I’ve started my government-funded training to become a billionaire. We, the 2.5 million unemployed, will stop our own joblessness one by one by starting a business with a little guidance from Cameron and co.
I arrived in the city centre, ready to go (although half asleep having been woken by my nocturnal neighbours at 3am).The building was smart, the set-up professional and, I soon realised, there was tea available and the government had supplied butties for lunch.
The session leader, we will call her Pauline, was there with big pens and many an anecdote: she had enough tragedy in her life to keep me in That’s Life commissions for years and enough failed businesses to make me wonder how she’d convince us it was worth the effort.
The prime minister says New Enterprise Allowance projects could create 40,000 businesses by 2013. He predicts the next few years could be “some of the most dynamic and entrepreneurial in our history”.
Unlike her League of Gentleman namesake, this Pauline was leading a class full of professionals: I sat alongside, a web-business planner, a marketing specialist and an architect. Everyone was prepared and punctual, apart from two middle-aged Goths and the man who once had a top ten single in an obscure country, who arrived twenty minutes late.
Pauline hadn’t asked any of us our backgrounds but caught on quickly to the raised eyebrows and hackles as she slowly suggested, “if you haven’t done it before, this is networking” when setting up a group work exercise in which we had to share our ideas of success. As well as the expected “to be rich” there were a few civilised “not to work full-time” responses.
The miserable Job Club atmosphere lifted on occasion as people became momentarily inspired by the idea of being their own boss: a great idea to anyone who has had a boss. Still, it was like watching The Apprentice but with everyone looking a bit weary and not entirely convinced.
We’re told that, as well as a business mentor, we will get a maximum loan of £1000 to set up our business and a weekly allowance, once we’re on what’s called the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme, of £65 a week for the first 13 weeks and £33 a week for a further 13 weeks: the assumption is that your business will make up the £2.50 and £34.50 loss.
I considered how much it would be to paint “unemployedhack’s mobile hairdressing salon” on a van. At between £12 and £97 per letter I chose the cheaper option and realised it would cost £936 to do both sides of my van. I also have to buy a van.
My loan is spent. Back to the drawing board …
I was surprised to hear that there are just 4.7 million businesses the UK. I’m told this means everything from big businesses to corner shops: I’d thought there were that many take-aways alone where I live. It doesn’t bode well, perhaps, for the one-man bands who want to set up ceramic art shops and mobile massage parlours. We were, though, also told about franchising opportunities and when I next come across £250k I’ll get myself a McDonald’s.
Luckily for me, perhaps, Pauline is an expert on the media industry and took delight in telling us how difficult it is to get into these days and also how it is feeding us “brain-draining activities” but that people who want to get more out of life can succeed. I wished I was at home watching This Morning. I admit, as Pauline continued relentlessly, ending every sentence with an upbeat, “yeah?” I found myself checking my watch.
Pauline told us how she can no longer afford to get her hair and nails done professionally, using this as an example of our shared suffering in austere times: Poverty is relative, after all. She then went off on a tangent explaining (because she has no time for political-correctness) that women are often “poor negotiators” and “too emotional in business”, leaving me wondering if the Mary Queen of Frocks was going to turn up and kick her in the shins.
There were a few moments when Pauline tapped into the reality of going into business in 2011, and she did say, “this country is not encouraging industry in the way we’re allowing the corporates to gain control.” Perhaps someone should mention this to Cameron.
In between her many, many stories about failed businesses, that near-miss movie career, her friend who is a friend to a friend of a famous actor, Pauline did clearly explain the nature of going into business and it made me realise – or remember – just how transferable our skills are as journalists. Pauline mentioned a number of business tricks we do every single day: we question; we negotiate; we read people; we communicate clearly; we dress appropriately for the occasion; we network; we’re usually confident or can fake it; we can interpret information; we have marketing skills; we understand demographics; we understand advertising; we understand PR; we recognise trends; we’re adept at social networking; we have research skills; we have multimedia skills; we understand copyright; we understanding branding and image and we can “be charming but with nerves of steel”.
My business idea is a fairly good one but it won’t get off the ground with this scheme. Nor will the others in the room, at least not for longer than a few months, I’d wager. As soon as the rejections of bank loans come in, combined with energy bills, food costs, higher rents and other increases in the cost of living meaning a minimal income just won’t do, we’ll be back on the dole. For the government, though, it means getting to fudge the unemployment statistics for a while.
What next: A further six sessions to complete a business plan before I decide whether to embark on NEA
In the meantime: I have £10.35 to last me a week