Got Skillz?

Natalie Hughes takes a moment to reflect on her experience as an arts graduate looking for work … does the creative career you dream of even exist, and will the ‘real world’ bleed you dry in the pursuit?

Job-hunting is a grim and humiliating process that gets even the best of us down. All principles and integrity are thrown out of the window as one becomes more and more desperate to find employment. From groveling cover letters to lying about your skills and ambitions – “I have extensive experience in customer services and I approach work with an organised and professional manor” (bollocks) – it can be soul destroying if you let it.

My name is Natalie Marie Hughes and I am an Arts Graduate. Fine Art BA (Hons), Upper Second Class Degree, Liverpool John Moores University, Class of 2009, to be exact. And since I have been so exact, the next bit will go without saying: for over three years now, I have been on and off The Dole, in and out of surreal freelance work, and have slaved away for too many hours for no money whatsoever. I HEART ART.

By the time one ends up at the Job Centre, with a plea of poverty and hopelessness approved by the DWP, your ego is in shreds and you feel worse than crap. You begin to think that being creative is a curse: the utopia you imagine will never exist and the ‘real world’ bleeds you dry for trying to compromise. To make matters worse: whilst you are waiting in the Job Centre you sit next to the boy you lost your virginity to (this happened to a friend), or get assigned a half-wit as your ‘Supervisor’.

“You begin to think that being creative is a curse: the utopia you imagine will never exist”

I got the half-wit: a woman called ‘Norma Lee’ (pictured). Signing-on with this woman normally involved her eating a packet of crisps and drinking a can of coke whilst she processed my claim with her greasy, salted fingers. She spelt university with a ‘C’ (univercity) and wore a charm-bracelet containing a large, silver-coloured ‘LOVE’ pendant.

That was some time ago and I now work as a barmaid whilst I complete an MA in Arts Management Policy and Practice. You could say that I cleaned up and I am now a functioning, socially acceptable member of society. However, this transformation, and the job – a part-time no brainer – that came with it, was easier said than done. I put myself through months of job-hunting hell (read the full story here) to get where I am. Perhaps the most terrible and ridiculous part of this time was an interview with a Liverpool marketing business which shall remain nameless. I got this interview through never, ever use this website.

It was Friday, 23rd November, 2:20pm and I was 10 minutes early for an interview to be ‘Sales Assistant’. Walking into the building where their office was situated, I saw a slightly crumpled piece of A4 paper blu-tacked to the wall: it had the word ‘Interviews’ typed in bold, accompanied by a hand-drawn arrow telling me to turn right. I followed the paper’s instructions and found myself in a shabby room with dirty, white walls, some chairs, a glass coffee table, and a large, battered desk that dwarfed the chubby, dark-haired girl who was sat behind it. This girl was called Ashley.

I sat near the coffee table, which was covered by a selection of Lads Mags that included FHM, Nuts and Men’s Health. Ashley apologised for the magazines by explaining that the office was “quite male orientated”, and then began to tell me her life story: it was not at all interesting. In a nut shell: she was born in Liverpool, grew up on the Wirral, moved back to Liverpool, loved dogs and had a boyfriend who didn’t come round to her flat as often as she liked.

Whilst Ashley was telling me all this, a young woman walked into the room and announced that she was here for an interview. She was awkward and nervous. Ashley began to bombard the poor girl with questions, leaving me alone and free to observe my surroundings some more: I noticed that there was an old water pipe sticking out at right angles from the wall, but with nothing attached to it; the carpet was threadbare and covered in stains, and there were a number of pictures placed in battered white frames and hung lop-sided with thin, yellow, plastic cord. The pictures were of generic landscapes and seascapes, a couple of ‘tastefully naked’ women with cloth draped over their breasts and vaginas, and there was also an aerial view of New York City.

This ‘reception room’ looked like it had been thoughtlessly put together – in a rush – for a company that didn’t exist. I began to wonder if this was a scam.

As I was considering this, a large, round woman slumped into the room, walked over to the desk and grunted. She had an interview as well. Her face was sad and empty and she looked as if she had given up some time ago. She sat down with a thud.

I thought: should I just leave, without being interviewed? How much do I need this?

“I thought about how we were all dying, but at different speeds”

By this point it was 3pm and my interview was running half an hour late without explanation. And, ever since the poor bulk of depression had rolled in like a slow avalanche, the room had taken on a difficult silence, which seemed to make Nervous Girl more nervous. I watched her from the corner of my eye as she wriggled in her chair and debated over where best to place her hands; she looked like she might burst into tears at any moment.

At around this time a girl of about 20 tottered in on high heels, wearing a shiny, too short, purple satin dress and a studded leather jacket. She looked completely desperate: obviously another interviewee. She quickly chose her place in the room, but took her time sitting down due to the height of her heels and her awkward dress. Whilst she tried her best to arrange herself as pretty and poised, another girl came running into the room huffing and puffing, and almost crashing into Ashley’s desk. The girl explained that she was meant to have had an interview at 2:30 (it was now 3:10), but she was late because she’d missed the bus and would it still be ok to be interviewed? Ashley told her not to worry: of course she could still have an interview, she should just take a seat. This girl was wearing thin, black leggings over knickers that carved her arse – like string on meat – into a deep VPL (visible pant line).

I thought about how we were all dying, but at different speeds.

“Contributing to something that matters is important but it is not easy”

I was about to get up and leave when a man in a grey suit walked into the room and shouted out my name to the back wall. As I stood up he asked me to follow him to “the interview room”. I obeyed and walked towards the doorway where he waited, ready to shake my hand and introduce himself as ”Chris”. Stepping inside the interview room, which was also his office, the man took a place behind a glass desk and sat down in a massive black-leather office chair. Behind him was a huge gilded mirror that spanned the width of the room. The room was painted matt black.

I sat down in front of Chris, with the glass table between us, and he began the interview. He started by introducing himself as “Chris” (again) and then proceeded to regurgitate, almost word for word, the meaningless crap jargon that they had filled their website with. He even repeated the shite about people being their “biggest asset”. He only asked me a few questions and he seemed to know nothing about me, which made me wonder if he had looked at my CV at all. Perhaps the most probing thing he asked me was why I wanted the job. I found myself saying that after working so long in The Arts, I wanted “to gain experience in a more corporate environment in order to further my career”.

I could taste vomit in my mouth.

Chris said he would call me at around 5pm that afternoon to let me know if I had been selected for a ‘Training Day’ next week. I thanked him and left the black room.

On my way out, I overheard Ashley on the phone saying exactly, word-for-word, what she had said when offering me an interview: “We’ve looked through 30-40 CVs and I am pleased to tell you that we would be really interested interviewing you”. I looked over to Ashley and saw that she was reading off a piece of paper.

I realised that I had let myself sink so low that some dizzy girl giving me a fake compliment from a pre-written text (probably composed by Chris and therefore written by an idiot), had felt like an embrace filled with acceptance and hope.

They never did call me back.

Why am I telling you all this, or more to the point: why on earth has The Double Negative (thank you) been kind enough to publish this? Well I think that they think, and I know I think, that my story is the story of anyone who works in the Arts: striving for something you feel passionate about, or contributing to something that matters is important but it is not easy. However, we continue to push for what we believe in because grey, bland mediocrity, with no deviation – good or bad – is far worse. I HEART ART.

Words and illustration courtesy Natalie Hughes

Posted on 05/02/2013 by thedoublenegative