Welcome

Welcome

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Charity Sector and Me - A short story

As a quick disclaimer, this is a blog on 8 months of unemployment in Cardiff, looking for work in the charity sector. I have been umming and aahing about writing a piece on my unemployment for a long long time. I am of several minds about my position on it, would I potentially jeopardize future job opportunities? Would it sound like sour grapes? Or could this writing be vaguely useful to other graduates, young people, looking to get into the charity sector? 
The last point has eventually won out, but don't deafen me with "he's just bitter", cause I'm not. 
So there.

I'll tell a potentially familiar narrative to get me to the crux of this blog, of how I got to unemployment in the first place.

I got involved with youth politics in my first year of university really, joining social action group UpRising, meeting amazing people and learning about what I thought. Second year fell into place, and I was successful in applying for a position as the UK Ambassador for Wales, with the amazing Arooj Khan. We killed it, had a lot of fun, represented a lot of young people. I started to slowly integrate myself into the Welsh Charity Sector, working out the assembly, and the key players. I networked hard, and made a few brilliant friends. Third year saw the continuation of the Ambassadorship, then a successful bid to become a trustee for the British Youth Council, and a chairmanship of Student Representatives in Cardiff University. I worked with Google, I went to international summits, I was in my absolute element.
I organised an internship in one of my favourite Welsh charities for the summer holiday after my graduation, and applied for a lot of student coordinator roles, a position often filled by early 20-somethings from a similar educational position as myself.

Then slowly the interview rejections came through.

By the end of the summer, I had had five interviews, and not got one. That feeling was to become a common one, but I didn't know it yet. I moved into friends' spare room in Cardiff, (to both I will be eternally grateful), and began unemployment.
I was devoted to finding a job in the charity sector, after enjoying it so much. I have worked a job since I was 12, it was an unusual feeling for me, not having one any more. Anyone who talked to me in those months, I pity. Because I talked about the application process, and interview techniques, and how much I was enjoying the work I was doing in the Welsh charity sector. I threw myself into whatever volunteering I could find, and I got up at 8am every day, and applied for jobs, and went to interviews, and failed in interviews.
This continued for eight months.

I have checked through my laptop storage, and I wrote over 60 job applications, and sent off many more CVs.
I attended 27 charity sector interviews.
I volunteered.
I failed 27 charity sector interviews.

On the whole, I was treated to a terrible recruitment process, one characterised by archaic Microsoft Word forms, bad salaries, bad hours, and a lack of any care for the candidate.

That was the thing that I think stood out to me.

I have not ever been under any illusion that the charity sector I have fallen in love with in Wales is 'kinder' than a normal sector of industry. It cannot be, or it would not exist. It is not charitable in nature, and nor should it be. If I didn't have the skills, then I didn't deserve the job. If I was not what they were looking for, then I was not what they were looking for. That wasn't my fault, the job simply wasn't a good fit for me.
But the lack of care I was shown as an individual baffled me at first, and then angered me.

Some gave feedback, most did not.
Some respected me, one rushed me through the interview because they clearly had an internal candidate in the works and the 2 hour journey on public transport I had made to get there for a 15 hour a week contract was in vain.
One rang me up, accidentally told me I had obtained the highest score in interview, and then informed me that I hadn't got the job. I later found out that it went to a returning to work parent, who wanted a bit of part-time work to keep them busy.

Two recurrent, interconnected themes came through in the feedback that some recruiters were kind enough to give me.

