(January 2010)

A search on the Jobcentre website showed a newly added vacancy for warehouse assistants at a well-known building materials company. I called the phone number on the site and was given an appointment for an interview the following day at an office in the city centre.

Dressed in my regulation jobseeker’s suit and holding a piece of paper on which I had scrawled the address, I walked up and down the relevant street a couple of times without success before noticing a small sticker bearing the company’s name by the intercom of an otherwise anonymous-looking building. I buzzed, a voice answered, the door clicked open.

The space on the third floor had obviously only just been moved into, no doubt evacuated by a bankrupt predecessor. Pot plants were dumped randomly on the floor and men strode in and out of rooms furnished only with chairs and wallcharts, leaving the doors wide open and booming across the corridor to each other, Clarkson-style, about football results and sales figures. I was directed to a seat in the reception area and waited there, nervously re-arranging my suit jacket and fearing accusations of impersonating an office worker.

The warehouse manager was unavailable so instead I was seen, bizarrely but predictably enough given the seemingly arbitrary set-up, by the regional sales co-ordinator. A middle-aged man, his generic trustworthy face had been cleansed of all traces of personality by decades of implementing marketing strategies and chasing corporate targets. He set me to filling in an application form (gripped by the task, I went further into it than I needed to; only my name and contact details were required, the rest could be completed later), and rubbed the ring on his finger in a distracted way while he talked in a friendly tone about flexibility and how we all have lives to lead outside work, whether it’s kids, or sailing (oh yes, me and my yacht are inseparable...). This by way of explaining the reasoning behind the 24 hour seven-day-a-week shift system.

I nodded, shaping my mouth into a series of calibrated grins, while scanning the featureless desk and noticing how he continued to stroke his wedding ring while he talked, as if it were somehow the source of his script. Yes, that’s fine, I said. I had assumed that such a rota would be due to the company wanting to squeeze every last drop of profit out of its workforce, but now I understood how such an arrangement is actually in my interests. You’re right, regular hours are so restricting aren’t they, I didn’t realise until now how liberating 24/7 availability could be.

And so the sales-talk came around to the job itself. The company was setting up a distribution base in the area, requiring a whole new industrial team. The warehouse – which was located on the other side of the city, quite near to my home, luckily enough - was brand new. In fact, they hadn’t actually finished building it yet, but they were recruiting in advance, hence the interviews here. I’d be directly employed by the company, not through an agency, he assured me, with a wink of sincerity. There would be a week covering induction, orientation, health and safety, all the usual preparatory requirements. Minimum wage to start with, of course, but prospects for more. And the products? Glass, mostly. Windows; window frames; double glazing; conservatories. Home improvement materials. You know the sort of thing. Another familial twist of the ring, a fatherly glint of the eye. Hmm, yes, I lied, thinking of our rented flat, undecorated since the Seventies. I know the sort of thing.

The salesman glanced at my superfluously filled application form. He was audibly impressed by my academic qualifications and said there was no doubt I’d be an asset to the team. As none of these qualifications were actually relevant to the job, however, I thought it judicious to mention that more importantly I had a year’s experience of warehouse work. Yes, of course, of course. “We’ll definitely be in touch.” A slippery handshake and I was back on the street, my walk-on role finished, offstage again and itching to get rid of the stifling jobseeker’s costume of suit and tie.

Then, nothing.

This was not surprising; it happened all the time, even after the interview stage, especially with vacancies advertised online or via agencies: a mouse-click or phone call that goes nowhere, an empty exchange of formalities. Such is the usual story of contemporary jobseeking; as elsewhere in life, all that is solid melts into air. But in this case the intangibility of the experience somehow challenged me to test its (un)reality. I wondered whether I’d imagined the whole episode, the unfinished office and gimcrack appointment, which had scrolled by as if someone had got halfway through designing a job interview simulation program and got bored. I suspected that attempting to gain any sort of human ‘feedback’ would be like groping a mannequin; but still, there was the distant chance that they had forgotten me, lost my details, or that only those applicants who were persistent enough to follow up the appointment would be taken on. As I hadn’t made a note of the phone number (the vacancy having since disappeared from the website), the only way of making contact again was to go back and ask in person. So after three weeks I returned to the anonymous office building and pressed the intercom. I prepared to be greeted by silence, but again a voice answered and I was buzzed in.

The place was still barely there. The same receptionist sat in the foyer, although of course she gave no indication that she remembered me (recognition had not been written into the program?). There was no sign of the sales executive, but a young man of indeterminate status who just happened to be standing nearby led me into the same generic office and explained that all the vacancies had been filled – that’s odd, I said, I applied the same day the vacancy was listed, and the interviewer sounded hopeful - and besides, the location of the warehouse had since changed(!). The only jobs left were door-to-door sales.

An image came to mind of myself approaching some suburban porch with a stack of ropey brochures, aiming to wheedle my way into some citizen’s misplaced trust: the stuff of nightmares. How desperate would I have to be to take a sales job? Debt arrears, imminent homelessness, starving child? If you ever see me loitering in a residential area with a zip folder under my arm and a freshly painted smile on my face you’ll know it’s a hostage situation. The deep sadness in my eyes will confirm it. In this case it is your duty to stab me in the throat before I speak. Death would be a merciful release.

I wondered whether this was in fact the ploy all along: draw people in with the prospect of imaginary jobs and mitigate their disappointment with the offer of commission-only sales work. It would explain the presence of the oily salesman at the interview; but why recruit from a pool of people like me, under cover of manual labour? Surely there wasn’t much of a crossover between shifting pallets and shifting units? Or perhaps it’s my perspective that I need to shift, and learn to accept that everything is now interchangeable, homogenised. A job is a job. Personal preference or ability, like the work itself, is immaterial.

I declined the young man’s offer and headed for the exit, eager to leave this purgatorial non-place with its non-jobs. How many more offices like this were dotted around the city and the country, emptied of meaning, existing in a kind of amnesic void? These are the sorts of jobs and work practices on which this country is pinning its hopes for a brighter future.

I suspect that sooner or later, due to some combination of jobcentre bullying and cliff-edge precarity, I’ll fail to escape from one of these awful ‘opportunities’. By the time you read this I might already have fallen victim to such a fate. Look out for me, shuffling zombie-like towards your front door, wearing a rictus smile and clutching a home improvement brochure...