Here they are in my job-seekers' class - Lil and Les. Lil had a job in a factory for 18 years and doesn't think she will get another one. She's only here because the Job Centre sent her. She is happy to just sit it out until her pension comes through, and anyway her husband has an ulcer and needs her at home. Les has had enough of The System and The Bosses and is only thinking of working for himself. He doesn't specify a trade, and I don't think I'll probe too deeply into his past experience.
It usually starts like this. The long-term unemployed arrive at college defeated or defiant, but soon settle as the group absorbs and supports them. I too have to build up relationships with each new student, so I sometimes play the sympathy card. "I lost my job too. But look at me: I've retrained and now I have this college job which is so worthwhile." They look at me as if to say "Are you joking?" But I'm not.
I used to work in an office. I'd been there many years and I loved the job.
I'd worked my way up the management ranks and expected to be there until I retired. It was a job where I got to travel sometimes, and I'd been away for a few days when I returned to the little cubicle I called my office to find a pink Post-it note stuck to my desk. "Phone me as soon as you come in. URGENT. Sara" it said. I'm not keen on phones - you can't see the other person's body language - so I marched up to Sara's office. She waved me in with her free hand. In the other she was clutching the phone. "No, Peter.
Just walked in. Yes, right now? OK", she said into the receiver. She clapped her hand over the mouthpiece, giving me a rigor mortis smile.
"Peter," she explained, unnecessarily. "Not in today, but needs to speak to you. Better take it in there," and she waved me through the interconnecting door to Peter's empty office.
Peter was the latest to get to the head of a fast-moving queue of chief executives, and the youngest; Peter, with his sharp suits and blunt opinions; Peter, whose main contribution to the corporate mission was that "we must all move out of our comfort zones". What did he want now?
I heard Sara chirrup "Putting you through" as she clicked the door behind me. I dropped into his big swivel chair, and with a fleeting smirk, spun myself through 360 degrees of polished oak and leather fittings. As the phone buzzed, I gripped the edge of the desk to bring the chair to a halt.
Peter was coming through on the intercom, a disembodied Alpha male, all Harvard-speak with invisible body language.
The gist of his message was this: while I was away, some of the senior managers had already been moved out of their comfort zones, and it was my turn next. "Departments being merged ... fewer management roles ...
everyone can apply, of course, but at the end of the day ... HR will explain your options." The room was spinning now without the chair moving.
I slunk out past the marble-eyed Sara. "Sorry," she whispered, as befitted her role as funeral director. "Catch you later."
I applied for the job I regarded as mine. I knew I wouldn't be kept on but I wasn't going to go without putting up a fight. When I did go, I can only say the company was fair and the settlement acceptable, but the experience was still painful. It wasn't Peter's fault, but when you feel hurt and anxious, you focus your resentment on people, not on systems.
Scan the Sunday supplements and it's clear that we buy into other people's misery. Life-threatening diseases, turbulent relationships and abused childhoods make for bestsellers, but redundancy is a life-changing experience no one wants to talk about. I found it hard to avoid the euphemisms, not to tell people I'd down-sized, got out of the rat race, changed direction, tired of commuting.
A lot of us wind up in colleges, where our skills and experience still count. Now, when redundancies are being announced in FE, I see vulnerable colleagues and I feel their pain.
Redundancy isn't something that just robs you of your income and messes up your pension. It robs you of your self-respect, and if you are very unlucky, can mess up your relationships too. If it's happening to you, get the best possible deal, the cleanest and most dignified exit, and, above all, insist on telling yourself that it's not because you were no good, you had simply become more than the organisation could afford.
Lil wanted to give up and Les went into a sulk. These are defensive mechanisms, but they will come to terms and move on. Throw yourself into something new and don't look back. You might even get to write for FEFocus.
Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer