It is rather surprising that though Labour Exchanges were first opened by the Board of Trade in February, 1910, the general public knows little about them beyond what an occasional glimpse of an office window affords.
There is at present (1911) no particular examination to pass, or, indeed, any fixed regulation concerning appointments. These are made by the Civil Service Commissioners, assisted by a staff officer of the central office of the Labour Exchange.
The qualifications of each candidate are dealt with, personal suitability for the work being the main desideratum. No limit to age has yet been fixed, though, speaking generally, twenty-five to thirty-five years of age is preferable. A woman would not be barred at forty, but as it is possible pensions will eventually be paid to upper officers, it would be unwise to engage older women. Nor, on the other hand, would a woman be barred if younger than twenty-five. Much depends on the personality.
At present, these are the grades of workers - with approximate salaries :
(1) Registration clerk . . £60 to £90
(2) Senior registration clerk . . . . .. £90 to £100
(3) Assistant-manager .. £100 to £130
(4) Supervisor (divisional) £130 to £200
(5) Organising officer .. £300 to £400 In considering the qualifications of applicants, though the writer would again lay stress on the fact that no rigid rules have been followed, it is an advantage to a would-be registration clerk to have been in touch with social work - girls' or women's clubs or societies, even Sunday-school work, or some agency through which she is accustomed to deal with people.
Women with purely clerical or commercial experience are sometimes apt to be too stereotyped, and it is manifest that someone understanding people and industries is most fitted to deal with applicants at the Exchanges.
In the initial stage of the scheme, forewomen in factories were sometimes engaged, but, as the work extended, their lack of schooling became a drawback. Registration clerks, especially in minor positions, should be humane, possessed of initiative, and know some one trade well, because the woman who knows one trade well readily gains insight into the requirements of another.
The clerk who is a character reader, and able to sum up and " read " an applicant at sight, somewhat in the fashion of the famous Dr. Bull, has a distinct advantage. There is no time at a busy office for lengthy observation through the pigeon-hole, yet it is necessary to detect and discount the untruthful story, for an employer is not likely to resort again to a Labour Exchange which has once sent him an undesirable.
The applicant most industrially fitted is sent to the inquiring employer, whether registered first or last. To judge by the registration clerks whom the writer has met, they are well-educated, businesslike, capable women, enthusiastic over their work. One can understand that. What can there be more delightful to a woman than to settle unemployed members of her sex in employment, thus combining practical philanthropy with the earning of a livelihood under Government ? As one woman says, " There is no knowledge of humans, occupations, or things in general that cannot be turned into account in this work," and ' Every minute of the time is intensely interesting."
Anyone who visits a Labour Exchange will find the men, women, boys, and girls are dealt with separately, and enter different doors. They are asked questions concerning name, address, and such as bear on the industrial capacity of the applicant, or, if they prefer it, fill up a form; but there is no obligation to answer every question, though it is advisable to do so.
An applicant living over three miles from an Exchange communicates in writing. The particulars then are indexed and filed, according to occupation in the " live register." The applicant is given a brown registration card, which is brought weekly during the weeks she is on the register. If there is no vacancy for her at that nearest Exchange, particulars of her requirements are put on a divisional list, and telephonic communication is set up with the divisional office, or clearing house, which covers some thirty to forty Exchanges; failing that, with the central office or clearing house in London.
The applicant is allowed to call without restraint at the Exchange as often as she likes, but directly the Exchange hears of likely work, she is sent for or written for, and, provided she is willing, is given an " identification card " to take to the intending employer. This is signed by the employer and returned to the Exchange when an engagement is made. Postage is franked, and there are no fees whatever. After three weeks, an applicant is transferred to an " intermediate register" in the index cabinet, and, failing to come or communicate during a current week, to a " dead register." In the case of an applicant finding, through an Exchange, work at a distance, subject to certain conditions, travelling expenses are advanced to her.
The Exchange even interests itself in finding suitable lodgings, and, in certain cases, promotes the transfer of a whole family !
The staff officers find that both employers and employees value any incidental advice and information they can give. For instance, the writer heard one registration clerk advise a girl, who applied for work of an unskilled nature, to learn something. As a matter of fact, the girl appeared most suitable for millinery work.
But it is not possible in a short space to give details of the whole work inside an Exchange.
Suffice it to say much of it is secretarial in nature - filing index cards, collecting statistics, drawing up reports, and interviewing employers and employees. The statistical work is very important, and the basis of valuable information used in gauging the labour markets.
A Labour Exchange is usually open from 9 to 12 o'clock, and from 2 to 4 o'clock ; for the staff, from 9 to 5 o'clock with an hour for lunch, though some Exchanges open earlier to suit public convenience. Every consideration is shown during illness.
In the women's department, the assistant manager, senior registration clerk, or registration clerk in charge is responsible under the manager of the men's department, though there is no surety that this will always be the case. Indeed, it is likely, as time goes on, that new posts will be created to meet requirements. It is possible a morally doubtful applicant may appear at the pigeon-hole in the office. In that event it is advantageous to consult the Exchange manager, and probably no further action is taken until the supervisor comes round to investigate and advise.
The Future for Labour Exchanges
It will be readily understood that all the higher women officials are women of education, initiative, and organising capacity, and, moreover, women endowed with strong personalities. At present, they are few in number, but Labour Exchanges are increasing - there are between 200 and 300 at present - and the number of women employed will increase also. They may be required to read papers on special trades to members of staffs, and to hold classes for registration clerks.
The duties of a supervisor are to travel round and visit some thirty exchanges every three to five weeks to see that they are working satisfactorily. She is responsible for the organisation of the staffs in her division, also addresses meetings to interest the public in Labour Exchange work, and canvasses large employers to induce them to use the Labour Exchange. It may also come within the scope of her work to look after the women just engaged.
Occasionally young girls of about seventeen years of age have been engaged at a salary of twelve shillings a week to do mechanical office work, such as attending to the telephone, and. taking messages. These are usually scholarship girls from county schools, who may, if capable, become registration clerks.
Lastly, it is right to remark chat, as far as the writer's experience goes, no worker on the staff of a Labour Exchange speaks other than enthusiastically of the work. Those fortunate enough to be engaged upon it, therefore, are to be congratulated.