Sunday, 31 May 2009

Not quite the result I hoped for...

This has been a very busy week for me, hence that I've stayed away from the blog for the last ten days (and can only post very briefly now as I'll have to be in bed soon). I haven't even been home very much - enjoyed the long weekend by the beach in sunny Cornwall, then spent the rest of the week meeting recruitment consultants, having a job interview and then having a sleepover at one of my female friend's apartments, which was quite fun (and of course, good for doing something different).

Unfortunately, I didn't get the job I mentioned in the previous post that I got the interview for. The feedback was that they liked me and thought I interviewed well, unfortunately for me another candidate had slightly more relevant experience. To say I was gutted was an understatement. So gutted that I didn't even want to post anything for the last few days, though fear not - I feel fine about it now. Rejection happens to all of us at some point. I suppose one positive thing I can take away from it is that my interview technique is good - now to actually get more job interviews.

On another subject, tomorrow I will be starting a fortnight of unpaid work experience on a national broadsheet newspaper (as mentioned in a previous post) and that should be good - very different to my previous accountancy roles though. I've been looking forward to it for months so I'm still quite excited, and have been trying to focus on that rather than the job rejection.

In the meantime, though, I guess I'll keep trying on the job front. Hopefully I'll be back later this week to tell you about the work experience role.
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Thursday, 21 May 2009

Job update

I'm feeling as if I should post another "practical advice"-type post, seeing as that had been part of the original plan for this blog. As you all know, so far the only time I've posted anything resembling advice were the two consecutive posts on finances - why one should sort out their finances before a career change, and of course, suggestions on how to do so.

However, that'll have to be for another day.

Today's been quite eventful on the job front, I have to say. No sooner had I started this post, straight after finding out that I'd been rejected for one of the banking roles I talked about earlier this week, I was interrupted again by the shrill ringing of my mobile phone. My usual recruitment consultant James was ringing me to tell me that the other accountancy role (again in the Finance Department of another bank) want to invite me for interview next week. Thank God, I thought, an interview at last instead of a straight rejection like the last hundred roles I've been rejected for!

It sounds naive of me to say it again, but I really didn't think the recession would be as tough as this. This is the first time in my working life that I've actually been out of work for so long: for the last four years I've never had a problem finding a job. Even when I decided to quit my job at the accountancy firm last summer without another job to go to, I was confident that I'd quickly find another, more suitable, job - and, of course, I did: the six-month temporary role in a bank that I had until the contract finished in February this year.

Obviously by no means have I actually got this other banking role yet, but being invited for an interview certainly is encouraging after three months of rejections. It'll be good practice for other interviews at the very least!

I am continuing to apply for other roles, just in case. It now looks like I can't start work until mid-June anyway, as for the first two weeks in June, as you'll all already know from an earlier post, I am doing unpaid work experience on a national newspaper, which is an experience I won't pass up for ANYTHING, paid job or not!

On another topic - the Spring Bank Holiday weekend is coming up (we get two Bank Holiday weekends in May in the UK), so I shall be out of London from tomorrow until Monday night - we are going to visit my boyfriend's family down in Cornwall (southwesterly tip of England, with its own flag and its own - virtually dead - language, Cornish) as that's where he originally hails from. I'm not looking forward to the 9-hour coach journey from London, or even the 6-hour train journey back to London, but I am looking forward to going: I would recommend any visitor to the UK to consider going down there, with its stunning beaches and wild moors and slightly warmer climate.

So, before I leave you all to pack, I just thought I'd rummage through my photos of Cornwall to see if there's any I can share - can't find any beach shots, but I found this one I took a few years ago of St Michael's Mount, a tiny island rock just off the south coast of Cornwall dominated entirely by a castle:

For those of you that ever read Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" series when you were kids - especially "Five On A Treasure Island" - this is always what I imagined the fictional Kirrin Island to look like (which incidentally was supposed to be in Cornwall, but I'm not sure was necessarily based on St Michael's Mount). I was really tempted to search the depths of the castle for secret underground passageways and treasure, just like the Famous Five did in the book, but that might have been my imagination taking me just a little too far!

I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and I shall post again when I get back to London next week.
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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Taking a step backwards to go forwards?