1) I was too young
They wouldn't say this. It was heavily implied over a drink afterwards, it was within the lines of the email, it was thought that I had no appetite to stick around and learn and work. My age worked against me, they wanted a mid-40s parent, no risk.
I understand this, to an extent. I know they largely didn't care that I cared about the industry, about the importance of charity, that I was a bloody hard worker with a good amount of experience. And the second interconnected theme;

2) I was a risk
I was told several times in feedback that I should be more ambitious in my job search, that their admin job wasn't up my street, and that they wished me the best. I get that they were trying to be kind, but honestly, telling someone that they're not ambitious enough when failing them in a bog-standard admin job is some cruel poetry.  
Again, part of me understands this. I know the oft-crippling pressure that charities can be put under, I know how tight money is. Hiring a graduate to a 15 hour a week contract and giving them any training at all would surely result in wasted money, when they upped sticks and left for a full-time job. But I have worked for several years now to get young people into volunteering, into non-executive roles, into trusteeships, to give free work, essentially, ever the idealistic student. When I finished my degree and actually began job hunting, I realised why people in their mid-twenties never aspired to the charity sector.

I aspired for the charity sector, and I still do. I strongly believe I'm taking the right steps to get back there in several years' time, and make my mark.
I have lost my naivety/innocence about it though.

I most of all want to go back, and shake up what I see as wrong. Leon Ward mentions in an old blog that young people are the next Chief Executives, Philanthropists, Guardians of the sector. But until the charity sector is bold enough to recruit them, then the experience that young people can gain is always going to be limited. The 'home-grown talent' goes to London, and stays there.

But I'm not going to end on that, because that's just a big old moan. Here's what I learned, from unemployment in the charity sector.

What did I learn about aspiring to work in the charity sector?
  • Get some thick skin, quick. You're going to be told you're not quite up to scratch for all sorts of jobs. 
  • Whatever skills you think you have, if you don't have basic admin skills, minutes taking, that sort of thing, don't bother. Charities are stretched for money, they don't have the funds to give you Excel training. Get that from a big company, and go from there. 
  • This is more of a general point on work after university, but the sun does not shine from your nether regions. You are almost certainly not all that. It doesn't matter what title you have had. Demonstrate not that you can talk the most impressively or have a selfie with the most important person, demonstrate that you can work hard, demonstrate that you can master simple things.
  • The charity sector will surprise you in its ability to not give a hoot about you. Focus on the individuals who do, and get their feedback, learn from them. Get a mentor. Listen. 
  • Don't be disheartened. The sector is still bubbling away, there's more opportunity than ever to get involved with non-executive roles, young people are more than ever listened to. Volunteering is constructed better than it ever has been, so many charities are getting on board with the volunteering journey. 
My final recommendation would be: Never stop trying to expand your experience. The charity sector is better than any other for diversity of experience and learning scope, but it can be a hell of a lonely place. Get in there, get learning.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

The Fourth Option

Life is absolutely exhausting isn't it. When I get home from work every day I'm lucky if I can read a chapter of a book before the urge to examine the backs of my eye-lids kicks in. I've noticed I'm worse at keeping in touch with people, with having the motivations to do the things I care for and about - I haven't written a blog for months - that's definitely indicative. I've thought about writing a few times recently, as it's one of my favourite creative things to do, but just not felt the passion.

Things I care about are still continuing. There's still plenty in the news to get angry at, I just haven't worked out how to get that care back. I haven't worked out how to rage on paper again. I end up accusing myself of slacktivism, what does an angry blog achieve anyway? But that's the passivist's way out, I end up with no outlet, no creative piece, and a BA in cynicism to take my collection of useless BAs to two.
And cynicism is just the worst.
No-one likes a cynic, with good reason. Cynics aren't proactive, cynics bring down. Cynicism is the enemy of creative thinking. But yet it is such an easy trap. That empty smugness is to die for. It makes me feel like a soccer mom who's got her first prepubescent McDonald's employee sacked for forgetting darling Timothy's Happy Meal toy.
It's an addictive feeling.
But McDonald's workers across the globe, have no fear.
For I am writing again.
Look at me write.

The main gist of this blog is learning to run fast enough to do more than stand still. I've been playing a game of stuck in the mud, stood stationary as my job and my volunteering commitments play rock paper scissors for my energy. It's a convoluted metaphor, but the job has discovered the fourth option, dynamite, and is building an impressive win-streak.

