Is the Government right to make people do enforced voluntary work in exchange for benefits?

The Government now proposes to make the long-term unemployed take up manual work placements in exchange for their benefits.

Most people visiting this site will have been in a good job until recently, and won’t be in the long-term jobless category the Government say they want to target. The Government’s aim (they say) is to get people used to doing proper work, every day for a significant period, so they feel a sense of what it is like to be working and are more likely to succeed in a job when they get one.

So, how does this apply to me?

No matter what kind of job you did before, and on what level, it is almost always better to be able to tell a prospective new employer you were doing something of real value during your time out of work. Most employers are smart enough to know that job hunting is rarely a 9-5 task. Someone who has been motivated enough to do something that contributes to society will be a much more attractive prospect than someone who just read books or did DIY or gardening during their time out of work, especially if they’ve sought out voluntary work that is unusual, topical, or from which they’ve learned new skills.

So, yes, on balance, doing voluntary work is always a good thing, provided it’s something that adds to your CV in a meaningful way. You can find more about volunteering at: Do-it and Volunteering England. Some Jobcentres also have details of local volunteering opportunities.

So, volunteering is the answer?

If we’re being entirely frank, even if you’re volunteering, being unemployed for a long period is simply not attractive to potential employers. Yes, everybody knows times are tough and jobs are scarce. This is especially true for school leavers and men over 50, the two groups for whom finding a job are known to be hardest.

But, whether we did anything to cause our own unemployment or not, we still carry the taint of the jobless while we are out of work. Recent media headlines and the pronouncements of Governments of all colours on the subject make it increasingly difficult to put a positive spin on long-term joblessness.

So, what’s the answer?

A short period of unemployment can probably be written off – after all, many professionals have employment contracts which preclude their joining competitors for a period after leaving. But a period of more than three months out of work will quickly devalue even the best CV.

This is why, even if it means taking a job that is far below our ability level, being in a job is almost always better than either being unemployed or even being a volunteer. It also works from a simple financial point of view. Many people who were previously in a good job will find themselves ineligible for means-tested benefits because they have savings or investments of one kind or another that tip them over the £16,000 level. Not many people can survive for long on £65 a week Jobseekers Allowance. In any case, under new benefit rules taking effect (likely in 2012), even this benefit will be reduced, or possibly removed altogether, once we’ve claimed it for a year.

Will my career be affected by taking a lower level job?

Almost certainly, but there can be as many positives as there are negatives.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent you continuing to job-search at that level, and there are myriad ways to present an interim job creatively (and truthfully) on a CV to help you do so. If you are determined to get back to the dizzy heights you left, and you are really that good at what you do, you will likely climb the ladder again when the opportunity arises.

Spending time doing a lower level job or a job one step removed from your specialism presents learning opportunities. Many of us forget when we move into management what it is like to do a job further down the totem pole. It does us no harm to revisit that skill level every now and then, like an extended (and more wholehearted) version of walking the floor. It makes us better managers.

Some people find the experience leads to new opportunities. It’s unusual today to only have one career, and many former execs blend several opportunities into a looser, more creative and enjoyable ‘portfolio career’, like the former CEO who became a part-time chairman for six small businesses.

However hard you work at your job search, it may be that things don’t return to their pre-recession situation. Instead, you may find that they lead to a different life, but, given that you still have all of the skills, talent, motivation and experience you’ve built up in your working life, it needn’t be one that is any less rich.

November 12th, 2010 | Posted in Uncategorized, benefits, between jobs, career change, temporary, volunteer | No Comments

How important is it to use ‘I’ not ‘we’ on a CV?

Everything I read about CVs says it’s important to say ‘I’ and not ‘we’, but I was only part of a team that achieved what we did. If I say ‘I’ all the way through, I won’t be being honest. How do I deal with this?

Getting over the guilt

It’s normal to feel guilty about saying ‘I’ all the time – it’s hard to say: ‘I did this, and I achieved that’ when you were actually part of a team. There are two really good reasons for losing any squeamishness you have over using ‘I’.