This week has seemed a bit more positive. Two accountancy recruitment consultants rang me today to put my name forward for two new accountancy roles that have become available. One's a permanent role in an accountancy firm, the other's a permanent role in a film company. In addition, my usual recruitment consultant James rang me yesterday to put my name forward for a temporary role at another large bank, so hopefully something will come out of these three prospective roles.

Especially after I went to the Jobcentre today to sign on only to find out they'd lost part of my signing-on file - but the less said about that the better, I think!

For those of you wondering why I am looking for another role in accountancy when I am trying to leave the profession, fear not: it is actually all part of the plan.

Last summer the plan was to save money for the eventual career change from a temporary contract role or two. I chose to take up a temporary contract role in a global bank partly because it paid more money than a permanent accountancy role - meaning I could save more money - and for temp roles, you get paid for the exact number of hours you work, so if you worked more than your contracted seven hours in day you would be well-rewarded for it (unlike most permanent jobs). In my previous permanent job at an accountancy firm (i.e. my second-to-last job) it wasn't unusual for me to work so late I didn't get home until well past 9pm, by which point I was too tired for any career-changing planning or activity... and even when I got home it didn't stop, for I was expected to do further accountancy study and training, which would have been fine if I wasn't trying to find a way out of the profession!

Obviously I wasn't counting on the credit crunch to bite harder than it did, so when my temp role at the Bank ended in February this year, I was surprised to find the job market as quiet as it has been. I had been hoping to take on another temporary contract, but thanks to the lack of jobs in the supposedly recession-proof accountancy sector (it's not recession-proof at all by the way) I am having to be less fussy and take on any job which pays. Needs must, after all.

And that, of course, means that I can't necessarily escape from chartered accountancy just yet. It looks like I may need to take on another role for a while if only to ensure the bills get paid. I'm still applying for the TEFL summer jobs in case these three roles come to nothing; however, as with most career changes, the change may have to happen quite slowly, being planned for all the way.
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Thursday, 14 May 2009

Keeping one's spirits up

When my good friend Bec asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee and girly chat on Tuesday night, I jumped at the chance. After all, there's only so much a girl can take of staying at home, watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, applying for jobs on the internet, and getting rejected for all of them.

So we spent a very pleasant evening at Caffé Vergnano 1882, so called as they have been roasting coffee in London since 1882. This award-winning independent café has lived for many decades among the bookstores on Charing Cross Road, although they recently opened a branch on London's South Bank which is where we went (and I had the hot chocolate on the left). To be honest, our "girly chat" wasn't very girly as we both discussed our career plans and job situations, both of which have been affected by the credit crunch. Of course it was great to see Bec again, and it was great to have a reason to leave the flat. I have to say, it did me the world of good.

Nobody ever said that changing careers was easy, and nobody ever said looking for a new job was easy, recession or not. Sometimes it's a real effort to stay optimistic and it can feel as if you'll never get anywhere. This is where a supportive family and/or supportive friends often come in; their support and point of view can be invaluable. In the absence of either supportive friends or family, simply doing an activity that will take you away from, or out of, your current situation can help. If coffee with a friend isn't possible, then perhaps going for a run or reading your favourite book might help.

It's far too easy to feel down about one's situation, and sometimes unyielding optimism is neither natural or realistic. There really is no point forcing a positivity you simply don't - and can't - feel. However, spending too long in the dumps brings the danger of making you less motivated to do anything if you feel the world is unendingly crap and there's nothing you can do about it. When you start feeling like that, it is time to do something different - if only to give you something different to think about.

Often the only way out of any difficult circumstance is to just go through it, unfortunately. As Winston Churchill once said, "When going through hell, ... keep going."
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Sunday, 10 May 2009

The value of education

I don't watch an awful lot of TV, mainly because I wasn't really brought up with it. Being currently unemployed has meant that I now occasionally watch The Jeremy Kyle Show (there's a lovely picture of him with an explanation on an earlier post), but that's it during the day.

One programme that I always watch though is The Apprentice (UK version, on the BBC every Wednesday at 9pm between March and June). Perhaps my previous training as an accountant meant that a show about business appeals to me in some way, even if the "prize" at the end of it is to work for Sir Alan Sugar.

