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Monday, 15 December 2008

No country for old (wo)men

Welcome, welcome to to our small but rapidly growing country, as you now know it is called the Benighted State of Redundancionia.

Please sit down here at the table in our small customs post.I haven't much time to go through all the details about our State as there do seem to be rather a lot of people in the queue behind you all waiting to come in. Strange how the State seems to grow very quickly, almost all of a sudden and then shrink slowly again over time. Last time it grew, our population was over 3 million. We are not sure how big it will grow this time but it seems to go in ten year cycles or so. I suppose someone in your country knows why this is. No? Oh that's curious you'd have thought...Well I suppose they have a plan to fix the problem quickly and are working in a concerted way to enable you all to return to the State you were in. No? Oh that's a little curious as well, still...

Where was I, ah yes the population. Well of course some of our population never leave us you know. Once they've entered Redundancionia they never seem to be able to leave this State though they say they want to. They talk about 'Waiting for Jobbo', or someone with a name like that. But they never appear or arrive to take them away. Sad really. However I'm sure you'll be soon back where you were. You're not sure? Well there must be plenty of opportunities. No? Well...

We have all types here with all sorts of very good and useful skills, both sexes (and some who are not quite sure), single parents, young people, indeed all ages, though we do seem to be particularly popular with the over 50s for some reason. They seem to stay with us longest. Why is that do you think, you all seem very, very capable with lots to offer back home? Can't think why your State doesn't jump at taking you back, except of course for Estate Agents and anyone who was a Banker, we all understand that.

Now you'll find there's much to do in your new State. We particularly like filling in forms, oh yes we do, many of them, often asking for the same information week after week. We make it more interesting by changing the person you have to speak to who then has to collect all your information all over again. Laugh, you'll not want to stop. Or is it start? I can never remember. It's such good fun.

Then there's the games many of us like playing called, for example 'How can I buy enough food for the family to eat on this pittance from the State, 'Do you think I'll be evicted from my house' (such a good one that, many play that game even when they thought they wouldn't be able to), 'How many job rejections must you receive before you feel totally shattered and feel totally like giving up' and 'Why am I not even getting interviews have I turned into a sociopath?'. You'll love them especially as you'll play many of them time and time again.

What to do when not playing the games? Well there's the national pastime of Mooching. This is where you wander around the house aimlessly, having scoured the papers for jobs, applied for anything that vaguely resembles work and not received a reply. From anyone. There's also 'Annoy your partner time', this is a growing pastime especially amongst those who have been with us longest. For some reason being in this State doesn't rest easily with those in the other State. Still it causes much discussion and hilarity amongst those couples I can tell you.

The weather? Oh very much a gloomy State, not much light at all, with depressions coming around regularly.

The geography is, I'm afraid, not very interesting. Everything is very flat and, being gloomy, it makes looking forward to anything very difficult. Oddly, even though the land is quite flat, we have many tunnels, though as you might imagine there is not much light at the end of them either. We do also dig many holes but, sadly, we seem to almost immediately fill them back in again. Communications are, I regret, still quite poor and you will find that you are cut off from many things that you enjoyed or were used to. You'll find that the telephone rarely rings anymore and there is no mail except bills. We are working on that. Still musn't grumble eh?

We have a muti-faith religion here called 'The Exit'- you'll find most people are praying for a way out.

Our scientists are particularly proud of our best defense mechanism - we've managed to find a way to make you all invisible once you leave your old State and join us here. Isn't it exciting? That means that all your old colleagues will no longer be able to see you and possibly a number of your friends as well.

Yes the currency, must explain about that. Our currency is called Beyondyourmeans, popularly known as an I'm broke. 20 I'm brokes equals a Beyondyourmeans. We expect our people not to live Beyondyourmeans but we set a little task for them by not giving them enough so that have to use I'm brokes. A broke can be divided into a 10 I'm skints. Simple isn't it

Our capital city is Itscompletelyhopelessnoonewantsme and that can be found next to the River of Despair. True there isn't much to do their except, well despair.

We do offer a suite of training courses to keep you alert and ready for when you go back to your State. We offer 'Springboard into a new life', 'Bounce back from boredom, 'Dive away from despair', Computer skills for chicken sexers', 'Lurch into a new career', 'Explode into employment', 'Fall gratefully into the hands of anyone who offers you money', 'Estate Agency - the BIG opportunity' (no not really, my little joke there) and 'Have you ever thought about becoming an independent consultant? Well don't, you'd be mad to try it.' Most of these we insist you go on. They are usually at the other end of the State from where you live. Consider it another of our little jokes. Actually no, you can't pick up the chair or any other furniture it's all screwed down in Redundancionia. We find it better that way.

Well yes there are other places to visit other than our capital. Not places we'd recommend though because they are, how can I describe it, sort of positive and upbeat. Not for me, I prefer the gloom. Since you ask there's 'You'vegottolaffaboutitorgomad', 'You'vegototkeepgoing', 'Thingswillgetbetter' and 'Heyyouneverknowthismightbe Forthegood'. Quite a number of people do go there though, seem to have a good time and then return to the State they were in. No accounting for taste is there?

You know I could talk for ages to you but there we are, the queue is not getting any shorter, in fact it is still growing. I've stamped your Passport, welcome again to our Benighted State.

Have a nice stay. Is good? You like?


Thursday, 11 December 2008

Equitable life

I know boredom. I was brought up in West Wales and I can tell you that once 'Sing something simple' started on the radio on Sunday evening at 7pm you might as well go to bed as there was nothing else left to do. It was no good asking your parents either as they would respond with 'How about you finish your homework about the sheep industry in North Wales, make plasticine sheep, colour in pictures of sheep or go and count the sheep.' Sheep figured largely in our young lives in Wales. And did you know that when sheep fart it sounds like a human one? Of course you didn't you are far too refined. So when it got dark all you could hear from your bedroom was the sound of ghostly farting from the fields and the distinct impression that some ghastly axe murderer was outside your bedroom window with dark intent but having eaten too many brussel sprouts for dinner. You longed for school on Monday.
The dynamics have changed. Wise up.
So when you have left your job (or, more accurately, your job has left you) and found that you no longer have a daily destination to go to boredom can set in quite quickly. For example I've just bought the 2009 'week on two pages' calender refill for my battered and beloved Filofax. So far I have birthdays and a dental appointment in there. For June. And that's it. If it had been available I would have bought a 'one-year on one page' refill but that might have been optimistic as it currently stands. In the old days, sigh of nostalgia here, I'd have been penciling provisional dates to beat up Marketing on their bonkers ideas to increase sales of badger warmers, dates for fighting with Finance who had the nerve to suggest that my entertainment budget might be er, 'a little constrained', dates to deal with the never ending list of disaffected employees who considered company property as a perfect eBay opportunity and the staff toilets as a useful centre for the distribution of marijuana, other illicit Class A, B, C drugs and stolen items and the bear pit fights aka as the Board Meetings that I chaired and were similar to Medieval street brawls at times; 'No please put the water cooler down we know that won't help the Sales Director explain the downturn in sales.'

Where did I put it?

Losing your job (doesn't that sound odd? 'I seem to have misplaced my job Mavis, have you seen it anywhere?' 'Well where did you last see it?'. Sort of like putting your spectacles down somewhere in the house and then spending the next two hours looking for them getting increasingly crosser and looking in more and more outlandish places.) There is a grieving process that you have to go through when you lose your job - can't be avoided it's gonna happen. When you start to come out of that you get bored and that's when you start following your partner around the house like a demented toddler seeking attention. Now we have to remember that your partner had had their own space and possibly job for many years. They've been running the house, managing the kids, living their own career without your intervention thank you very much, for a long time. So standing at their shoulder tugging at their clothes saying 'I'm bored' will become very wearing.
Very Quickly.
And you probably will not have pictures of sheep to colour in either.
The dynamics of the relationship have changed.