One of my favourite cartoons as a kid was a Broons cartoon, featuring Granpaw at the pub with his drinking friends, telling them how the wind was so fierce on his way to the pub that every step forward he took, he was blown back two steps.
"But Granpaw", his friends cry, clearly more au fait with rudimentary physics than their bloodshot eyes would suggest, "how did you get here then?"
Granpaw sighs, probably tired of voting to leave the EU, and grins.
"I just turned around and headed for home, boys, and here I am!"

Now while my taste in classic comedy has somewhat evolved since then, it's an interesting point to illustrate my current dilemma. It is so so difficult to get to where you want in life (ie. the pub), because everything seems to conspire against you. And it's so easy, when you're battling to get somewhere, to settle. Halfway up the hill becomes really comfy, and before you know it, halfway up the hill was actually your goal all along, remember? I am a naturally sedentary individual, and it's easy to convince a tired body to not do more work at the end of a day. Cause I'm only 22, one day it'll magically happen, I'll just be where I want to be, with all the experience I want... only, as you know, discerning reader, that's not how life works.
If I just did my job for the next five years, in five year's time I'd have earned five year's wages. I'd have a bit more training, I'd be really good at minute-taking, but in terms of personal progression, in terms of long term goals, I'd be nowhere.
In fact, I'd be worse than nowhere.
My contacts in the charity sector, the skills in digital and communications that I've worked so hard to get would have faded. Now as it happens, I enjoy my new job a lot, so if I want to keep those skills and learn some new ones, it looks like I need to crack this problem sooner rather than later.

Now that sounded like a very 'me'-specific paragraph, so I'll summarise the main point in a impersonal way:
"An expert has failed many more times than the beginner has tried" - Stephen McCranie
It is so easy to settle. If you ever feel like you haven't achieved life goals, it may be because those huge goals are not specific enough, and that's why you haven't achieved them.
If you have ever set business goals, you quickly learn to be micro-ambitious in what you want to achieve, Try applying that to personal goals.
Yes, you might be a whisky taster or drive dumper trucks for a living, so this isn't for you, you've reached your dream. But it's no use setting Z as the goal if you're at D. Being micro-ambitious, working out how to get where you want to go. Big goals that are steps away from your current ability are unreachable, by their definition. Maybe when you've worked that out, I'll have realised how to get where I want to be, and we can laugh in our slippers and dressing gowns with big glasses of Gin and Tonic.
(That's my life goal, don't know about you).

This is a most unusual Joe blog, because it isn't going to end with a glib one-liner with just a hint of pretension, no. This blog shall finish as it started, by recognising the exhaustion of living, and by commending those who have the energy to keep changing the world in their little or big way, however that looks.
If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Blue Sky, Thinking


 
"Okay, that's one thing I know about life, One thing I know about life is a guarantee, right?
Change is inevitable!
And listen to me, as much as you like to be in your comfort zone, as much as you like to be stable, as much as you like to control your environment,
The reality is: Everything Changes" -
Eric Thomas
I write a journal. Every day(ish), I'll write a page or so of brain mumblings, good quotes, interesting people I've met, that sort of thing. These next two sentences have come from post-University journal entries, and I find them really interesting to examine with hindsight:

"You finish University, and you are the cock of the walk, and ever so quickly you're a feather duster - that change is rapid and inevitable. 
I'm in a stasis between full-time education and full-time employment."

They nicely sum up this feeling I haven't been able to shake, that something isn't starting yet, that life is currently tougher than it has been, and that if one thing changed, I'd be alright and I could start to 'live life'.

When you are born, you go through a range of physical changes that eventually deposit you at adulthood, right? And there's a range of mental changes you undergo too, the reason I don't find The Beano such a good read any more(Sorry Mr D. Menace, I loved you once), and the reason I've stopped bathing in Lynx Africa. I'd say I have gone through more mental changes over the past few months than I did during my entire University period, and if you'll excuse the rampant pretension, I'll attempt to explain why, in three reasons, I think that's the case. (You've got to excuse it, it's my blog, "whatever, I do what I want".)