The candidates are often hailed as "Britain's brightest business brains". Some of them are so highly qualified it makes me embarrassed just to have a Batchelor of Science degree. Sir Alan isn't quite so intimidated. As everyone knows, he didn't even get near a degree: he left school at the age of 16 to sell car aerials out of a van. Many highly-educated candidates with a string of qualifications as long as one's arm have been bluntly cut down by Sir Alan's no-nonsense remarks. "These certificates and qualifications, all they tell any employer is that the person's got a brain," he once famously fumed. "It really doesn't matter whether someone comes to me with an MBA, an OBE, a KFC or a YMCA, as far as I'm concerned. You can't learn business practices out of a book."

Is he right? Just how important is education in the world of business - or even the world of work?

When you're at school, you're always taught that education is the key to success: if you don't work hard, you won't get good grades; and if you don't get good grades, you won't get a good degree; and if you don't get a good degree, you won't get a good job. It would seem that acquiring lots of good, solid educational qualifications is the only way to guarantee career success - or even business success. Sir Alan, it would seem, doesn't share that opinion: he once snapped at a Cambridge University-educated candidate on The Apprentice (after her disastrous attempt at running a pizza stall): "This is not some further education college, you know, where dummkopfs come to learn to make mistakes."

Clearly the lack of further education never held Sir Alan back from success. It didn't hold back a former schoolmate of mine who left school at 16: two years later he came to visit us all in the Sixth Form. There we were, at 18 years old, sweating over our A-Level revision and university application forms, and there he was - having worked his way up through his company over the previous two years - commanding a salary of £30,000 (the average starting salary for a university graduate now is about £23,000, but back in the year 2000 it was probably less than £20k).

One of the managers I worked under in my first accountancy job left school at 18, found her first job in a tiny accountancy firm on a tiny salary and persuaded them to train her for the chartered accountancy qualification. Once she qualified at the age of 21 she left them to join a bigger, world-famous firm. By the age of 25 she was already a manager on £50,000. By the age of 25 I was still struggling through my chartered accountancy qualification on a fraction of her salary. Not to mention £10,000 of student loan debt I'd incurred from getting my BSc Mathematics degree, which of course she didn't have. And I was nowhere near her seniority level.

The point I'm trying to make is, salaries aside, by the ages of 18 and 25, these people were far further along in their lives and their careers than I was at those ages. They got good enough GCSE and A-Level grades for their desired careers, then instead of going on to university (and they certainly could, if they wanted), tried to get their foot in the door of their chosen field by accepting a low-paid, low-skilled position and working their way up. Despite my top-class degree from a top-class university, at the age of 23 I still spent the first few months at the accountancy firm making tea and photocopying while I was "learning the ropes". I may have started on a higher salary than if I'd started at the age of 18, but I'd always be about 3 or 5 years behind in career progression.

Our former Prime Minister Tony Blair once pledged to have 50% of all young people in the UK in university education. Never mind that, frankly, some of these teenagers may not be suited to higher education, and as above, may not even need it. Entry to higher education certainly increased under his tenure, and so did the number of loans taken out by the Student Loan Company as a result. But, we were all promised, getting yourself into debt for a good university degree would all be worth it as you were guaranteed to get the best jobs as a result of spending an extra 3 to 5 years in a schooling environment. Try telling that to the class of 2009, who leave university in the middle of a recession only to find the "best" employers are not hiring any graduate recruits and the only jobs available are the low-skilled ones. Does one really need a degree to flip burgers in McDonalds?

There is also the issue that school and university life doesn't prepare you for the world of work. This has been a frequent complaint among a lot of graduates. At 21 I could tell you all about the Theory of Relativity and numbers on an imaginary plane, but I didn't have a clue about how to deal with office politics or the character transplant required to fit into work culture. I could tell you all about the Navier-Stokes equations for fluid dynamics, but I didn't have a clue why our office working methods were what they were.

I wasn't prepared for the fact that our office chat consisted of mindless gossip and conversations about TV programmes, instead of the debates about literature and world politics that I got used to with my university friends. I simply didn't have a clue that when your boss marches in, announcing that he's gone commando in the office because he's shit his pants and had to throw them away, you have to humour him instead of being horrified. Nothing could have prepared me for that!

