Unemployment, qualifications and aptitude

On the local news on TV there was a feature from a seaside town about the high level of unemployment. One guy interviewed complained he couldn’t get a job despite being a qualified bricklayer, gym instructor and IT technician. Now I know there is something known as a benefits trap and there may not be that many full time jobs in those disciplines, but a few postcards in newsagents’ windows would surely bring some work in any of these areas of expertise. It would also show continuing experience for a prospective employer when the jobs market picks up. If the guy were lucky his bits of work from the three areas could add up to a full-time occupation. It certainly sounds like a waste of talent.

Am I being harsh? Is this another example of the dependency culture? Should he be on his bike?

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The excitement of independence

In my previous article I referred to Penny Power and her recent blog, and she and subsequent contributors including her husband and co-founder of Ecademy referred to the different attitudes we need as small business owners to those we are required to have as employees, particularly in a larger corporate environment. I started my first job in a bank, and whilst it was no ordinary bank, it was a large institution. When I finally left it was because I felt I was an under-rewarded number as opposed to a real person with aspirations and needs.

My next job, in which I lasted a good few years, was a smallish firm with one office. Whilst life was not always happy there, with occasionally difficult bosses with alcohol and mental problems, we had some great times too and the firm felt like a large family. Many of the problems are those which one might have in an extended family, but at the same time we had fun as well as doing some good work. Also, in those inflationary times, the partners did their best to pay us properly and to keep up with market rates. That, combined with the fact that the work was challenging, technically difficult and challenging in a geekish sort of way kept me pretty happy work-wise until my boss’s declining mental health (as I realised only later) forced me to move on.

One of the attractions of the next firm I joined was that it was small and I was in charge of a whole department, such as it was. I had had a brief encounter at my previous job with modern technology in the form of computerization of the department of which I was an assistant manager, and my brief in the new firm was to run it more efficiently and preside over the introduction of information technology. As it happened I also thought that it would be good to acquire wider computer skills with both hardware and software so that I was more adaptable in case I lost my job in the recession of the nineties. What actually happened was that I was not only running my department but also IT troubleshooter for the whole firm, from dealing with dodgy cables to “undeleting” what the secretaries had accidentally deleted. Such faux pas were all too easy then and I earned the gratitude of ladies who had inadvertently deleted entire reports which their bosses had spent hours dictating. It was easy stuff, we had a family atmosphere in the firm and I could more or less do what I liked within my domain without interference as long as nothing went wrong, and it didn’t, I am pleased to say.

Came the time when the firm’s useful client base was bought out by an international firm, along with the staff, and I found myself in a huge corporate environment in which one could hardly wipe one’s nose without logging it, where there were rules, a compulsory conference, and “bonding” days spoiled by people being so competitive. What was worse was that as a guy with a small firm background I was never given any decent technical work; the partners were prejudiced against all of us “hicks” whom they felt had been dumped on them and worse, these partners had no idea about commercial realities and economics.

That is why I thank the heavens every day that through whatever circumstance, I am an independent business owner in charge of my own destiny. I make all the decisions (well, I consult my wife often) but the buck stops with me, and that is fine. Also, I can do whatever I like as long as it is legal and ethical in order to make some money.

I have been trying to explain this to a small start-up business client that he needs to get out of a mindset that he only does one thing. Of course he did only one thing when he worked for someone else. Now he needs to be more flexible for his family’s sake.

I explained a while back that my wife and I needed to be open to running any sort of business for which there might be a demand. That is why we have several businesses. I love my independence, and am looking forward to starting the fifth business venture my wife and I have between us, which has come to me through networking. Those two words in that last sentence, independence and networking, illustrate why having one or more of one’s own businesses is so much fun and is so rewarding.

© Jon Stow 2009

Being lucky!

As I have been telling everyone, notably on Twitter, I have had a lot of problems with IT over the last three weeks. I am pretty dependent on the technology working to keep my business running smoothly. I use many on-line services, paid-for and otherwise. In fact, the way I work as a quite small business would not have been possible fifteen years ago, and not too easy a decade ago. I started seven years ago as a fairly early adopter originally being on-line with 24-7 dial-up before broadband reached our area. Without the technology I would be a lone voice crying in the wilderness and never heard, and whilst the recent problems bring headaches, I have to be thankful that when the technology works (which is usually) it is magic. I am genuinely lucky that my business is facilitated (made easier – but the thesaurus isn’t that helpful) this way as a while back I would have been one of the unemployed with little prospect of getting work in a downturn.

Lots of people have similarly been unshackled by the technology and have genuinely a much greater chance of getting businesses off the ground to earn some money in hard times. I am not talking about dodgy MLM and “network marketing”; I mean real B2B and B2C business. Of course there may be a difficult market but there are opportunities to make a difference, to help struggling businesses and to be innovative too. For those who are computer-literate and can be flexible there should be a viable business (even if only providing a subsidiary income) using their talents or exploiting their knowledge in a hobby to go in a different direction. If you have experience in a market as a buyer, you can probably be a seller.

