Employment Secrets of the Civil Service

It came as a surprise to me that age discrimination in the civil service resembles that in the private sector. I had assumed that older workers in Whitehall, protected as all of us are by the Age and Employment Act, would be sheltered by the extra measure of political correctness commonly associated with the public sector. When I met with Peter Davies (not his real name) I learned that age-related prejudice exists, even if outright discrimination would be hard to prove in court. That said, he told me there are many positives about working in the public sector, in terms of job satisfaction, working with dedicated people who are also great managers, and in understanding of personal and health issues, even if there are fewer job opportunities these days.

In order for Davies to improve his pay grade, he’s discovered reliable ways to secure a new position. He says many of his colleagues have found success using his techniques. He offers invaluable advice for those who wish to remain in public service beyond the age of 50.

Here’s his first tip: don’t rely on getting a position in the area or department in which you currently work. That was a shock. Shouldn’t people go where they’re known, where an internal network already recognises and appreciates their achievements? “No,” says Davies, “because they may have perceptions about your age, and it’s quite likely they will already have a ‘winning’ candidate in mind.” He adds: “I have had most success where I have applied for jobs outside my department where, apart from my application form, they have had no prior knowledge or pre-conceptions of me. I have used this to work in my favour in selling my services – by presenting an unmissable offer.”

His comment points in the direction of merit, and his next bit of advice: choose a position where you know you can bring value. On the application form, include 300 words that demonstrate competencies, such as evidence gathering, stakeholder management, risk-assessment, or financial acumen. Make sure you describe two key competencies, which are clearly indicated and stand out at the top of your list. At interview, be ready to discuss several examples of times where you’ve used those skills to achieve results.

Another tip: be outcome focussed. Many civil servants are keen to demonstrate their understanding of process and procedure, forgetting to describe the results of their labours. Bringing a project in under budget, completing it ahead of schedule, and improving efficiencies are examples of positive outcomes that stand out on an application.

To help overcome the age issue, and the perception that older workers are “dead wood”, he says you should upgrade your professional qualifications – he’s done that several times – and become a volunteer outside your place of employment. Join working groups, do community service, become a school governor – these are all hands-on activities that show you’re active and able. Include them in your application.

Davies says you can apply for a position if you have 70 per cent of the skills and experience found in the job advertisement. (This is the same advice we give private sector jobseekers in FINDING WORK AFTER 40.) Adverts describe the perfect candidate – it’s core competencies that matter the most. He says, “Even if you don’t think you’ll get the job, apply anyway. Put on a good show – you might be the answer to their next problem.”

Once you’ve been invited to interview, Davies maintains that, with thorough preparation, you can control 80 per cent of what happens by knowing your subject matter and being able to describe your experience. He suggests you choose two reasons why they won’t want to employ you. Be prepared to answer the worst questions they can ask around those two reasons. For the remaining 20 per cent of the interview you will need to think on your feet. There will be questions that come out of the blue. Davies says, “The interview starts a long time before it occurs formally. All communication regarding the job is part of the interview.” He adds, “Once you’re in the room, treat the interview as if you are already doing the job.”

His final words of advice: don’t piss anyone off, form alliances and always support your allies. This applies to everyone in all sectors: public, private and charitable. Your network is invaluable.

I think Peter Davies is bright, hard-working, dedicated, and helpful with his colleagues – all in all, an asset to his country. What a pity I can’t tell you his real name so we can all sing his praises. Age discrimination – and the official denial of its existence – forbids it.


Promotional Blog of Highest Importance

FINDING WORK AFTER 40 is available now, and not a moment too soon. The latest report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR, May 29, 2011) states that nearly half of unemployed over-50s have been out of work for more than a year. When we developed the plan for our book two years ago, that figure was one third. So while the ONS numbers for overall employment have improved somewhat, the rate of long-term unemployment has increased for the over-50s, and it’s the highest of any age group.

The figures clearly indicate that older workers have been sidelined. And they’re not getting much help. The job club network in Berkshire (Foundation for Jobseekers) has determined that 60 percent of older managers and professionals do not receive any kind of outplacement support. There’s very little on offer from the government. Jobcentre Plus is no solution. So you’re on your own. Or are you?

