Jobcentre Plus we see today has progressed somewhat from the original Labour Exchanges, but the UK has had Job Centres in one guise or another or more than 100 years, and it is all thanks to the foresight of a great wartime leader that they came into being in the first place.

 

Labour Exchanges

Winston Churchill is lauded in history for many notable achievements, particulary leading Britain through the dark days of the Second World War. But most people are unaware of the centre role he played in established the first Job Centres in the UK in 1910.

Prior to 1910, the labour market had been chaotic. Unemployed people would hang around outside factories and shipyards hoping that a new order received would lead to a job opening arising. Opportunities arose through rumours and hearsay, and casual labour was widespread meaning a lack of reliable income for many.

Those that couldn’t find a job were often forced to seek refuge in the workhouse. These grim institutions, most famously portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, exchanged food and a warm dry place to sleep for your free labour, but once inside it was often very hard to get out again, and they were used as a last resort by the desperate few.

In the early years of the twentieth century there was much debate about how to tackle the issues of poverty and unemployment, and in 1908, William Beveridge, an economist and prominent activist on such issues, was commissioned by Churchill, who was then President of the Board of Trade, to devise a scheme which would combine the new state unemployment benefit with a labour exchange facility where people could go to seek out job opportunities.

His proposals saw the Labour Exchanges Bill passed in the House of Commons in September 1909 and on February 1st 1910, the first 62 Labour Exchanges were opened across the country. By the outbreak of the First World War, their numbers had spiralled to 430.

These first Labour Exchanges were set up in a range of locations including offices, factories, shops, and chapels, and initial demand was high, with queues of people, including children as young as eleven, often seen snaking out of the doors and down the street.

These new Exchanges were painted green and contained separate facilities for men, women, children, and employers. On the first day, the types of jobs that were available included things like picture frame gilder, piano regulator, and ‘girl confectioner’s packer’.

Initially the majority of jobs available were unskilled ones, and with the outbreak of war the exchanges also became conscription offices for the military.

 

Employment Exchanges

From January 1917, the Labour Exchanges were rebranded as Employment Exchanges, at the suggestion of then Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, and were run by the newly created Ministry of Labour. Following the First World War, the demand for unemployment benefit was high, both from returning soldiers and those who had been employed in war production industries at home.

Unemployment Benefit was still not a universal benefit, with claimants needing to have a contribution record for National Insurance payments, and this meant that there was still a strand of society, the poorest and most vulnerable who were long-term unemployed, who did not qualify for the benefit. This was not remedied until the passing of the National Assistance Act, following the Second World War, in 1946.

The Employment Exchanges were not popular with people, as they took on the role of testing people’s suitability for work. Staff would examine people’s skills, background, education, income, and even inspect the family home. Demand remained high throughout the inter-war years, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 hitting the British economy hard and sending unemployment soaring.

 

Job Centres

In the years following the Second World War, the British economy grew steadily and with the new, universally available unemployment benefit, the issues of poverty and unemployment stabilised, as did demand on the Employment Exchanges.

But at the start of the 1970’s the economy began to waiver, and unemployment started to grow. This led to a major rebranding exercise by then Department of Employment, as a new network of Job Centres, which advertised job opportunities, but did not process employment benefits, was rolled out. They appeared on High Streets up and down the country, with a prominent orange and black colour scheme, and the new name, Job Centre.

Whilst the network of Job Centre’s grew, those still claiming benefits had to go and ‘sign on’ at the separate Unemployment Benefits Office.

The new design was intended to make the process more user-friendly, but the reality was that throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, with unemployment soaring as high as three million people, there was a growing sense of hostility towards the Job Centres.

The issue of unemployment and welfare dependency became hugely stigmatised in the country, with a widely held perception that people just needed to pull themselves together and go out to find work.

At the same time, whilst many Job Centre’s were located on the high street, the Unemployment Benefits offices remained in old fashioned, historical buildings. Those claiming benefits were often viewed as morally suspect and many offices were equip with fences or screens to separate officers from claimants for fear of attacks.

 

The Job Centre Plus today

It was not until the turn of the Millennium that the system was once again given a proper overhaul, with the first fifty-six Jobcentre Plus pathfinder offices opening in October 2001.

This followed the rebranding of Unemployment Benefit with the more user-friendly title of Jobseekers Allowance, and the introduction of a system where payments could be made directly into a claimants bank account.

The introduction of Jobcentre Plus also saw the twin roles of job seeking and benefits payment being reintegrated into a single service, ensuring that those seeking work could handle all their needs in a single location.

Today’s Jobcentre Plus network, is a long way from the initial Labour Exchanges in chapels and factories. But they are still carrying out the basics roles envisaged for them by William Churchill and William Beveridge more than a hundred years ago.

The service is managed directly by the Department of Work and Pensions directly, rather than being operated as an executive agency and they are now based in modern, clean, well-lit offices in convenient locations, rather than the drab historical and ill-equip buildings of the past.

Jobseekers can use a range of job search facilities as well as speaking to a fully trained advisor who can offer assistance on both searching for a job and claiming benefits. Offices have a number of touchscreen interactive job-points which contains details of a wide range of available opportunities.

Jobcentre Plus also provides a telephone jobseeker service through their Jobseeker Direct service, and a new online, Universal Jobsmatch database which is a comprehensive repository of all of the jobs currently on offer through them. It is now mandatory for jobseekers to demonstrate that they are actively searching for jobs online.

The role of Jobcentre Plus is constantly evolving as government unemployment policy changes, and the needs of the unemployed evolve. The current Government has passed wide-ranging changes to the benefits system, which will see many of the unemployment benefits being rolled into one single Universal Credit. This is in the process of being rolled out through Job Centre Plus offices in certain parts of the UK ahead of a full national roll-out.

So despite not always being popular, for more than a hundred years, under several guises, the Job Centre has been providing an essential service to those without employment and claiming state benefits up and down the country. Despite the many challenges that this role entails, they continue to do sterling work supporting some of the most vulnerable and needy members of society and helping those without work, for whatever reason, to find the right role for them.

 

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