Today we have through technology the potential to gain knowledge my parents could never have dreamt of, and a much greater insight into what is going on in the world. Political and economics intelligence is available to us all and at little or no cost, so in a way there is no excuse for ignorance, though we should never be afraid to ask for help where it is needed.

I could get into trouble for this kind of article because many do not like the optimistic perceived coach-type pieces we see published so often. Some of my best friends are coaches. Chuck what you wish in terms of virtual brickbats. We ARE lucky in that we do not have to do as we are told and can go our own way, and all because of technology.

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Dispatches from the front – age discrimination

Some of you may have seen a Channel 4 Dispatches episode this week about age discrimination, mainly not in the workplace (which is covered by Government legislation) but discrimination preventing more mature workers from being taken on in the first place. The whole thing was pretty educational, but the first few minutes concentrated on a qualified accountant in his fifties and his trainee accountant daughter. They both applied to specialist recruitment agencies. Despite the chap in his fifties having vast experience the agencies just tended to lose his records and CV, and did not bother to interview him whilst his daughter was invited in for meetings and had emails from agencies with which she had not even registered. In putting older candidates off, they are told that the role is “dynamic”, that they would be bored because they have too much experience, or they would not be suitable for such a junior role.

None of this surprises me in the slightest, of course, as it reflects my experience, though I am now very happy to work for myself and have my own business. I was turned down for HMRC’s tax legislation re-write project a while back because I did not have a university degree. I was surprised as I would have been ideal. As an eleven year old I won a free place at a “posh” school where learning the strict rules of English Grammar was considered essential and I also have an ‘O’ Level in Latin to remind me of the importance of grammar and the origin and structure of our language. This may be a surprise to those of you who think I write in a quite casual way but I would have been an ideal candidate given my technical background too. I realise that this was only one of a number of possible excuses for not putting forward such a mature candidate.

However, I will mention that when I started work for the first time a good while ago I was eighteen. Most new recruits joined banks, insurance companies and accountants straight from school between thirty and forty years ago; some even joined their employers in these sectors at sixteen. That was the “baby boomer” way and to require a university degree is a pretty good age filter for those whose parents could not afford to put them through university. Not having a degree from thirty-five years ago is hardly an indication of unsuitability, especially with a long and respectable track record in between.

In these hard times it will be easier for employers to discriminate and use younger trainees in accountancy etc. to provide cheaper labour than that perhaps thought to be expected by more experienced job candidates. The tragedy is that the trainees will get older, qualify and have a few good years. Then their careers will founder on the “Rock of Ages” in the same way.

For the present, there will be more older candidates seeking positions due to the economic downturn and the huge losses to their pensions pots, and they will have to compete against much younger qualified people who have also lost their jobs.

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Realism, job seeking and cats

I heard a feature on BBC Radio Five Live this morning which related to the newly unemployed. There was a lady made redundant from the the Findus factory in Newcastle which closed down a few weeks ago, Christine Tinling, who was talking with Katja Hall of the CBI and Sarah Veal of the TUC.

Now I can understand that Ms. Tinling is still in shock, so she was resistant to being put forward for jobs worth £13-14K per annum when she was earning a lot more prior to losing her job. However, she was advised by Ms. Veal that she was quite right to hold out for more because employers would be looking to get labour on the cheap. So on the one side, Ms. Veal was overlooking the fact that cash-strapped employers might be having difficulty in keeping their businesses afloat and on the other hand she was encouraging someone to scrape along on benefit, which she had said she could not afford to do, in the hope of getting something else. At the same time she contradicted herself in a way by saying what we all know: that the longer you are out of a job the lower your prospects of getting another one, let alone a decent one.

The discussion was not taken a great deal forward by Ms. Hall suggesting that Job Seeker’s allowance of £60.50 per week was enough for basic living whilst one is looking for work. Living on another planet?

I have been along the path. I found myself unemployed with no warning whatever. It takes a while to realise that the ideal job is hard to come by when you do not already have one.

This blog is not called “On Our Bikes” for nothing. There comes a point quite soon where you have to have some earnings coming in even if you had some savings, and believe me they evaporate quite quickly with a mortgage, council tax, utilities and food to pay for. So my wife and I did things we would not have considered. We were prepared to do anything, and did. We started a cat-sitting business to allow people to leave their cats at home whilst they were on holiday. The money wasn’t great, but it was a help whilst we were getting on our feet with other businesses, and we were so appreciated that my wife and I still have loyal customers so the business still lives and is seen as a valuable service. If you live locally to us and need your cats cared for in their own home, you know where to come.

Everyone newly unemployed might all have plans to get back into “their” sort of work or build a business, but in the interim and to keep active and committed, take or do anything you can get. Anyway, if you are out and about meeting people that is natural networking which might lead to more rewarding work. Don’t just sit at home and think this or that job is beneath you. You will be more admired for making the effort.