We don’t promise to solve your dilemma, but we can help. Our book is packed with information distilled from the Berkshire job club network, which has assisted over a thousand people to become economically active. The authors – Liam Mifsud and I – have seen many jobseekers and career changers succeed using the methods we describe. If you’re stuck in a rut, or spinning your wheels and getting no traction, try working through our book.

And now the fun bit

Book launches are where authors meet readers. Wine is often involved, and that means conversations can be lively and informative. Authors will usually speak and read from their work, with questions answered. To use a showbiz analogy: it’s a chance for the audience to meet the performers and have their programmes signed. We’ll be doing all of the above this month, starting in Windsor and finishing in central London at Westminster Reference library. Here’s the schedule:

June 7, from 7-9pm:  Waterstones, 20-21 Peascod Street, Windsor, Berkshire  SL4 1DU

Admission is £3, but wine is on offer and the money is deducted from the purchase price of the book. This one is Liam’s ‘local launch’, and we’re doing it to raise awareness for the Windsor & Maidenhead Executive Job Club. Both authors will be there.

June 9, from 7-9 pm: St John’s Church, Church Grove,  Hampton Wick (SW London), KT1 4AL

Open to all, with free admission. This one is Robin’s ‘local launch’. Wine is involved. Liam won’t be in attendance.

June 22, from 6.30-8pm: Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin’s Street, London WC2H 7HP

Admission is free. To book a place email: bip@westminster.gov.uk, or telephone 020 7641 5250. We’re told these events are very popular, so you should reserve to guarantee a seat. Coffee and tea will be available. Sorry there’s no wine.

One more thing

You may be wondering what we look like. Here’s a photo to help with easy identification on the night. It was taken the at Bloomsbury publisher launch at Soho Square. Liam’s on the left, I’m on the right.

Liam and Robin

Click here to buy the book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Finding-Work-After-Strategies-Professionals/dp/1408131250/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1306950928&sr=8-1

Mentoring At The Silver Academy

In our book, FINDING WORK AFTER 40, Liam and I describe an ‘older worker’ as someone over 40 – not an advanced age if you happen to be 55 or 62. In fact, it seems positively youthful to those of us who have crossed over the half-century line. Ours was an arbitrary choice, based on the youngest age that someone might be considered ‘older’ in today’s workforce. Those who are in the IT sector or in marketing will likely agree that 40 is a difficult age. Over 45 and certainly over 50 (for every sector) is what we really mean by ‘older’.

The age of 50 is a demarcation for The Silver Academy. The project is a partnership between South East Chambers of Commerce and the University of Surrey, with funding provided by the EU Interregional Cooperation programme INTERREG IVC. The objective is simple: to help unemployed older people start their own businesses. Over six months, a series of seven one-day workshops guides participants, some 100 in total, towards a decision and an action plan for self-employment. Leadership is provided by Len Goss, an experienced business coach, with support from Ross McNally of South East Chambers.

I discovered The Silver Academy when I was doing research for the book. I was impressed by the concept and offered my time as a volunteer mentor, a service the Academy provides to participants on request. Since February, I’ve been mentoring two people from the Academy, and the experience has been very rewarding. Phil and Jane are both designers – one does offices, the other home interiors. We meet regularly and discuss problems and issues, with weekly assignments (I call it ‘homework’), all the while moving towards an agreed goal. I encourage Phil and Jane to examine their strengths and weaknesses, assess what they need, and develop an action plan. Then I help them stay on track. There is a ‘how to’ element in mentoring, which is what differentiates it from coaching, and so I do present recommendations based on my own business experience. Phil and Jane are starting their first businesses, while I have had several start-ups, and I’ve worked for new companies as an interim manager and a consultant.

Ross invited me to a special mentoring day, held last week (March 14th) in Guildford, where Len took Silver Academy participants through a fast-paced workshop in personal coaching, one of his areas of expertise. He’s an enthusiastic and talented man; he got everyone involved, including me. It was hugely useful and often entertaining. I learned more about the close relationship between mentoring and coaching and, thankfully, my mentoring concepts and methods were confirmed. We were instructed to never say, ‘Yes, but…’ in any session. It’s an ego comment coming from the coach/mentor, one that denies a person’s abilities. I was pleased to realise I have never said it to Phil and Jane.