It's a hard thing but you have to find a new level of living and that means not having much of a structure to the day anymore - and finding that the day has many more hours in it than you remember. It does take a long time to come down from the demands that a job makes on you and the social benefits it also confers - where else are you paid to moan about the people who manage you with like minded soul mates, who now strangely do not return your phone calls and emails?
Do stuff. EoTP says it will help. Really
There are practical things you can do as you partner will not want to run the household whilst you are mooning about the house all day in your Winne-the-Pooh jim jams.
  • The shopping (I know the layout of Tesco intimately now and get annoyed if they move the shelves around.)
  • The cleaning - you should see my toilets, the pride of the street, twinkling with the intensity of the summer sun.
  • The ironing - creases so sharp you could cut down mighty oak trees with them.
  • Washing - there are 232 washing permutations on our washing machine though I only use 2. Still, I have now read the manual.
  • Getting fit. You should see me out sprint the milk float to the tune of 'Chariots of Fire' at 0630.
  • Cooking - no I'm not perfect I can't do this. I heat a darn good M&S Lasagna though.
  • DIY - moving swiftly on...
  • Communicate - look this is harder on men (comments on a postcard please) as we are genetically wired to hunt woolly mammoths and sabre toothed field mice and not clean the cave toilets. Women are, of course, far more adaptable than men and can catch and cook the mammoth whilst cleaning the cave without making a big fuss about it all and they don't need a stroky beard meeting beforehand to set objectives either. I don't mean that you should whinge every day about how bad it is not to have a job but talk about how you, the both of you, will collectively will get through it.
And so on.

Basically you have to find a new way to live your life with your partner in an equitable way and recognise that, temporarily at least, the relationship has to change and the roles have to change as well.

And if you don't recognise that or can't change then don't get too close to the water cooler.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Class distinctions

Training is like measles. You get it once and then never again. In this blog I'm going to have a look at the subject of training after you've signed on and become a 'Job seeker'. And then take a peek at Corporate training.
EoTP says don't get me started on religion. Oh you did. Your fault
Job seeker - sounds vaguely biblical doesn't it, like after you've answered the knock on your front door and been confronted by a small weird man and his smaller, even more weird partner? 'I'm a seeker of Job' the small man squeaks, 'Would you like to be a Seeker of Job too?' nodding furiously and offering you a handbill printed using a John Bull printing outfit. 'No' I say 'but how would you like me to come and knock on your door and ask whether you would like to be part of my Pagan Cult and worship oaks and ash trees and dance around wearing white tablecloths and pointy hats and chant about fairy folk?' They always leave at that point.

Don't be proud, be humiliated.

In my experience it's always better to sign on. Come on, don't be proud you're entitled to the money, (well pittance actually, money is an exaggeration and insult to the term), and your National Insurance gets paid (for your stunning State pension of course) and we all like to be officially demeaned in front of complete strangers who undertake the equivalent of a public financial strip search whilst asking us to sit on chairs screwed to the floor. Sounds great doesn't it? Who'd want to miss such an experience?

Impulse power only. My impulse is not to go.

Training is available but not as we know it Jim. My initial training, when I first became a 'Job Sneaker', was in how to use a computer. For 'Executives'. Yes, I know, I know. OK so not everyone in the early 1990's had used a computer to be fair. The venue was a shabby outhouse attached to the Job Centre 12 miles away from the Job Centre in the town where I lived. I pointed out to the extraordinary caring and supportive Job Centre person ('Can't do anything for you can we, you're not eligible for training unless you've been unemployed for 18 months and are dead.') that I didn't have a car and there was no bus service to the other town except on Sundays. 'Not right bothered' seemed to sum up her response. As you HAD to go on this training to keep your Job Weaker payments (so no change there then) I eventually found a way to get to the town only to find that the computer equipment consisted of Amstrad green screen computers, no mouse, and badly typed instructions on how to type a CV. There was no way to save, electronically, the CV you had typed and the printers were line printers with hole feed. Classy.
This pretty much sets the scene for all the other training at that time. All training courses were given dynamic and thrilling names such as 'Leap into work', 'Bound back to employment', 'Replace', 'Restart', 'Renew', 'Give in', 'Reluctant to go but do you still want your dole?', 'Do I really have to?', 'Surrender to the inevitable' and 'We have Tasers, come out from under the table'.

This sums up my experiences:
  • Shabby facilities.
  • A trainer who clearly had much better things they'd rather be doing with their time and had a degree in Patronising.
  • One flip chart with two sheets of paper left, six marker pens, all dry.
  • An overhead projector, no bulb, no replacement. Screen that only came down half way.
  • Old desks and chairs.
  • Training that could be done in 15 minutes by reading a handout but was strung out all day so the trainer could claim a day rate.
  • A coffee machine from which came brown warmish liquid regardless of the input you gave the machine; coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice, warm stoat piddle.
  • One person in the group to be trained who clearly was going to do their level best to be as disruptive and obnoxious as possible. If training proceeds at the pace of the slowest member then most of the training I went on actually went backwards and I came out knowing less than I started with.
I'm told that training has now improved. You can really tell the difference in taste, apparently, between the hot liquid that comes out of the coffee machine but which is now so hot that it is actually melting the plastic cup that holds it and your fingers are burning as you rush to put it down on a table somewhere. It is a while now since I was last on a training course - when I signed on last year I was told that 'You are too well qualified for any further training. Now how much money have your children got in their piggy banks it all counts for means testing.'
The relief.

Of course corporate training, when you are employed, is so different. Here even more dynamic phrases are used to justify it such as '360 degree',' 1-2-1'. 1-on-1', 1x1=2', '180 degree only so we can really criticise You in public', 'Customer is king, queen and on-hold on the phone something should be done', 'Telephone techniques to keep the customer on-hold on premium lines so we make more money from them whilst telling them we value their business with a recorded message' and so on.

This sums up my experience of corporate training
  • Always booked at hotels miles from where you work or live and are in the middle of an industrial estate.
  • Hotels that have just opened and are desperate for any occupancy.
  • The food is on a plate. You know it is food only through the fact that it is on a plate. There is no taste or texture but is always given a French description 'A wheelcover of mange tout lovingly coated in a moue of une Mars Bar with a garnee of les fruits de la catering pack of vert bits'
  • The shower delivers one small jet of lukewarm water unless you shower at three in the morning.
  • The room is overwhelmingly hot
  • The training room is overwhelmingly hot.
  • The staff are underwhelmingly undertrained.
  • A trainer who clearly had much better things they'd rather be doing with their time and had a degree in Patronising.
  • One flip chart with two sheets of paper left, six marker pens, all dry.
  • Role plays - I so hate role plays. 'Hold onto this telephone hand set with no cord and pretend to deal with a difficult customer'. How about we pretend I'm bludgeoning an overpaid trainer?
  • Training that could be done in 15 minutes by reading a handout but was strung out all day so the trainer could claim a day rate.
  • The bar has the attraction of an 1950s Eastern European police station (but is always engagingly called something like 'Antonio's Well' (good I hate an ill bartender) yet five members of staff will stay at the bar drinking until they pass out. Every night.
There's always something that you can learn from any course, I used to think.

Well, of course, you can be upbeat about life or stew in your own cauldron of despair and I know what I prefer.

However thinking back about training please pass me the matches, I need to light the fire to heat up the water.

Friday, 21 November 2008

The lie of the land

I looked down the garden and saw my then three year old son poking around in the long grass looking intently for something. Thinking Teddy might have made a bid for freedom from the daily indignities imposed on him by a three year old boy, some other special toy had been lost or there was some particularly interesting cat pooh I walked down to talk to him and see what he was doing. 'I'm looking for the fairies that you and Mum said were at the bottom of the garden' he said. Yeah that's right, in a moment of whimsy the previous day one of us must have trotted out, unthinkingly, the myth that fairies could indeed be found at the bottom of the garden.

So what other untruths have we told our kids I wonder?

Father Christmas
Snow at Christmas
Peace on Earth
The tooth fairy
The Easter bunny
The DFS sale will finally end one day
You can do and be anything you want to be
Education is the route to success, happiness and wealth

Let's examine those last two.