      Unemployment = Forced Retirement
While difficult, I have really enjoyed unemployment (I think), for the reason that it forces you to evaluate what you deem to be important. "People retire to die", right, the famous saying. You potter, you watch the snooker, you spend time with family, and then you shuffle off the mortal coil and go to *insert personal Heaven fantasy here*. But I have no intention of shuffling off the mortal coil and going to LegoLand any time soon, rather, I need to keep myself in the best mental shape I can, so that when an application comes through, I can be my best self in an interview, and hopefully get someone paying me. I've noticed I value my time these days far more than I used to, which is interesting. Now I have more time, I'm more protective of it. Go figure. Without the routine of University, or sixth form, or secondary school, or primary school, I've had the time to pursue passions. I'm far less deferential than I was 6 months ago, I have begun to respect knowledge, not position. My Christian upbringing has faded, beautifully and mercifully. More on that later.
       
        Talent = Sustained interest
This was huge to realise. I've been good at things before (I know, check me), and I've put time into those things. I never quite made the correlation. Talent = sustained interest - I'll quote it again, I love it so much. For instance, I have always wanted to make my own text-based adventure game, skill checks, an inventory, sprawling story lines, a real monsters and clever protagonists immersive game. And I have wanted to make this game for years. I realised, one day, that I could want to do something all my life, and just not do it because I didn't know how to do the intermediate skills that it would require to do. Because I couldn't achieve intermediate instantly, I didn't bother.
Until I became unemployed.
I signed up to a free course, and I've been coding for just over a month now. I'm terrible. I know I'm terrible. But I am "terrible and learning", which in my book is better than "slightly better than terrible and not learning". I made my first game this week- Pong. It took me 4 hours and a tutorial that said I'd do it in just under 2. I was so pleased with that progress, cause I'd written the theme tune, played the theme tune, and sung the theme tune, I'd done everything to make one of the most well-known games of all time. Talent = sustained interest, so in a few months I'll be a whole lot closer to making my own text-based adventure game than I would have ever been if I hadn't have bothered learning in the first place.
       
       Who am I?

This is a less refined version of the "what's important to me?" question we all tackle till the day we die. For those who I confide in, they will know that a lot of things I put stock in have fallen by the way. The weirdness of my manically Christian upbringing has fallen where it needed to, and those I love have remained. And as a result, there's such a freedom in how I act now. I'm not constrained by what I 'should do', I'm certainly not constrained in what I can say.
I'm also realising that there's no such thing as "being in a stasis", and trust me, I've really been through the five stages of grief on that one. I'm realising that "I'm in a stasis" is a defensive mechanism, it's an excuse (which is fine, we're allowed defensive mechanisms, we're allowed excuses) which means I don't have to interact with the present in the present, I can look at it from the end of a barge pole. I caught myself time and time again, talking to people, saying "Oh I'm in such a stasis at the moment, when I have a job and a place, then I can really start life, then I can really start to make 'ME', the adult." And I had the horrible realisation that it doesn't exist. There is no stasis, there is only horrible all-consuming life. And that has been such an eye-opener for me. If I want to start climbing, why say I'll do it when I've got a house? How are those two statements even connected? If I want to write a book, saying I'll do it when I have more time means that without a doubt I won't do it when I have more time. It won't ever magically 'get better'. That's a scary thought, and it's a liberating one, because once you realise something doesn't exist, you can fill the gap it occupied with something more worthwhile. I don't have to wait till I've got my own house before I code. I can do that now. I don't have to wait till I can drive before I make sure I'm a presence in my nieces/nephews lives, I have a rail card and I'm not afraid to use it.
Try me.

All the most pretentious waffle ends with a quote, so Tim Minchin says it best:
"Life is meaningless...You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad. And then you’ll be old. And then you’ll be dead. 
There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is: fill it. Not fillet. Fill. It...It's an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours." - Occasional Address