So it would seem that academia doesn't prepare you either for real life or for the world of work. What worth does it have, then?

A couple of years ago I gave a talk at a local secondary school about what a career in accountancy would involve. As soon as their career advisor introduced me as an accountant I could see the whole room of 16-year-olds switch off like the lights had gone out. Only one seemed interested, and enthusiastically wrote down everything I said. There was one problem. He wanted to be an accountant, but he couldn't be bothered with his schoolwork. Particularly Maths. Now, while you don't have to be a Maths genius to be an accountant (in fact, it probably helps if you aren't!), you do need to be good at basic arithmetic. If you don't have a good GCSE and/or A-Level Maths grade by the age of 18, then forget it: no self-respecting firm is going to employ a trainee accountant who can't count.

It's not just accountancy: you'd be surprised how important basic mathematical skills are for day-to-day living. Particularly with financial matters: at best it stops you paying more than you necessarily need to; at worst it stops you being completely ripped off.

On The Apprentice a few weeks ago, Paula, a human resources manager, received the "You're Fired" treatment from Sir Alan and crashed out of the competition despite having come up with a brilliant body-care product and organising her team efficiently. The reason? A simple arithmetic error arising from mixing up two essential oils meaning she'd spent over £700 instead of the £5 she thought she'd spent. Paula's bleating that "I'm no good at numbers" was viewed dimly. It was basic maths that we all learned in school.

Other work and life skills build on school learning too: if you've never bothered to learn to spell or use grammar properly, you can't expect other people to understand what you've written. Business clients will think you are unprofessional and incompetent. When applying for a job, it could even annoy the person who is reviewing your application. Computer spell-checkers don't always pick up spelling or grammar mistakes, so it still means you have to learn these academic skills at some point.

Increasingly employers are demanding an ever-widening set of academic skills, such as foreign language skills and basic geographic knowledge. So ignoring your teachers may not be such a good idea after all.

Some professions actually need a relevant university degree: if you want to be a doctor you need to do a degree in medicine. My boyfriend works in IT but he has a Computer Science degree. Sir Alan's assertion that educational qualifications "only tell an employer that person's got a brain" is therefore not entirely true.

Personally, I don't regret the time I spent at university. I'd wanted to go since the age of 11, and being Little Miss Straight "A" Student without much effort meant that there was no way I wasn't going to go. If I had my time all over again, I'd still have gone to university, even if I might have picked a different subject. I loved my time at university. Not only did I get to be independent, I learned how to cook, how to live on a shoestring budget, how to interact with people from vastly different social backgrounds - and cultures - from me. I met great people and got to challenge my brain. I took advantage of all the opportunities I didn't get at school - student journalism, living with friends, martial arts classes and so on. I learned how other people lived, worked, and thought. I learned so many things that I never would have known if I never went to university.

I also learned that life is what you make it. The greatest education in life is that of life itself, but your academic education is of as much value as you make of it. And sometimes the uses you find for your education can be quite unexpected.
The writers of the musical Avenue Q have degrees in English Literature, commonly seen as a "useless" degree that doesn't lead to anything, career-wise... so they wrote a song in Avenue Q called "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" You can't argue that they didn't make use of that!
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Saturday, 9 May 2009

Update on the Jobcentre situation - and the job situation

This is a going to be a very quick post as it's my lovely boyfriend's 28th birthday today, so I will need to head off very soon for the birthday party I've been busy organising all week. Would you believe it, I completely forgot to buy him a card despite trying to organise the big day... how the hell did I manage to forget that???? After all, it's not as if I actually forgot his birthday (well, you'd hope not, seeing as I've spent the week organising it!) Ah well, hopefully all will be forgiven very soon!

The rest of the week has been spent battling a nearby wasps' nest - the little blighters keep mysteriously getting into our bathroom - and sorting out my application at the Jobcentre. I'm pleased to tell you that the interview went smoothly this time, so hopefully things will be sorted out soon.

The other thing that's kept me busy this week is writing an article for one of my favourite blogs, Laura Reviews at Quite aside from my article (about things for a bookworm to do when in London), I do urge you all to go and visit this intelligent, insightful and frankly wonderful blog, dedicated to reviewing the written word in all forms.