Can you be anything you want to be? This is the line peddled to children as they grow up. Hard work, focus, dedication and a commitment to your dream will make it come true. Except of course, for the majority of people it simply doesn't and you can't. I mean you can't have more than one President of the USA at the same time (unless the Americans come up with an innovative job share scheme), or British Prime Minister and if they then get re-elected then you end up as old as John McCain hoping that, in his 70's he's going to make it to the POTUS at last but, darn it, some youngster pips him to the post. You might want to pilot a 747 but if you have spectacles with lenses that are as thick as double glazing and you can't see the the ends of your fingers let alone through the window then your options are sadly limited, though I suspect the pilot that landed the aircraft that bought me back from Paris the other night on Ryonjet might have slipped through the net. I think he thought we were the Mole from Thunderbirds as we tried to drill into the runway on landing rather than bowl along it as is normal practice.

That's not to say we shouldn't encourage our youngsters.
We tell them that they should always try hard, they should be the best they can be, that very few things come easy in life, that things you worked hard for are much more worthwhile than things that come easily, that if they do not clean their bedroom we'll have to declare it a health hazard with the World Health Organisation, that teenage spots really do not mean the end of your life and girls really don't mind, that school shoes do not clean themselves and that drinking more than six pints of Best Old Badgers Piddle is bound to have severe consequences the following morning and you can clean the toilet. No, we perpetuate the myth that you can do anything and, if you can't make the dream, then you are, by definition, a loser.

We then compound that by defining success as money or possessions. We don't say 'Wow fabulous bunch of great friends you have there, they'll stick by you through life and never let you down' or 'What a fantastic appreciation you have of art/literature/philosophy' or whatever or even 'What a lovely partner and beautiful kids'. No the emphasis is on salary, house, car marque, possessions and, if you don't have them, then you must be a failure. Instead the world seems to favour the arrogant git that has a large German prestige car, is on his third wife, his kids hate him but, because he is the MD of Consolidated HooHahs and Tinkly Winkly Bits Inc and lives in a large Tuderbethan new build on an anonymous but strangely desirable estate built over an old plague pit, it is a good thing. How come?

But by not being honest and telling our kids the truth that, yes some people do make it to the very top (and that they just might) with even fewer making it to the top without trampling over the souls and lives of many others to get there, and actually luck plays a huge part in what happens in life seems to me to be just wrong. I am surrounded (well not literally of course because that would make this room very uncomfortable and far too warm and I'd have to keep making them all coffee and offering biscuits) by irritatingly smug people where I live (and they are usually men) that say such things as 'S'funny the harder I work the luckier I seem to get, anybody without a well paid job is just shirking and doesn't want to work' and then looking at me in a meaningful way. If I were given one super power I would wish to be able to shrivel to the size of a gherkin anyone who says that. Do they not realise that they have been supremely lucky not to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time like so many others? It's not your innate skill and loveliness that has kept you in a job matey boy, it's largely luck and having had opportunities. Oh how I'd like to kick some butt like a bad ass mother sometimes. But being British I just tut, tut.

Let's consider education. I can count to ten in Latin, vaguely remember stuff about ox-bow lakes and Pingos (as opposed to Pingu who is far more interesting), recite a few poems by John Donne and Wordsworth and recall the periodic table. However what people who pass exams are very good at doing is repeating back some barely analysed information you've been told to the very people who told you it in the first place. You could argue that it is the 'University of Life' and what you learn after you leave the education system that is more important. You get older and wiser in the ways of the world and discover that knowing the structure of an iambic pentameter is not helpful when Sales are telling you that the order bank has fallen off the edge of the known world or HR want to sack 50% of the workforce. Lots of people are very intelligent in some ways but stumpingly dim in others. Have you noticed that the IT support team can often fix a networking problem but have no idea how any real world application works i.e in other words the very thing you need to finish the quotation for a very important customer who wants to give you large amounts of money. "Just reboot and that will fix your Excel problem'.

Then, armed with all these qualifications, you enter the world full of hope and badly managed expectations: 'You can be anything you want' and a B.Sc. degree in Badger Care and Squirrel maintenance is a passport to wealth, success, regular sex and a new iPod every six months (might get one of those degrees then). And then you find that half the world is anti-academic 'Oh no I don't value those GCSEs and degrees, everyone has them, give me someone from the School of Hard Knocks, Illiteracy and Obsequious Fawning' or 'Look, this is my opinion OK that's all you need, just find me supporting arguments to back it up and make me a coffee and take the dog for a long walk while you're at it'.

So older, wiser and vastly experienced we 50 + year olds are, with much eclectic and valuable business knowledge at out fingertips (and I can still complete the declension of mensa, mensam plus discuss elementary badger care as well). So why is so difficult to find a full time job after a certain age? Is it something uniquely British not to value enthusiasm, experience and knowledge and do we all have to emigrate to somewhere like the States where they seem to do so, although they also value personal ownership of assault weapons and powerful handguns which is much less of an attraction.

Remember I am going to get that superpower. Then there'll be a lot more gherkins around soon.


I've just read a review of a new book, 'Outliers' by Malcolm Gladwell that goes into this topic in more detail. For example 'Bill Gates was lucky enough to attend a school in Seatle that, very rarely for any school in those days, had a computer connection to a manufacturer...his talent for programming was given an...opportunity to flourish...came of age just as personal computers became a reality...he had talent and entrereneurial vision...but also opportunity and luck.' The Times: Books: Saturday November 22 2008. So there.

And this (thanks Neil) - you couldn't make it up could you?

Friday, 14 November 2008

Bored position

When my job was made redundant for the first time, in the recession of the early 1990s, I swore to myself.

I need to finish that sentence; I swore to myself that I would do anything to earn money rather than sign on the dole. I duly went along to the Job Centre, a misnomer if there was ever one, as during the last major recession there were virtually no jobs where I lived unless you were prepared to relocate to Kirkaldy. The Job Centre person looked at my qualifications, of which I have a fair few, and said 'There's nothing we can do for you is there? Any job we have here will bore you in a few days.' And that was that. Sign in triplicate that you promise to look for work really (wink, wink), see you in two weeks and next please.

This presents us with a dilemma doesn't it? The answer is yes if you're still thinking about whether it does or doesn't. If you thought 'no' then the rest of this blog would seem pointless, although some would argue it crossed over that line many months ago. When the unemployment numbers are rising faster than flood waters of the summer of 2007 and the number of jobs are falling at an equal or greater rate then if follows that finding a job is gonna be a bit tougher than usual.

I wanted to shout (explain patiently yet assertively) at the Job Centre person that you need to let me worry about whether I'll be bored or not because my prime aims are to stop the bank repossessing my house and to feed my wife and baby and for that I'll need an income. Even if that means flipping burgers for many months which I would be quite prepared to do. But no, prospective employers clearly do a paper shift and instantly exclude anyone with too much experience. Or any experience in many cases because they don't leave enough space to put in more than one GCSE on the application form. And if you lie on your application form then that excludes you as well. Perhaps I no longer want to commute for hours each day but be able to walk to work; perhaps I no longer want to deal with the daily doings of hundreds of members of staff; perhaps my experience would help a company survive during the recession?

Some one left this comment on an earlier blog of mine 'There's no age discrimination now, of course, so I'm getting replies of 'too experienced'. Too experienced for what? Too experienced to do the job you're advertising? What will happen if someone too experienced did the job being advertised? Maybe they'd be too good at it. That would never do.' Well quite.

Personally I'd prefer a fully trained pilot flying the aircraft I'm on rather than someone young but cheap. And if the paramedics have to be called I don't want to see them stop and look at a handbook before treating a serious injury or calling Control and asking for the best way to stop excessive bleeding.

Marvin the Paranoid Android 'with a brain the size of a planet' ends up parking cars for the restaurant at the end of the Universe. At least he got a job. I end up wondering just why, if companies need part time labour, most automatically seem to exclude any one who is, or seems to be too experienced, whatever that means. I read there are plenty of jobs available 'but no applicants.' I apply for these part time jobs and all you hear are the sounds of the tumbleweed blowing through the abandoned town with the faint but ghostly cry of 'too experienced' in the wind.

