Gillian Roberts has endured the worst effects of the current recession. (And it is a recession as far as employment is concerned. Let’s not be too fussed about technicalities – we have 2.57 million out of work, and those aged 50-64 have the highest percentage of long-term unemployment.) She’s had to go on benefit – something she is very much ashamed of – and she’s suffered the indignity of being rejected many times by interviewers half her age with far less experience (she’s now 52). Living on limited means isn’t easy, and hearing the word ‘underclass’ applied to herself – something that would never have occurred to her previously – gave a further knock to her self-confidence. How, she wonders, does having valuable skills combined with a willingness to work, make someone part of an underclass? And why does being over 50 make you ‘over the hill’?
Dancing was her first career. Gillian showed an early talent and earned money to pay for ballet and tap lessons. Her last public performance was given at the age of 27. Gillian says it was a good thing her mother made sure there was something to fall back on: from the age of 11 onwards Gillian was groomed to be a secretary.
She’s worked since the age of 15, first as an office junior then as a bank clerk, and she’s had stints as a secretary with an architect and several finance companies, with time spent as an insurance loss adjuster. Gillian says, “In those days, you were expected to change jobs every two years – if you didn’t it showed a lack of ambition.” In 1987 she took a sales role, specialising in car finance. She was good at sales, and would have stayed had she not taken maternity leave, only to return and find the business in trouble. Gillian moved on and worked as a loss adjuster again, but a health crisis forced her to take time off, resulting in redundancy.
With health problems and a young child to care for, life became more difficult. For eight years Gilliam temped as a single mum, upgrading her skills as she went along, finally becoming a first-class, all-around secretary. When her daughter was older, she took a permanent position with a plumbing company but again, health issues meant she had to leave and return to temping.
Then Gillian found her dream job. On a fixed contract from August 2003 to July 2004 she was secretary to the supervisor for the re-fit of RFA Argos, based in Falmouth. She liked the team, the high-performance expectations and her position as what she terms, “a proper PA, with access to technical and confidential information.” When her contract ended, she had the confidence to start her own business as a counsellor and empowerment coach. After several good years, she was forced to close the business following the recession of 2008.
Once again, Gillian had to take any work she could get, but this time her biggest obstacle was ageism. “Nobody admits to it, but it’s very real,” she says. “Employers ask for dates on your qualifications, so even if you haven’t told them your age, they can easily find out.”
When we first spoke several months back, I was impressed by Gillian’s dogged determination. She had started her own website and blog, partly out of frustration and partly to convince prospective employers she’s not ‘over the hill’.
Last month, I asked how she landed her new secretary job after nearly two years of unemployment. She told me she took CV courses and learned to write a hybrid CV (we tell you how to do that in FINDING WORK AFTER 40). Gillian says it helped that she applied to a small company – only nine employees – and so she was interviewed by a company director and the Chief Executive, both older men who valued experience (we recommend looking at SMEs for this reason). She kept her LinkedIn profile up-to-date (essential) and sure enough, her prospective employers googled her and discovered her blog. They liked Gillian’s sense of humour and personality. They thought she would fit in their organisation. She’d half won them over before the interview where she impressed them again by addressing an ‘elephant in the room’: “Can you do this job after being unemployed for so long?” Her response: “I’ve kept my skills up-to-date, but it may take a week or two to get up and running.” Honesty combined with practicality – a winning combination in her case. She was open about her health issues as well.
Gillian continues to maintain her social concerns about the benefit system and age prejudice. Visit http://underthehill.co.uk for some excellent CV tips and her personal insight into the problems older workers face with regards to JSA and the recently launched Welfare to Work scheme. Gillian’s blog, http://pimmsoclock.wordpress.com, is a humorous look at her life. We all need a laugh, something to stop us from crying in these difficult times.