Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

The Hard Times of Old England

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Today was the day I had been waiting for. I was finally offered a job. To get to this point from being first advised that my earlier job was under threat of redundancy has taken five-and-a-half months, something in excess of 120 job applications, and fifteen (or fourteen, or sixteen, depending on how you count them) interviews. This is the “burgeoning economy” that politicians and commentators boast that we are now living in.

Of course, there are special circumstances relating to my situation. I have a somewhat specialist job. (IT software tester.) I am based outside That London. I have a somewhat unusual career path – I started doing software testing before the main industry qualification was invented, my test automation experience is rather limited and also at least ten years out of date, and (despite the practice now being illegal) I am considered way too old by too many people to even consider doing anything much more complex than stacking shelves in a supermarket or projecting an air of Experience and Knowledge About Sheds in some home improvement DIY superstore. But I’m hardly unique.

The venture capitalist owners of my former employer decided that they needed to increase the amount of profit they were making out of the exercise. Someone identified a software company that they might acquire which would increase the asset base of the company as a whole, and enable to company to cut most of its in-house IT provision. And so it came to pass that my job as a tester was declared to be “an unaffordable luxury”. This came back to bite them, of course. The company was required to relocate because the site that we occupied was marked for redevelopment. They took up brand new offices in the city centre, and announced this widely online and in social media. “Click here for more details of our stunning new offices!” it said.

Guess what. The link didn’t work. The Germans have a word for the way I felt about that. Look up Schadenfreude.

Of course, there was a process to be gone through. The company suggested that they would look to see if there were any other equivalent jobs that those of us under threat of redundancy could do. I said to myself, “Well, all they will have on file will be my testing CV. That doesn’t tell the whole story.” So I assembled an addendum to my CV, detailing the things I’d done that weren’t on the main resume. And I sent it to the director who was managing the redundancy process, saying “I’d hazard to suggest that I have skills that you know nothing about, and which I suspect no-one else in the company has.” His response was “I’ll read it, but you should understand that we are not in the business of creating jobs for people.” Then he opened the document, and saw, on the first page, this:

  • Five years’ experience in Press Office work for a high-profile Government Department at headquarters level
    • Dealing with press enquiries
    • Overseeing production and distribution of publications, press notices and Stock Exchange announcements, sometimes at short notice
    • Drafting press notices
    • Drafting responses to enquiries from MPs
    • Organising press conferences, seminars and high-level meetings
    • Organising media interviews, briefing broadcast media and print journalists
      • Received training in media interviewing technique
    • Organising Ministerial visits for UK and overseas government representatives
    • Proof-reading and fact-checking reports, press notices and speeches for senior staff (up to CEO level)
  • Preparing briefing for senior staff (up to CEO level) on:
    • The French water industry
    • The German water industry
    • Progress of legislation through Parliament
      • Reporting on Committee stages of legislation
      • Briefing senior staff (Chairman and CEO) for appearance before the Public Accounts Committee.

His face in the next meeting he attended was a picture. It may not have helped me secure any sort of position in the company, but it sure as hell made me feel better about the process; and that director avoided me for the rest of the time I was there. Finally he understood the amount of contempt I held him in. He had, after all, made a point of loudly dismissing all the testing work I’d done in the previous two years without understanding any of it. I felt I was justified in reducing him to the status of an insect.

I had some indication of the uphill struggle I was facing from the outset. My first application was to a company who ran a household services comparison website. Pretty quickly, they called me in for interview. Their business model was not dissimilar from the company I was working for, so I was able to do some serious thinking about their business, their software fit and the sort of areas where they might expand it. I went in and did what I felt was a pretty good interview.

They turned down my application because they said I was a “poor cultural fit for the role and the office”. Well, as far as I could see, it was possibly the most mono-cultural office I’d set foot in for more than twenty years. In fact, I could only see one area where I did not match the cultural profile of the rest of the office, and that was age – which is, as I said, illegal now (though like any other sort of workplace discrimination, the problem is proving it. Most people aren’t so stupid as to actually admit to such a thing in writing).

In the course of the 120+ job applications after that, and the 15 interviews, I never came across anything quite so blatant; mostly, those who didn’t value my experience were more polite. There were instances where my failure to progress was more understandable; I wasn’t generally applying for Test Manager roles, but occasionally one would come up which was so worded as to make me think I  might have a chance. After all, I was almost a de facto Test Manager in my previous role, and indeed had been referred to as ‘Test Lead’ by colleagues. So for a company without well-defined testing protocols, I might be an attractive proposition. But the one I went to – after initial screening by the agency, I would add, and then a paper sift by the company – turned out to be anything but unorganised. Their IT manager was one of a breed of IT guys I’d come across before – he very much reminded me of the guy who headhunted me into Quality Assurance back in Ofwat; frighteningly intelligent, highly competent and never in the same place for much more than five minutes. I would have enjoyed working with him, but it was very clear almost from the outset that the company knew what they wanted and it was way outside my comfort zone. Chalk that one down to experience.

Perhaps the oddest experience I had was with a specialist software house who had a product along the same lines as the company I’d worked for. I went to and survived first interview, and I was invited to a second interview with the MD/owner, Business Director and Head of IT. For this I had to make a presentation as well as do the usual interview stuff. Again, I went in well clued up on the company, its business, its products and its sector. I did a pretty good interview. Afterwards, I spoke to the agency, and they said “Well, there was you and one other person got through to this stage – and they’ve turned the other person down because they said your technical knowledge was better.” But then, when I asked the obvious question, their rather enigmatic answer was “Robert’s given us a lot to think about.”

And think about it they did. For four days. Their eventual answer was “We don’t think Robert’s a team player”, which was a mystery to both me and the agency, as I’d talked at length about how much I’d worked with different teams, both co-located and offshore, how much I’d enjoyed working with some of thee teams and had good results from direct, one-on-one relationships with other developers. A friend of mine listened to this, and then said “You frightened them.” They re-advertised, filled the post, and then had to re-advertise again when the appointee decided that the travelling was not to their taste. And I was contacted twice for each re-advertisement to see if I was interested…

All the way through this process, I was hoarding my pennies, because I was hoping to avoid any contact with the benefits system. The last time I signed unemployed with the DWP, back in 2012, I hadn’t qualified for benefits because I’d been self-employed in the relevant contributions year, and because my small Civil Service pension exceeded the benefits payable. But now I have rent to pay, and I’d been in proper employment for two years, so I thought I would give it a try again.

I was appalled at what I found. The DWP now require all new benefits claimants to sign daily for the first eight weeks of the claim. 35 years ago, when I worked for the DWP’s predecessor Department, daily signing was an indicator that you were suspected of fraud – specifically, “working whilst in receipt”. Daily signing forced the claimant to turn up at the office at a particular time, disrupting a working day and allowing Special Investigation Officers to acquire their subjects and follow them. But now, this appears to be done specifically to get claimants into a mind-set of “looking for work” and open them to new and exciting job opportunities. Except that I was already in a “looking for work” mind-set (remember 120+ applications?), and the job opportunities they kept trying to point me (and everyone else) towards were warehouse, retail or caring jobs. They even offered me work experience in the Job Centre itself! As if I had no idea how a modern office operates..

Staff attitudes initially set me in mind of the Milgram Experiment, the experiment where members of the public were instructed to deliver electric shocks of ever-increasing voltage to an unseen test subject if they answered a question incorrectly; and because the instructions were delivered by an authority figure, the public complied up to lethal voltages and beyond. But after the first week, the Job Centre staff seemed to calm down, especially as many of us in my Job Club group were a bit older and radiated a certain air of “seen this before”. And to be fair, after a fortnight the staff themselves were confiding that they were under a whip from their management to promote certain jobs and activities. But the staff still didn’t seem to have any idea how professional or specialist recruitment operates. I actually missed a job opportunity where an agency rang up whilst I was signing on to try to arrange a telephone interview with an employer that afternoon. By the time I got back home, took the call and phoned back, the employer had filled all the interview slots they wanted and weren’t re-opening them for anyone.

The DWP staff certainly pushed the idea that I should apply for any suitable job. But how is that going to work? My CV shows a track record of nearly twenty years’ software testing; most office roles nowadays have specialist skills that employers are looking for. An employer is not going to want someone who may well only stay in a job for a few weeks if it’s clear from their CV that their expertise lies in another area; and even if they did appoint, can you imagine an Amazon warehouse shift supervisor being happy with the odd member of staff taking time out to answer employment agency calls during the day?

With all that in mind, and once I found again that I wouldn’t qualify for any benefit, I signed myself off, reasoning that I could do far better at finding work than the Job Centre. Incidentally, you now need two years’ contributions to get six months of contributions-related Job Seekers’ Allowance – back in the times I knew it was one year’s contributions got you one year’s Unemployment benefit. And UB was paid at a higher rate than Supplementary Benefit, whereas the rates of JSA are the same whether it’s based on contributions or paid out of taxation.

Meanwhile, Housing Benefit, paid by the local council (I remember converting all our office’s live case load to Housing Benefit when it was first introduced in the early 1980s) is based on the same numbers as income-related JSA; it then assumes that 65% of your income is available to meet your rent, and you get the difference between that and the local upper rent limit – an average of appropriate rents in your area. How you are supposed to fund your job search in this process is a bit beyond me. To look for work nowadays, you need electricity to run your computer, a broadband account so you can search the web, get job alerts and upload your CV, and you also need to be able to travel. My job search was based on a 50-mile radius of Leicester, being close to the M1 as I am; I applied for jobs as far afield as Barton-on-Humber in the north, Milton Keynes in the south, Stafford in the west and Peterborough in the east. In the end, I’ve ended up with a job in Coventry, which is perhaps 40 minutes away (once I get my car sorted and I can drive it faster than 40 mph without a nasty shimmy developing, and once the A46/A45 flyunder junction at Tollbar End opens, due sometime before Christmas).

So: a new chapter beckons. In 2013-14, it took me from the end of September to the beginning of the following July to find work. Indeed, I actually didn’t get an invitation to interview until January ’14 that time. This time round, I started looking at the beginning of June, had my first interview almost immediately, and I start work towards the end of November – a bit quicker, but just as worrying. And in this case, it was worry brought about because of blind decisions made by men in suits who were thinking about shareholder value and their own personal enrichment. These attitudes seem to be widespread in the business and governmental world nowadays. And people wonder why electorates seem willing to deliver a bloody nose to the status quo. But my take on that will have to wait for another day.


Written by robertday154

November 17, 2016 at 12:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Robert, this is, at once, a disheartening and uplifting post. Older workers face situations like yours every day, where their experience and skills suddenly become “redundant” and all those years of loyalty amount to little more than a limp handshake on your way out the door. I’m glad this story does have a happy ending, after a lot of tough days and sleepless nights. You deserved better treatment and you’re right to conclude that your experiences are an indictment of the present “status quo”.

    Workers of the world unite!

    Cliff Burns

    November 17, 2016 at 5:33 pm

  2. Really happy for you Robert that you have found a job after all the trying and interviews plus after the way you were initially treated by your old employer.

    Onwards and upwards !


    November 17, 2016 at 7:25 pm

  3. Outstanding depiction of how the system screws middle-aged people who want to work. As you say, “people wonder why electorates seem willing to deliver a bloody nose to the status quo”

    John Band

    November 18, 2016 at 5:39 am

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