When I was first made redundant I thought 'OK if I am too experienced for some jobs I'll take some of the free training on offer and be retrained to a level where I am just trained enough for a different sort of job and would therefore be considered.' Got to be creative when you are out of work and looking for a job. But the Job Centre wouldn't have this at all. 'No Mr EoTP you are well qualified already and therefore too qualified to qualify for training for different qualifications. Do I need to qualify myself?' I asked whether they had heard of 'Catch 22' but they stared at me blankly. I did manage to blag my way onto a course at the local university aimed at senior managers who were long term employed. I'd only been out of work for a few weeks but had to find some way of getting more training. The course was filled with senior managers, in their early 50's, most of whom had worked in the financial services industry (isn't that all very spooky?). See what experience brings? I've seen all of this economic downturn before, it's just Groundhog Day all over again. And the way to solve it is...well I'm not telling you because you won't employ me. No you'll be sorry, you wouldn't take me on because you thought I'd be bored. No I really am sulking now.

However I've had a rant once again. Let me leave you with an upbeat message with these two quotes from Marvin the Paranoid Android that, I feel, best sum up the whole 'you're too experienced' thing.

'Well I wish you'd just tell me rather than try to engage my enthusiasm' and 'Wearily on I go, pain and misery my only companions. And vast intelligence, of course. And infinite sorrow.'

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Interim results

We had a careers office at my school. To enter to it you had to get past the school leopard guarding the entrance way, scale the 250 metre high turret that had every third stair removed, get through the barred and locked substantial wooden door that was booby trapped in many cunning ways, smoke a Players full strength cigarette without vomiting or turning green and then recite a substantial portion of Ovid, in its original form, to the guardian of the room, a wizened and ferocious goblin (well actually the school chaplain but the lighting was poor). He would then give you one of two dog eared and fusty career pamphlets and encourage you to a) join the army b) join the police or c) be fed to to the school golem. Being a public school you were expected to go straight to Oxford or Cambridge and then into the Foreign Office or some such Civil Servant career. Anyone that said they were considering anything that smacked of being an artisan was considered a dangerous Communist and probably a Russian spy.

Where am I gong with this? I'll tell you if you are still with me. When you go to many career councellors, after 'R' day*, they often take a similar line but without the Players cigarette. They listen sympathetically, note your full career path to date, nod wisely at your cores skills and competencies and then wince when they note your age. 'Ah' they say sagely savouring the moment, 'have you considered consultancy or interim management?' and then sit back as if they have delivered the meaning of life. We'll deal with consultancy another day but let's have a short wander through the fields (or back lawn anyway) of opportunity and interim management. I feel that there are things you need to know, much like a career in the army - did you know that people shoot at you it's not all international travel and marching up and down in lovely uniforms.

Interim management is a numbers game. There are X interim management companies. There are Y to the power of five possible candidates. Yes, there are many, many more candidates than positions. Therefore, to have any chance of even being considered for an interim position, you have to register with (and I have calculated this in Excel) 3427 agencies in the UK.

If you are then selected for an interview (or win the Lottery, the odds are similar) you then have to make your own way, at your own expense, to the place where the interim job is. It could be anywhere. Well philosophically speaking I suppose it always has to be somewhere. Anyway, as it is an interim position they, the prospective slave master (I mean temporary boss) does not have to treat you in a fair and meaningful way during the interview process and can end the interview on the basis they don't like your suit and tie or skirt, or both if you are feeling particularly bold that day. And in my, limited experience, when you get the job you are often on a very short period of notice, 'just finish your coffee and be off with you'.

There are, I'm told, people who do very well out of interim management. I'm also told there is gold to be found at the end of a rainbow. I'm also told that the successful interim managers also spend over 25% of their income on marketing themselves so that they can move quickly into the next position so as to avoid 'resting'. This is actually quite a problem. Here's an exemplem from my own life, once again.

EoTPs exemplem for this week, plus a recommendation (for free)
I had a very successful run as an interim marketing manager for a local company who wanted marketing support but couldn't afford a full time marketing manager - I worked for them for 6 days a month for well over a year. I was on a one week contract renewal. Failing quite spectacularly to heed my own advice I stopped looking for alternative work after about six months as it was all going so splendidly. Then suddenly it wasn't. Economic downturn, very sorry, you did wonderful work, still here? And that was that. What I should have done was
a) charge much more (to cover the hard times, but it so hard when some one says what is your daily rate and you so much want the money and are afraid to sound grasping, and expensive, and yet not desperate.).
b) work very hard at looking for alternative interim management work whilst actually earning.
c) sign up to another 3425 interim agencies as I was only registered to two and one of those had gone belly up during the year.
So, if you find this sort of life appealing (or you find the idea of actually earning an income again instead of being offered sous chef positions at your local Job Centre) then go into this eyes wide open and not be seduced by the careers counsellor. A good question for them is 'Have you actually ever done any interim management yourself?' Watch the body language and for other clues such as 'Well Mr EoTP next client is here, must go', exits stage left at speed.

EoTP hasn't quite finished.

There is one other aspect to interim management that should be mentioned and that is you are never quite a member of the team. Now interesting dynamics start going on here especially without the formality of having a particular place in the organisation's hierarchy. No body seems quite sure how to place you - are you important/dogsbody/secret consultant looking for victims/in the wrong office? I mention this only as I recall, as someone on secondment once, going to a confidential meeting one day, sitting there listening to all these secrets and stratagems being discussed only to realise, after a while, that I was in the wrong meeting - and no one had questioned my presence.

I apologised to Mr Blair and the rest of the War Cabinet and made my way out.
They've never asked me back.

* That would be Redundancy day, do keep up.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Parent company

I don't think they believe me.
My parents that is.

We spoke the other day, on the phone, and I made a fundamental mistake. They asked me how the job search was going and would my contract be renewed early next year.

My fundamental mistake was that I told them.

Now do you remember Zaphod Beeblebrox? I'm sure you do. One of his heads wore glasses, as I recall, that in the event of danger would become completely opaque so that he could no longer see the danger and therefore could not panic. My parents are like this. I think it stems from living during the war. 'Eh lad, thou cannst no longer hear sound of t'V2 flying bomb, so thou's safe'. Or was it the other way around? Anyway they're from Yorkshire so that explains a lot I feel.

They deal with every crisis of whatever magnitude in two ways. A cup of sweet tea and a denial that it is happening. 'What are those multiple mushroom clouds and large bangs our lad?'. 'Put on kettle our wife and t'finish Telegraph crossword.' would be a typical reaction. So I've learned over the years not to tell them anything that does not have a positive spin and makes the whole world sound utterly lovely and full of fluffy bunnies and pink field mice.

They must have got me at a moment of weakness because I launched into an explanation of the difficulties of finding a job, CVs, recruitment agencies, experience, age, salary expectations, the state of the economy, the Amercian election anything and everything. In fact it was a mini rant. 'But', they said after several minutes of puzzled silence, 'you've got lots of 'ologies'. (Hands up all of you who remember the BT ad then). I then compounded my mistake by trying to explain the difficulties of job searching and the over/under/wrongly/too/not enough/not quite/if only you'd had one more days experience matrix that is used to weed you out provided you even pass 'he must be so totally kidding shred that CV and use it for the hamster's bedding' first filter.

Well I suppose it makes some sense. My father was a Civil Servant so worked for the Government all his life, retired on an index linked pension and had never heard of the word redundancy. My mother never worked (Mrs EoTP has pointed out that anyone saying that a woman who has brought up a family and managed a house hasn't 'worked' is asking for more trouble than they've seen in a long, long time and suggests that person recants...if they know what is good for them. I recant. I meant hasn't been in paid employment. Close call there.) No one else they know seems so have racked up such an impressive ability to have their job made redundant during their working life as I have done, so they are puzzled as to why I can't get another full time job. I think they think I'm shirking, slacking, swinging the lead, possibly not making enough effort and living on the vast earnings of Mrs EoTP's renaissance career. Make it so. Only it ain't so. If their lovely son can pass all his 'ologies and get two degrees then he must have something very wrong with him and be unbalanced. Let me tell you I am a very balanced individual - I now have chips on both shoulders.