The first is at the top of your CV. This document is about you, not about your team.

The other is that ‘we’ can be the kiss of death in an interview. An astute HR rep will question every use of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ because it raises the suspicion that you were only peripherally involved in what was achieved. So, finding a way of using ‘I’ can make the difference between a positive interview and a defensive one.

Keeping it real

So, how do you give yourself credit, and still keep it honest?

First, figure out exactly what you contributed to what was achieved. Then work out a way of explaining that in context. For instance, if you were the manager of a team that devised a way of reducing workload through better training, ask yourself why your team thought to do that. Did you challenge them to do so? Did you set up a pay-off? Did you contribute ideas, or facilitate the generation of ideas? Or did you simply foster an environment in which innovation is rewarded? Now create a sentence that starts with ‘I’ and says what you did: ‘I challenged my team to find ways to reduce workload. I supported their chosen option to improve training, and they reduced repeated work by 25% in 3 months’. Now it is clear what you contributed, and what was achieved, but you have not stolen anyone’s glory.

Be specific

Try to avoid saying: ‘I was part of a team that delivered a successful bid’ – this is too vague. Try to be specific, eg: ‘I ensured the commercial viability of a major bid by working through the financials, with the result that a contract worth £30m a year is consistently profitable at 30%’. This approach works well, no matter what your role was. Even if you just ensured it was complete, signed off, typed up and proofread, you can say: ‘I assembled, quality-checked, ensured sign off and delivered the final version of a major bid, now a contract worth £30m a year’.

Be proud of what you contributed

The trick is to isolate your contribution and bring this to the fore, without losing the size and importance of the whole deliverable. In this way, you can always take your own credit, without taking anyone else’s.

October 22nd, 2010 | Posted in Uncategorized, experience, job role, skills, stand out, work experience | No Comments

Should I include the number of people I manage on my CV?

I’ve been advised that I should include the number of people I managed in each job on my CV. This has varied wildly from job to job. Should I include this information, or leave it out?

Stating how many staff you had is generally either immaterial or it is negative. This is because fashions for different configurations of business organisation mean that the popularity of wide and narrow spans of direct control wax and wane.

Sometimes it is perceived as very clever to have a small top team handling a massive span of control; at other times, the trend is for a ‘flat’ organisation with many people of the same grade.

You cannot second guess what the prevailing fashion is in the target organisation, so I always advise leaving numbers of direct reports out, and focusing instead on span of control and delivery of absolute figures. These are always in fashion.

October 19th, 2010 | Posted in Uncategorized, application, experience, job description, job role | No Comments

How can I support my jobless partner?

My partner was made redundant three months ago. He has recently become very withdrawn and depressed, despite working hard to get another job. How can I help keep his spirits up during his job search?

Losing your job is so much more than losing an income. It’s even more than losing a daily routine, the buzz of dealing with work colleagues and the feeling of achievement from doing a good job. Managers and professionals often define themselves in terms of what they do for work, so when they lose their job, it can feel like losing their sense of self and their value in society. This may well be what’s happening to your partner.

The good news is that you’re the person best-placed to notice what is happening and to give or arrange help. Here are some hints:

Listen, support, but don’t fix

It is human nature to want to fix what’s wrong. Try to avoid this instinct unless your partner is actively asking for help, and trust that he is doing what needs to be done in terms of job hunting. Too readily dispensing advice can have the effect of belittling a person. Let the fact that you are not jumping in with suggestions prove that you have faith in his ability to get his next job.

Instead, become a sounding board for ideas, a sick bucket for hurt feelings and an interested ear to give updates to. The worst feeling for a job hunter is that they are working hard but nobody is really interested. You can head off a confidence slide simply by celebrating the good news and empathising with the bad. By becoming your partner’s trusted confidante, you will keep channels of communication open. Pushing too hard with unsolicited advice may cause him to shut down.

