My “Employability Skills Trainer” screen-shares a video with my class of unemployed workers. She’s teaching us how to succeed. The video is about an athlete at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics who tore his hamstring but still finished his race. Then she asks us questions about it: “What year? What injury did he get? What race was it?” Before any of us are allowed to answer, we have to make an animal noise. We get to pick the animals ourselves, in a surprising recognition of our individual worth and creativity. I get the most points and win the quiz, so I’m allowed to leave the Zoom call 10 minutes early.
Centrelink’s notoriously stupid “training” requirements for the unemployed have been “waived”. But I’m not one of the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work by the crisis. I was ahead of the curve: unemployed before the crisis. So my Employability Skills Training continues, on Zoom, six hours a day, four days a week, for three weeks.
The trainer is one of only five still working for her company after 33 others were sacked, she tells us. Even the for-profit training companies that cling on to the for-profit job agencies that cling on to Centrelink are not safe from the economic downturn.
For anyone who’s never had the misfortune to participate in Employability Skills Training, think of the most mind-melting, empty team-building exercise you’ve ever heard of, and magnify it by 10. This course is nothing to do with training. It’s about force-feeding capitalist propaganda to the unemployed and convincing us that we’re to blame for the lack of work.
Yesterday, we spent the day building “vision boards” of the goals we want to achieve in the next two years. The trainer got to decide whether we were being realistic or detailed enough. “So you want a car. How do you think you’re going to get there? You’re going to need a job first.” One of the universe’s great mysteries finally solved.
Today, we spent our class time answering practice interview questions and sharing our answers. Tell me about yourself. Do you consider yourself successful? Why should we hire you? Then the trainer gets us to critique each other: “Jack, do you think Tahlia’s answer gave enough information?”
Now we watch a video about colour psychology and company logos. What colour increases your appetite? Blue is the colour of the sky: it’s dependable and wise. Red is the colour women should wear on their first date. Grey is good for lawyers.
Sometimes we’re “trained” to write our own job ads, as if we are a company offering a real job, or to look up inspirational videos and email them to the trainer so she can make us watch them as a group later. She’ll spend a good half hour explaining what motivation is, why you need it, how you can get it (“make to-do lists; have achievable goals; make sure you’re drinking enough water”).
The Department of Education, Training and Employment says that this course “gives young people the opportunity to enhance their work readiness”. That’s true: this course is about lowering your expectations and making you obedient. Every activity inevitably includes an opportunity for the trainer to explain to you that you don’t get to do what you want all the time, and here’s yet another video of someone overcoming their adversities to become a millionaire, so we have proof you’re poor because you don’t try hard enough. You must follow every small, frustrating and demeaning command of the trainer or else they can cut your payment. It’s definitely a course that prepares you for the real world of capitalism.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Australian capitalism made a big deal of treating the unemployed like social outcasts. The payments were too low to live on and the “training” too insulting to endure. The unemployed were morally bankrupt, like refugees, and deserved humiliation and deprivation. There’s a worldview associated with this training: you’re unemployed because you’re too stupid to know that you need a job to buy a car, or that drinking water is good for your health; you’re unemployed because you don’t watch enough motivational videos. Unemployment is an individual failing, not the system’s fault.
Now that hundreds of thousands are being thrown into dole queues by a system-wide meltdown, it’s too dangerous to treat everyone like this – for now. But we are the unemployed from the pre-coronavirus time, so we are still punished for our foolish insistence on being poor. We are still trained to reach the peaks of perfection, discipline and motivation exemplified by an Employability Skills Trainer.
Because my trainer doesn’t have a premium Zoom account, we’re forced to change Zoom calls every 40 minutes. Every time this happens, we get a few minutes to relax while we wait for everyone to turn up again. Our classes are enlivened by students taking other calls or occasionally blasting out Animal Crossing music.
But when you don’t play along, when you give funny sarcastic answers to make yourself or others laugh, when you enter the Zoom call late, when you don’t participate enough, when the trainer suspects you’re not paying attention, when you don’t email the trainer your “work” from the activity, she notes it down as evidence of your non-compliance to send it to your job provider. We’re reminded of this several times a day.
Every other Zoom call, we’re joined by new people. The trainer they started the course with has been sacked. When this happens, we do yet another torturous round of “two truths and a lie”, and the trainer Googles another tongue twister and gets us all to do it one by one. Each job lost in the employability training industry means I have to do another tongue twister.
One time, a participant said they had nothing to be grateful for. “Have you eaten today?”, the trainer asked. No. The trainer didn’t blink. “Well, will you eat today?” No. The trainer was undeterred. “Well, will you drink water? Do you have clothes on your back? Do you have internet? Then there’s your three points of gratitude.”