Having made this error I am now seeking to retrench my position by taking a Panglossian view of the world and its many opportunities with my parents and refusing to say anything that doesn't seem as if is only a matter of hours before I'm snatched up by some desperate organisation seeing me as their saviour of the moment. They clearly prefer this approach and have not questioned me anymore about the job search. Their house is full of fluffy bunnies again.

I'm off for a drink now. A Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster will do me. According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy it is the best drink in existence and says that the drink's effect is similar to having one's brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster has also been described as the alcoholic equivalent to a mugging: expensive and bad for the head.

Beats tea anyday.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Premature speculation

This is a subject that affects everyone, I'm sure, over a certain age. There's no need to be embarrassed; it's just better if we get it out in the open (no joke intended) and talk about it. Once we've done that you'll realise, I hope, that you are not alone and that you can be treated and no ointments or surgery are required (joke intended).
'The problem is premature speculation.'
Now there are two objectives to this blog. One is to mark my progress in finding another full time job after my fourth redundancy whilst in my early 50's. The other is to be noticed by a major publisher and be offered a huge advance to publish my memoirs which will then be taken up as an option by Hollywood and David Tennant would be perfect to play me. Sorry drifted off for a moment there - the other objective is to help anybody else in a similar position by attempting to describe how it feels trying to find another job and all the stuff you have to do (and not do) and then make all our lives feel better. Substantially. When we get the next job.

Back to premature speculation then.

The symptoms:
  • You've been out work some time and you've cut back enormously on spending (you need to do this as that redundancy package you have may not last as long as your unemployment, even though that holiday in the Maldives does look raaaather tempting and you can't believe you'll be out of work for more than a month - hey, go read the newspapers.)
  • You're now driving around in your partner's 15 year old 2CV and telling all your employed friends with big company cars that 'yes it feels really good to have a much lower carbon footprint, should have done this years ago, will never go back to a car with a CO2 emission greater than that of a turnip, think I'll convert the driveway into an allotment', turned the heating down, started wearing the jumpers your Mum knitted you in 1967, thinking that the local Oxfam shop might have interesting clothes after all and cooking with offal that cost no more that £1.50 a meal but looks, well, like offal.
  • You've sent off bucket loads of CVs but with absolutely no response.
  • In fact no one has called you back, responded at all to your speculative CV and everything on Monster jobs seems targeted at 18 year olds.
And then, out of the blue, comes a request to come for an interview. You haven't had an interview for months, can't even remember applying for the job really. You look at the job spec, well actually first you look at the salary , then the job spec, decide you'll say you can do it whatever it is the job entails ('Yes I have substantial experience of fighting polar bears and breeding guinea pigs and have been to the centre of the world lots'). You have the interview and the interviewer seems slightly interested, might call you back for second interview and/or definitely put your CV in front of their client.
EoTP bangs on about recruitment agencies. Again.
And this is when it will start happening. You begin to start speculating about what it will mean to have a regular income again. How you could use what's left of the redundancy package to go on a decent holiday, have the 2CV scrapped (bloody awful thing) and buy a 6.0 litre 4X4 SUV for your partner ('that will show them at the golf club that I'm still standing'), get a plasma screen TV, convert the patio into a Elizabethan knot garden - and so on. It's no good standing there and saying you'll think no such thing 'cos we all do it. And, as I have learnt to my cost, it is totally pointless because until you actually have the offer letter in your hand, all the blandishments of the recruiters are - well whatever it is you could use it on your new allotment for the vegetables.

In my experience virtually all recruiters are too scared or unprofessional to say 'Great meeting you but you're not what we/our client wants, now get out before I call security.' Most would rather get you out of the office leaving you with some vague notion that you actually may be just what they want and will be in touch very soon (define 'very' and 'soon' - 2020?). The reality is they have 25 other candidates to see and have already forgotten you.

And by giving you this impression you start to dream the dream about a salary again and all the possible opportunities for consuming that go with it.

The prognosis:
You've got to be tough. You have got to be moving onto the next application even though you might have a second interview. Whatever you do, don't indulge in idle speculation because, when the rejection comes, not only do you get the wobbly lower lip because you've been rejected (again), it hits all the harder because you've already spent the salary in your mind. However that is not as bad as actually spending the salary using your credit card. Even worse if you've mentioned to your partner and or kids that you'll buy them that expensive thing they've wanted for ages when the job offer comes in. Your disappointment will be trebled when that happens.

I'll bet you're glad you came to Dr EoTPs' surgery today so we could sort that out. Any other problems before you go? How about some CV implants, boost those last two positions a little shall we, make them a little perkier perhaps?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Confidence tricks

A year ago to this week Mrs EoTP started back in full time work for the first time in sixteen years. A week later she had turned into a complete jelly, a metaphorical jelly that is not real one of course, as that might have caused some problems in the staff room and certainly with her driving.

Why the jelly thing? Because, despite being fully qualified with the degrees and lots of letters after her name, Mrs EoTP thought she could no longer handle the work load.

Now a year later and Mrs EoTP is barking out orders left right and centre, managing her working time time to the second, taking on additional management responsibilities and generally showing a fair proportion of the rest of the staff up for being complete woosies and shirkers. And she's giving me a hard time too. You should see the list of things I was expected to do today.

And that's the subject of this week's blog. Confidence and where does it go? To hell in a handcart is the answer. No, there's more.
'Winnie-the-Pooh plasters do not solve confidence problems' says influential report

When you've lost your job it is, to put it mildly, a bit of a blow and it can't be fixed with a Mummy's rub of the sore knee and a Winnie-the-Pooh plaster. The job search itself can be a long, hard and, dare I say it, distressing journey. Mainly because the journey involves REJECTION. Time for another exemplem from my own life.

So far, over the last 18 months, I've applied for well over 70 jobs. I'm still here rambling on about redundancy in your 50's so I would describe the time as a journey rather than a destination. Now I've had a number of interviews during that time, a little over 15% of the total applications. Ignoring the part time job I have, that's a 100% failure rate to get a new full time position and 11 interviews also with a 100% failure rate to get a new position. That, I put it to you, is a fair amount of rejection for one person in a short period of time.

The effect of this multiple rejection is, sometimes, a feeling that actually you'll never be able to manage to make toast in the morning, let alone be responsible for people and a business ever again. It's daft really but, if someone tells you you are rubbish repeatedly and not wanted, you develop a sort of learned helplessness, and a corresponding feeling that you can never again be thrusting and successful as General Manager of Consolidated HoHahs (now merged, because of the economic climate, with Incorporated Whatnots). Little over three years ago and I was managing over 400 people in a business with a £24million turnover. Today I cleaned our baths and toilets.

'Stiff upper lip needed' says EoTP. And sense of humour. And lots of tea.
How to handle this then and make your job seeking life better? Substantially. Let's start with the jelly. After sixteen years of not working Mrs EoTP took just three weeks to get back into working life. After twelve months you wouldn't think she'd ever not worked. Though you may think you can no longer hack it, the fact is that within the week you'll be right back in it wondering how to choose a company car above your grade and whether you can travel business class on an aircraft. Last week I had an interview. No really I'm not kidding, really did. Problem is, the recruitment agency told me three days later, is that there is a recruitment freeze at the company. 'So why did you interview me and have me travel miles at my expense' I wanted to scream but there you are. During the interview I was asked about my Excel skills as they would be important. I almost turned into jelly there and then and yet, yet, I am totally fabulous with Excel, no really. However I found myself thinking 'Oh no there's no point in going on I don't even remember how to launch the application let alone enter any data'. See, confidence slipping because I can't believe that any organisation is interested in me - despite being interviewed. Hmmm, flawed logic.

Stop planning ahead. I mean it, listen to me. Take one day at a time, cliche I know, but there's no point in fretting about something you have no control over.

'If they don't want you that's their big mistake'

Don't give up. It does not matter how many rejections you get, just do not give up. I have been told I am overqualified, under qualified, wrongly qualified, the wrong type of snow and at the wrong meeting but you just have to keep going. Mind you I don't bother with the 'would you like some feedback on your interview' anymore. I can only take so much kicking after all and, anyway, every organisation is so different that it's just their opinion, and as their opinion involves not taking you on you know it must be deeply flawed anyway and definately not worth listening to.

Reading this back this all sounds a bit sanctimonius except that being out of work is painful, can be demeaning but cannot be ignored because there are bills to pay. There's always something good that comes out of the experience. My toilets are gleaming for example. I'm not going to let anyone use them for two days.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Hours: not to reason why

I was talking to some police officers the other day.'Can't you loosen those handcuffs they're rubbing my wrists?' I said. No I didn't. I wasn't under arrest at all but we were talking. They'd told me that they work a 12 hour shift on a rota that required an IBM AS/400 to compute the permutations of days on/nights off/on. But the amazing thing is, they told me, was that everyone up to the rank of Inspector gets paid overtime.
I mean paid overtime.
Can you believe it?

I mentioned to the officers, in passing, that the last time I got paid overtime was in 1979. 'No way' they said. 'Yes way' and No Kidding. When I left the lowly clerical grade that I started on in my first job after University I, like many others, was expected 'to work the number of hours necessary to complete the job'. This, of course, means that the organisation could now exploit you to the full by making you work so many hours that your salary fell rapidly to the equivalent of 10 pence an hour. As a young ambitious and, just possibly, tad naive graduate I naturally fell for this malarkey and promptly started working around the clock, down in the mines and cleaning chimneys. Mrs EoTP however, worked for an organisation that did no such foolish thing and had proper start and finish times. This meant that we saw each other during July only and rarely at any other time during the year as our arrival/departure times at home never coincided.
Fails to go to hospital to see the baby
So ingrained did this way of life become that when we had our first child, born late at night on a weekday, I actually went to work for a while the following morning before going to see my wife and new born in hospital. Mrs EoTP was not impressed I can tell you.

Then of course, five months later the company made my job redundant - so it had all been worthwhile hadn't it?
Exemplem: Eyes on the Prize gives example from own life.
And this is the thing of course. Organisations rely on this huge level of unpaid work to get anything done. I'll come back to this in a minute. Come with me for two tics and let me give you an example from my own life. Working for a company down in West London they, the daft management, decided that they were going to enforce rigidly the start time of 9 am. Failing to take into account the appaling traffic in the area and the fact that employees who were unable arrive on time, through no fault of their own, always made up the time at the end of day plus they also did lots of unpaid overtime, the new policy was introduced - you would lose a full days pay if you failed to arrive on time. Oh yes, it worked, everyone left home an hour earlier to get to the office one actually then started work until 9am exactly and everyone left exactly on time. In just two weeks the Management (good grief, couldn't find their backsides with both hands and a route map) recinded the rule because they found the company was beginning to fall apart without the unpaid extra time being worked.
Working many, many hours is 'silly' - shock report says.
When you've been kicked around a bit, like my four redundancies, you begin to see that working many hours for nothing is probably, well, silly. After all you're not going to be lying on your death bed thinking 'Gosh wish I'd spent a few more hours at the office' are you? So when a senior manager colleague moaned, a few years ago, that most of the staff were actually daring to go home on time I pointed out that that was, contractually, what they were paid to do. 'Maybe we should pay overtime if you want them to stay on' I suggested. Look of horror on colleague's face.

There is another aspect to hours worked. And that's logging them. I work 3.5 days a week. I have decided, as no one else has, that a 'day' is 7 hours work plus 1/2 hour for lunch. I log any work that takes longer than 10 minutes. I regard travelling time as 'work' but not if I'm going to the office because that's my place of work. Not contentious so far is it? Except that there are sorts of discussions about this. Some of my colleagues think I shouldn't regard travelling as work - well what is it then? If you stay away overnight when does work stop? When you arrive at the hotel, when the meal with your colleagues is over (as you discuss work with them) and so on. I am paid a fixed salary but I still have to work more hours than I am paid to to get the job done. Am I mad? No need to answer that one. Well, in the end, I try and be sensible about all of this because I like what I do - if only there were more of it - and you have to deliver.

The final aspect of hours I'd like to share with you today is 'where do they go'. Look, at 0910 am this morning I decide that my day will consist of completing a number of specific tasks. By 1630 hrs I discover I have partly completed one, put off all the others until another day and started on six more that were given to me during the day and were totally unexpected. I am not the Prime Minister of Great Britain or a Captain of Industry, so where has the time gone? Who has taken it and can I please have it back?

Oh well, no option then, I'll just have to stay on after work to finish it.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Bleak expectations

'Well I'm looking on the brightside this morning' said Mrs EoTP 'I've a new pair of scissors to use at work'. We'd been discussing, before we both left for work, the increasingly grim economic news (you may have noticed it recently unless you've been living in a parallel dimension) and I, in my optimistic and prophetic way this morning, had opined that this was probably Not A Good Thing for my full time employment prospects. I had also stated that it would probably start snowing and not stop until March, fuel prices would rise a further 100% by December, interest rates would treble, a herd of llamas would invade our garden, the house would be repossessed, the family would disintegrate (split up, not disappear into individual atoms which might get a small mention on the news), and, you know the sort of fully rationale response we all have to the odd personal setback in life. Mrs EoTP declared that you have to take all the small pleasures as they come, though I think she might have been making a point but it passed me by.

Why this gloom? Easy one that. Because 17 years ago, when I was first made redundant the market conditions were remarkably similar and suddenly no one was recruiting - I was, of course, in an anti-recruitment situation. The dastardly HR team didn't actually say those words but I bet they wanted to. Being in the automotive industry as I was (and still am) it seemed to take the downturn very badly though those in the financial services industry probably believe that things aren't quite as rosy at the moment as they might be. Saying 'Have a good day' as they pass might be considered akin to having a death wish. With five months of falling vehicle sales in the UK you can bet that further rational phrases such 'for Pete's sake slash all the budgets, nobody spends anything, ban travel, turn off all the lights use candles, ban entertaining, in fact ban everything, employees have to pay us to come to work, however I still need to travel business class to San Francisco for that meeting make sure the hotel is 5 star won't you?' will be used throughout the head offices of all the car manufacturers. It still makes me smile that the instruction used to come through, all those years ago, to only make phone calls in the afternoon and stop sending faxes to save money. Rome burning and all that. All about you the business is failing and collapsing and you have to stop sending faxes. Whatever they are.

You can't give yourself away. A local company advertised for a part time marketing manager (did I tell you I am a qualified marketing manager, I'm sure I did, you just haven't been paying attention). I was vastly over qualified for the job but, wanting some extra work, rang the MD before sending in my CV to explain why someone so clearly so wonderful would want one day a week work. 'I fully understand' he said, 'love to see your CV, just what we were after.' Needless to say a) the pay would have been impressively low and b) I got the inevitable email 'we found someone who's experience matched our needs more closely'. I have an MBA with a marketing focus and they found someone with better experience! I was virtually giving myself away and there is someone they want more?

Right now there are lots of well meaning articles in print and on the web aimed at the recently redundant and I have to say that I think most are meretricious rubbish. Not that I have strong views on this you understand, but most seem to have been written by people who have never been made redundant and are trotting out the same old tosh. Over 40 years old and you have, in my experience, a heap big problem, over 50 and it is a heap bigger problem only the heap is smellier. OK I admit that in the good economic times it is easier to get a new job but when thousands are having their jobs made redundant and all employers are freezing recruitment then believe me, it's gonna be a long hard winter.

Charles Handy (he of the 'Empty Raincoat', Reinvented lives' and so on) wrote extensively of developing a portfolio of jobs. Great idea, not so easy to do. See example above. I am not quite sure what type of employee these companies who seek part timers want but I bet the words 'young' and 'cheap' are part of the description. And of course there is the theory of why people have low paid jobs: because they accept them. Yes I know, get down from your soapbox before you start lecturing me, many people have no option but to accept these type of jobs but, in this country, employers seem not to value experience but prefer cheap. And young.