Keep positive

Try very hard not to criticise, even if the criticism is not related to job hunting. Being jobless increases a person’s sensitivity and it can magnify the impact of any criticism so even small points can get blown out of all proportion. You need your partner to know you respect him as much without a job as you did when he was working.

Use your own network of friends and family to discuss through your own minor issues and worries so you keep them out of the house, and keep the mood at home as positive as possible. Reassure your partner that you are coping, and you’ll square with him if there’s anything really bothering you. Then keep that promise, because keeping secrets kills trust.

Respect his job hunting efforts

Give your partner head-space for job hunting and thinking. It’s enormously difficult to write applications and make business calls when someone has the vacuum cleaner or the radio on. Agree on job hunting time (mornings are best) and non-job hunting time.

It is not possible to job hunt every hour of the day. Not only are there not enough jobs to apply for or relevant connections to make to fill the time, but working in this way very quickly leads to diminishing returns.

Instead, encourage your partner to turn off his inner judge. All too often I see clients who have been telling themselves for weeks that they have no ‘right’ to participate in fun activities and good times if they’re not bringing in a wage. They feel that they should be job hunting 24/7, and not doing so is somehow shirking their responsibility.

Tell your partner it’s OK to stop when he’s done a reasonable amount every day. If he’s job hunting for more than 6 hours a day, point out that he is almost certainly being tougher on himself than he would be on a friend or family member in the same situation.

Have some fun

Hand-in-hand with knowing when to stop goes knowing how to make the most of relaxation time. Perhaps the biggest benefit of having some time away from work is the opportunity to put time into personal and family relationships and friendships.

Become your partner’s partner in crime in having a good time despite your situation. Take each other on a date, rediscover a hobby or visit friends. It is especially important at this time for you to stay connected both to each other and your social circle, and to let your friends and family support you, just as you would (as you know) support them.

Don’t leave it too long to get help

If your partner is not eating regularly, sleeping well or looking after his physical appearance, he may be sliding into depression. Read more about this in our section on psychological effects (below) and don’t leave it too long before consulting your GP.

July 10th, 2010 | Posted in between jobs, job hunting, support, unemployment, work-life-balance | No Comments

It’s past the close date on my application and I haven’t heard anything. Should I chase?

I’ve applied for a job I really would like, but there’s been no word from them and the interview date was scheduled for tomorrow. Should I assume I haven’t got it, or do you think it’s possible there’s been some slippage? Should I chase up, or will that seem rude?

Many applicants worry that, if they chase up applications they will seem pushy or rude. But the truth is, anything can be happening behind the scenes, and your call could be the difference between being the chosen candidate and not.

So long as you are polite and enquiring and sound cheery and positive, you’ll simply seem keen. And keen is good.

Friendly persistence often pays off

Consider these examples:

One client chased up a teaching job back in February this year when the date for interview was fast approaching. Her spur was that the job was located 260 miles from her home, so she needed to know whether to make travel arrangements. She called, emphasised that she was very keen on the role, and asked if they could tell her whether she had been selected for interview, please?

The response from the other end was from a rather frazzled school office manager, who told her that Ofsted had arrived without notice that week to carry out a full school inspection. This opened the door for my client to empathise; to ask how it had gone and to create a rapport with the office manager. She went on to learn that she had, indeed, been selected for the rescheduled interviews. On arriving at the school, she was able to ask for the office manager by name and introduce herself, thus increasing the rapport on interview day. She got the job.

Another client called about a job he really wanted with a major electronics company he had interviewed with some weeks before. On calling, he discovered that the company had just discovered that their chosen candidate had lied on her CV. They had discontinued her application, and they were back to square one. He called just as they were deliberating what to do. He told them he was keen, emphasised that he understood the challenge and could meet it, and said if they offered him the job he could start the next Monday. They hired him.

Expect the unexpected

So, chasing up can work very well. Simply sound positive, bright and keen when you call. And expect anything.

Be prepared for a possible 'no' by reading this section on asking for feedback.

July 2nd, 2010 | Posted in application, feedback, stand out | No Comments
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