Len asked me to tell the group what benefit I receive from mentoring. What does the mentor get out of it? Here are the bullet points I presented.

  • Confirmation that my advice is appropriate and my skills are effective. My knowledge has value.
  • Information when the mentee tells me something I didn’t know about their sector, their ‘world’. I’m enriched by  their knowledge.
  • Network enhancement. The mentee is in my network, and I’m in theirs. We all need to constantly upgrade our network.

So what’s different about mentoring older workers? It’s pleasant to work with people who have years of employment experience behind them — they know their capabilities. Phil and Jane are moving towards a personal definition of success; they each have clearly-defined goals. Communication is fluent because we share common ground: we’re from the same generation. Talking down is inappropriate and embarrassing for both parties in any mentoring situation, but I have found that ‘Yes, but’ is closer to the surface when I’ve mentored younger people.

If you are considering a move into self-employment and starting your own business, try to find a mentor, someone with experience who can encourage you and guide you away from pitfalls and towards success. Where are they found? A government initiative commences this summer, one that will replace Business Link advisors with volunteer mentors, some 40,000 in all. Visit the Business Link website for information and updates (at the time of writing I was unable to find a web address for this service). If your need is more urgent, Horsesmouth allows you to register a request for a mentor (www.horsesmouth.co.uk). PRIME, http://www.primeinitiative.co.uk and the sister site http://www.primebusinessclub.com provide information for over-50s starting a business. You won’t find a list of mentors there, but you can receive free business advice from a number of local sources listed in the Prime Business Club directory. Once you get started, you may be led towards an appropriate mentor by helpful guides you meet along the way.

Remember that a mentor should be positive and supportive. If you leave a session feeling downhearted, having heard ‘Yes, but’ a few too many times, you’re with the wrong person. Knowledge and encouragement are what you need to help you get back to work.

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The Bias Against Public Sector Workers

Another employment prejudice has been exposed: a recent study conducted by the Financial Times and Barclays Corporate has determined that, out of 500 private sector companies, 57% of those surveyed were not interested in hiring from the public sector, with 52% stating they believed those workers ‘were not equipped’ to take a job in their company. This does not bode well for NHS employees, those working for councils, and thousands of other public sector workers who are soon to be made redundant. The study reveals a long-standing bias that exists in our working culture: public sector workers aren’t as competent as those in the private sector. When combined with age discrimination – another prejudice – it means that over-45s from the public sector will have the most difficult time finding employment.

Given that 65% of new jobs are created by SMEs (companies employing 250 people or less) in an average year, the expectation seems to be that, as if by magic, those companies will create jobs to soak up the newly-unemployed public sector workers. And yet the government is doing little to help small enterprises (in fact, many of them depend on public-sector contracts that are being cut) and the banks are hindering their expansion by making credit and loan conditions onerous and unfeasible.

So what’s a poor, soon to be out-of-work middle (or senior) public sector manager to do in these conditions? Act now, and act fast. Before you’re made redundant examine the changing landscape and see which private sector companies are getting government contracts. Many of them are large employers, and some of them may be hiring soon. As an example, the new version of the Work Programme will see companies such as Serco, G4S and PWC acting as prime providers, with delivery starting 1 July, 2011. They’ll be sub-contracting, and you’ll have credibility because you understand your sector, and you know how to manage teams that deliver a public service. Convince them that you can make savings efficiencies and you might secure your next role.

The purpose of this blog is to give light and hope to older workers in the form of practical information and suggestions. And yes, I have a book to sell. FINDING WORK AFTER 40: Proven Strategies for Managers and Professionals is published by A&C Black (Bloomsbury) and will be available April 29, 2011. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging frequently on the topic of re-employment and self-employment for older workers. It’s my mission to help others get back to work. I’m Robin McKay Bell. www.robinmckaybell.com