I continue to apply for part time jobs, though I don't spend much time on the nuances of the application forms, cut and paste makes it easy. And by emailing them you save on postage.

Well Mrs EoTP will have been using her new scissors all day and will, no doubt, be savouring the delightful experience.


I'm sure it's going to snow.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

A small case study

The first time I opened it, it creaked very loudly, like an old door with ancient hinges, creasing the pristine leather. Inside was a soft, yellowy lining, with differing sized compartments, so many compartments, to store so many things, so many things that I actually didn't possess. And then, in my best handwriting, I wrote my name, in biro on the inside of the flap, because this was my first, my very first satchel. In brown, pristine leather with gold coloured buckles and a long leather strap. In fact it was the first time I recall having to carry anything regularly to and from anywhere and the reason? I'd just started at my new secondary school and it was on the list of required items sent home by the school, along with body armour to protect one from attacks from pupils from the rival school plus a 'make yourself hideous to girls' kit (for this was a boys only school and to be seen anywhere near a young female was tantamount to making them pregnant instantly and tarnishing the name of the school - which was the most heinous crime of course). I think we were naturally hideous to girls as a result of the extended peaks on our mandatory school caps, having to carry satchels and having nascent acne but that might be simple prejudice coloured by time. On the first day of school I put my pen, eraser, pencil sharpener and compass in the cavernous bag and set off for lessons. By the end of the first term the satchel had become, progressively, a weapon to hurl around on the strap to keep assailants at bay, a pitch marker for rugby, something to drag along the ground like a dumb pet and, very occasionally, a container for carrying substantial numbers of books.

When I started work full time I reverted back to the not having to carry anything to and fro for several years until I got my first company briefcase. This was the size of a small steamer trunk but was mandated for the position of field manager - everyone who had the role had to have and use one. It was a badge of office. It was made out of material that could withstand an airburst nuclear attack at a height of 50 metres, could accommodate a small motorbike and had clasps to secure it that opened with a sound similar to a large gun being cocked. When all the field staff came in for a meeting and opened the cases you needed ear defenders on to protect your hearing. In the five years I had it (it really was indestructible, it's probably in a landfill site now and will still be there until the crack of doom) I never managed to fill it more than a third full and always felt faintly embarrassed when my dealers glanced in and saw how little I had to carry. And you needed 5 managers signatures to get a new case but only 3 to replace a car. Totemic or what?

At least it was sturdy (in a Forth Road Bridge sort of way) because I also recall duffel bags purposely designed, I'm convinced, so that you would deposit your games kit on the road as the bottom tore out at random times when cycling home. And why were they always covered in a tartan material?

Anyway when I left my first organisation for greener fields (oh how I now laugh now at that naive thought) I had to hand my case over to my successor. This left me feeling rather naked without a suitcase attached to my hand when arriving at the new offices. Recognising, belatedly, that I never actually filled the first briefcase I bought a slimline Samsonite case with locks that sounded like large guns being cocked when opening them. What is it with briefcase locks? Naturally I never filled this either though would jauntily take it on aircraft and then feel embarrassed when having to open it at security when all it had in it were two pens, a pencil sharpener and a compass. This lasted about two years until I finally realised the futility of carrying a 90% empty briefcase around with me.

Then I discovered leather document folders and these have been my standard carrying item ever since. Slim, elegant and seemingly indestructible they have accompanied me around the world. All the papers I need always fit in them and I can get my iPod, glasses cases and sundry other items in with ease - and no more embarrassment at security as it passes through all their scanners.

I had several company laptops that came in bags of a similar size to my first briefcase - so big were they they wouldn't fit behind the driver's seat of my car but had to be towed on a trailer behind the car or rest on the back seat sliding about as I drove along. Now, if I take my Macbook out, it fits in a messenger type bag slung over my shoulder. Easy. And probably cool too. A little.

You can see this progression in trends by looking out of the window at the kids making their way to school. A few years ago it was all backpacks, bigger than those used by the British Army, then a year of plastic supermarket bags with various bits of games kit and school books poking out and now it's mainly messenger type bags. Good heavens I'm keeping up with the youth scene. Gd grf thts Gr8.

There are times though when you do need to make a statement with a bag and when that happens it's time to deploy the old battered briefcase that was my wifes and her brothers before her. Battered, scratched, marked and with a clasp that probably last worked in 1935 it is a true statement of pedigree and style (and a refusal to spend any money on a new one). So why I carry it I don't know, but whenever it is out and about it always attracts positive comments from true afficionados who know that a bag is for life and not just to impress.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Pitch battles

Have you ever been involved in pitching for new business? I mean really, have you? Is there any more soul destroying and irritating event in business life, except of course for the annual Christmas party or IT installing a new company wide system and stating 'it will all work without problems we promise' whilst keeping their fingers crossed behind their backs and hoping you don't notice?

When I was self employed I found that the search for new business actually took 3 out of the 5 working days a week. There are actually creatures who can noticeably evolve faster in the time that it takes some potential clients to make up their minds about who to use to create the advertising for their new range of rubber bands or multi-coloured what-nots. I found I was compelled to start charging my actual clients a new tax, on top of the agreed daily rate, called the 'dithering tax', a variable sum of money necessary because of the amount of time it took for some people to make up their minds whilst I subsidised their inability to make a decision - and I mean both yes or no. Because, whilst they dithered, they also expected you to reserve the time in your diary so that, in the forlorn hope they actually came to a decision, you would then start immediately on the project, notwithstanding that they'd taken six months to come to a decision in the first place. No, continents could come together and move off again in the time it took to decide to spend £115 on a new leaflet design that would go straight into every recipient's bin without a glance. I believe my all time longest gestation period for a decision was just over two years. Yes folks, two years after submitting the pitch the potential client replied that they would like to go ahead with my proposal if I could please start tomorrow. By that time I had actually been in a new job (full time, I just about remember what that feels like) for 18 months. And then they asked plaintively 'What would they do now I'd turned them down.' I almost told them.

Just as bad as those not so potential clients who are just using you to pick your brains for good ideas and have no intention of ever using employing your talent. I call them the...oh no better not, keep it clean. After bitter experience I can now recognise the symptoms. A brief that is quite vague except for precise phrases such as 'How can we reduce our overall operating costs by 25.63% in five months - be totally specific and name names for the big chop.' A client who, when you submit your business proposal passes it back to you and asks 'but how exactly would you do this'. I was in an interview once and had got quite tired of this line of questioning after answering in a general fashion and eventually replied 'well you could employ me and then I'd tell you' but got the big glare but not the job. I now use the 'sell not tell' technique as, if you are too specific there go your ideas, floating by in Powerpoint, presented to the big boss as someone elses's big answer to the giant problem.

The worst example of this was - no can't name names once again. Anyway they wanted the organisation I was working for to come up with a way of changing a process. We were 'the only bidder' (how they must have chortled) and therefore they wanted us to be fully specific about the process, the costs, the project timing, the colour of the walls and the name of the office cat. So we did. In good faith all this was produced, including an animated 'fly through' of the process. I constructed spreadsheets of such complexity you could calculate the effect of buying one extra biro on operating costs and profits. We presented the information, we recalculated it, we coloured it in in crayon without going over the lines, we presented it to anyone who would listen. And then they took our plans, gave them to one of their subsidiaries, 'we didn't have any budget in the first place', and took the work we had been doing away from us. And imagine how pleased they were when we asked for the costs of the project to be repaid (estimated at £30,000), oh the outrage, the huffing and puffing, the 'do you not consider yourselves partners of ours, oh how ashamed you must be to have asked such a question.'

And it doesn't change. Just a few days ago I spent four days responding to a client's pitch that was urgently required so I could start the project at the beginning of September, please hurry up with your detailed response. Now they've asked me to completely rewrite it as, as they've had a little think, it wasn't what they wanted after all, and I could possibly start in late October or even November, possibly.