I still haven't managed to find an accountancy job, though, and dole money won't be enough. So what I'm considering now is other paid employment, specifically Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), which is what I did in China in 2004. While there aren't so many long-term TEFL opportunities in England, plenty of schools are recruiting for the summer months at the moment. OK, the salary's a fraction of what I got as an accountant working for a global bank in the City (London's version of Wall Street in New York), but it'll be just about enough for the mortgage and bills I think - and I don't mind living cheaply for a while. At the moment it's just more important that I have some sort of income coming in! Many people working in my field (particularly at the Bank I worked at till this February) tend to live very luxurious and expensive lives, but fortunately for me I cut out a lot of those things over the last year or so for the future career change, so I'm more used to it than most!

I've heard from my recruitment consultants that many newly-qualified accountants like me are struggling to find jobs as a result of the credit crunch, so a lot of them have either gone travelling for 6 months, found voluntary work, or are generally doing something completely different to keep them busy until the jobs market picks up. Personally I'm happy for the opportunity to do something different... and dare I confess it, secretly enjoying my time off...
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Sunday, 3 May 2009

Fear and loathing at the Jobcentre

Anyone watching Jeremy Kyle (Britain's answer to The Jerry Springer Show) would be forgiven for thinking that appearing on the show is a favourite pastime for anyone claiming unemployment benefits. The daytime TV show famously described by a judge as "the human form of bear-baiting" seems to take particular pleasure in featuring surly, inarticulate, under-educated dole-claimants whose sole ambition seems to be appearing on the show to air their personal lives on national television, shout at each other, and be shouted at by Jeremy Kyle himself.

While I'm not going to judge the circumstances under which people claim state benefits long-term, I do wonder how they can bear it. Quite aside from the vocal moral outrage of those like Kyle [left], the fact is you still have to get yourself to the Jobcentre to attend a "sign-on" meeting every 2 weeks in order to receive the dole money and let the staff suggest "suitable" available jobs to get you back in work. Personally I can't stand the Jobcentre. It's one of the most disorganised and chaotic institutions there is. Often the queues are so long and the staff are so stressed and confused that by some unhappy accident you seem to end up spending most of the day there waiting for someone to see you... only to be told that your name was mistakenly crossed off the list. When you finally get a meeting with a member of staff they ask you about your qualifications and skills to match you to suitable employment, then inform you that you're "far too qualified" for the long-distance truck-driver role that their computer database has somehow suggested as your ideal job. Fortunately the recession has meant that the staff no longer tell people like me that we're "too qualified" for the jobs they attempt to foist on us, as obviously a lot of formerly high-flying professionals have been walking through their doors.

But anyway... it would probably come as no surprise to any of you that, given my less-than-favourable impression of the Jobcentre, I forgot about my "sign-on" meeting. No problem, I was told; I could come in the next day (last Thursday) for a "late sign-on", but as my unemployment benefits claim still hasn't been processed yet, I wouldn't be paid yet. I turned up the next day, only to find that:
a) they'd forgotten to add my name to the list of "late sign-ons" that day
b) someone had come along and closed my unemployment benefits application without bothering to read the note on my file about the "late sign-on" meeting.

So it seems I have to go through the whole rigamarole again. Not that I was told this at first: after being advised one thing and then another by various Department for Work and Pensions people over the phone, I then found out I have to go through the whole applications process again "because I haven't received any dole money yet". All this in spite of the fact that my initial claim has yet to be processed! I know it's partly my fault for missing the meeting in the first place, but what a pain. I have no idea how long-term benefits claimants put up with the amount of hassle one has to go through.

Whilst in theory it's nice that countries like the UK have some sort of safety net to help those who are actively looking for work and might need a bit of support in the meantime, in practice it's complicated, cumbersome and unreliable. I'm not even sure the staff themselves know entirely what they're doing. Common advice on losing your job is that you shouldn't delay in claiming benefits, whatever your financial situation; but to be perfectly honest doing so can be a job in itself.

I'll certainly be glad when the application process (or re-application process in my case) is over next week and I can concentrate on doing the things I need to do to find gainful employment. Until then, I shall just enjoy the Bank Holiday weekend.
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