So what do I make of all of this? It's hard to say as maybe it's just the way of the world. But yesterday I did go for an interview where they said 'a decision will be made on the day'. I'm still waiting to hear that decision - they didn't say what day though.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The day the gerbil broke free

You can see what happened here.

It all started with the best intentions. We'd agreed to look after a pair of gerbils this year. Well it beats the duck sitting that we agreed to do last summer. They arrived, two little rat like creatures, in their cute gerbil cage. It started well with one of the boys having the cage in his room. That lasted one night. 'They kept me awake all night with their scratching' he complained so off to another (empty) room for subsequent nights. He's a teenager and needs sixteen hours sleep a day. Then came the extra food treats, a little piece of carrot, a slice of juicy apple. Next an empty cardboard roll for them to 'play in, they'll find it interesting'. What they found was it was good for was chewing into teeny weeny pieces. In seconds. Like piranhas on little legs.

Then it moved on to more daring thoughts. 
'I don't like them cooped up in that cage they need more exercise and gerbil stimulation' said someone.
And then came the hunt for a suitable receptacle to put them in for. What Mrs EoTP found was a large packing trunk and she, and the boys, then created what they believed was gerbil heaven. But we will soon find out that gerbils have a different view of what constitutes heaven. The story continues. In the trunk are placed more empty cardboard rolls, ramps and bridges, little huts with doorways and peep holes, a restaurant, swimming pool, car hire outlet and Tesco Express. What more could a gerbil want you might ask? 

And the answer is freedom.

I don't want to say 'I told you so' but about 30 seconds after they were placed into gerbil paradise I mentioned, casually, that these little cute creatures could jump like a kangaroo. 'No worries' came the reply followed by a scream of 'One's got out'.

Yep, eschewing gerbil paradise for freedom one of the little horrors jumped and ran - and boy can they run. Within seconds he'd cleared the room, got into the kitchen and headed for the back of the house with all of us now in hot pursuit. Fortunately all the doors to the outside were closed. However, we all coped admirably and only ran around like headless chickens for five minutes, shouting 'OMG, OMG'. One of the boys opened a door to the outside (for some reason) and promptly found me screaming at him to shut the door. 'Can I come back in now?' he kept asking plaintively from the other side. 'No' I said 'keep the door shut'. I think he's still outside, I must check. The other boy stood laughing but contributed nothing to the recapture plan which evolved (put a bucket over it, throw a napkin over it, appeal for it to come quietly using a bullhorn, show it a picture of an attractive female gerbil, tell it we don't care and it can run around all it likes it's only amusing itself and so on). Mrs EoTP was on her knees peering under the furniture and pointing to said escapee which was interesting but not terribly useful. 

Contemplating, just for a nano second using the vacuum cleaner to capture it (I was desperate at this point), I came up with a cunning plan which was then executed with skill and panache, and quite a lot of swearing, to round the animal up. I don't think there is a career as a cowboy waiting for me anywhere but if you have a small, fast domestic animal loose in the hoose then I'm probably your man. Their is nothing quite so pathetic as four humans trying to round up an animal the size of a mouse. We can get to the moon...

So now the gerbils are back in their cage and that's where they are staying. Looking after other people's pets is too stressful. Mrs EoTP has to check on the welfare of some chickens in a few days. I have made her promise not to open the hen house, I can't face the angst of them flying the coop (as it were) or trying to come up with an alternative metaphor like headless chickens in front of the chickens (they might have feelings you know - howabout runaway gerbils?)

Last year it was the duck and the teenager (see here)

This year it has been the year of the gerbil - and the teenager again (not so bad this year, only left the windows and doors unlocked this time).

I think next year we need a break. From the animals.

Friday, 11 July 2008

The burden of work

When I had holiday jobs as I student I carried only my thumb so I could hitch lifts to work and back. I might have carried some loose change in my pocket just in case I had, if all else failed, to catch a bus home but this would be a mark of such abject failure that it was not to be deployed if at all possible. I wouldn't carry a coat either, just a T shirt and jeans, that's all I needed to get through the day. If I got wet then that was all part of the teenage macho image. If I took sandwiches then they'd be wrapped in some grease proof paper and stuffed in my pocket and the crumpled remains, delightfully unchilled, would be plonked on some surface for the morning until it was time for lunch, though lunch was usually provided free in staff canteens - the perks of working for a hotel. We won't go into my summer of cleaning sewers.

Then I started my first full time job. By this time the jeans and T shirt had gone replaced by, and it embarrasses me to recall this, a brown suit with lapels so big you could glide several hundred feet in the air with them like some gigantic flying human squirrel and flares on the trousers that could knock pedestrians over 30 metres away with the back draught as they flailed around my ankles as I walked. But jumping from the car and walking into the offices from the staff car park, I carried nothing more than my wallet and pass to get me through security. You could be out of the house and into the car in seconds and then from the car to the office in a few minutes. When it came to the end of the day all you had to do was push all the stuff on the desk into a drawer with your forearm, lock the filing cabinet, wake the boss and walk out.

It all started, straight after a promotion to a field job. First came the briefcase, then folders to put in the briefcase. Because you now had a brief case you felt you had to take it home at the end of the day, for no good reason as it stayed firmly closed all night in the hallway, it was just what everybody else did. So that meant unpacking it in the morning on arrival in the office and then packing it all up again in the evening. An extra ten minutes either way. No more jumping in and out of the car either. The case had to go on the back seat or seat well which now meant opening the rear door. 

Then came the mobile phone. At first it was installed permanently in the car and then it became 'mobile' or, for those of us that remember such things, the size of a military sized field radio that needed carrying on a back frame. So now the journey involved remembering the briefcase, the phone, switching on the phone, wedging case and phone in the car on leaving home, getting phone and case out of car in the office car park walking into the office, unpacking the files, finding a place where the mobile both received a signal and could be charged and then reversing the process for the return journey. We've just added 15 minutes to the journey each way.

Now the field based job. It got even harder. The briefcase, the phone (smaller admittedly), the suitcase (as I had to stay away for several days at a time) and the complete set of A to Z's for Northern France and Belgium and the Baltic States plus all my A4 files, probably 50 in total. Now it takes half an hour to leave and half an hour to unpack at each hotel or when I get home.

The executive job. This includes a laptop because having a laptop means that you can work on from home after a full 12 hours at the office, and can therefore never be away from the 'office' which indicates you are important, plus a Blackberry, colloquially known as a Crackberry because you can't put the damn thing down as it chirrups incessantly as new emails arrive demanding to be dealt with NOW. Of course this has all added more time to the leaving and arrival palaver as you now have to put the laptop in the special docking station in the office and boot it up. For some reason booting up a laptop onto a network takes the best part of a morning as does the shutting down process in the evening, when Windows likes to take a very leisurely route to turning itself off. You only have about two hours during the day when you can actually use the thing. Naturally I circumvent this by yanking the whole unit from the docking station after half an hour of 'Windows is shutting down please waste 30 minutes of your life that you will never get back as we decide when we want to go home, not you.' I gave the Blackberry back after a month. I couldn't stand it anymore.

Today. I pack my laptop in its own case, put my files and notebooks into a leather document holder, pick up my three glasses cases (driving, reading, and sunglasses) and walk to the car and place them on the passenger seat. Then I come back into the house put on my jacket, pick up my wallet and Filofax, pick up my mobile phone, Bluetooth hands free set, SatNav and Coolbag with my sandwiches in (thoroughly chilled) and return to the car. I then attach the SatNav to windscreen, wire up the power cable to the SatNav and stick the Bluetooth hands-free slug into my ear. It's taken 45 minutes to prepare to leave. For goodness sake they can launch the Space Shuttle and have it in orbit in less time. There are palpable signs of evolution on animals in the time it takes to put all the equipment in the car - and this is without unpacking it all when I get to the office or my destination. Then I have to work out what needs to go in the boot of the car for the time being, because of the issues of security when leaving the car in a public car park. Thieves would need a fork lift truck to move all this equipment from my car.

I thought the electronic world would relive us all from this burden. I see I am wrong. What I really need now is a Bergen military backpack to carry it all. But who will carry me?