With a sigh of resignation, I glared at the line of two-inch duct tape that had somehow attached itself along the back of my arm from my wrist to elbow.
Concluding that it wouldn’t remove itself, I grabbed the end of the tape, took a deep breath, and yanked.
I let loose a string of expletives that could be roughly translated as “oh my goodness gracious me, that really was rather unpleasant”.
Wow did that hurt!
Blinking back tears, I glanced at the angry pink stripe of (now) bald skin running down the back of my otherwise hirsute forearm. A fashion statement it was not.
Carefully this time, I finished taping shut the filing box. It contained a precious cargo: my only suit, tie, business shirt and a pair of well-worn dress shoes.
Everything I would need for job interviews once I arrived in the United Kingdom, but nothing I wanted to haul around in my backpack while I took the long way around to get there. Between them, the box and backpack contained all my worldly possessions.
Boldly scrawled across the lid in magic marker was the delivery address:
[my name] POSTE RESTANTE GPO London United Kingdom
When you’re emigrating, lacking funds, and knowing nobody at your destination; poste restante can be a cheeky option for shipping stuff without having to pay storage fees.
Stepping back to admire my handiwork, I trod on my neatly rolled up belt, sitting on the floor… outside the box. Bollocks!
When the wheels fall off
Some weeks later an unhelpful postal clerk, in the post office closest to my youth hostel, had taken great delight informing me that London’s General Post Office had been torn down in 1912. There hadn’t been one since.
I experienced somewhat of a brown trousers moment.
What had happened to my work clothes? I couldn’t afford to replace them! How would I get a job?
The clerk shrugged, undeliverable parcels are returned to the sender.
An address I no longer occupied.
In a country where I no longer lived.
It would be fair to say my London experience had a suboptimal start!
I vaguely recalled hearing in a high school history class, that Trafalgar Square was the traditional end point for measuring distances to England’s capital. In my experience, the most centrally located post office in a town tended to be the General Post Office.
With nothing to lose, and fervently wishing I had invested in a winter coat, I shivered my way through Kensington, Hyde, Green, and St James’ parks into the centre of town. An elderly Rastafarian waiting at a bus stop helpfully pointed me in the direction of the nearest post office.
Dodging around clusters of homeless people camped behind St Martin-in-the-Fields church, I made my way up Adelaide Street and into the wonderfully warm post office.
The postal clerk, sporting a truly magnificent swirly comb-over, looked doubtful when I asked if there were any parcels waiting for me to collect. He kindly disappeared out the back to check.
Dozens of customers came and went.
Eventually the clerk returned, carrying a very battered oddly shaped package under one arm. He cautiously placed it on the counter.
The parcel looked like it had been used as a football by a meth-addled herd of elephants. Yet it was addressed to me, my name scrawled in magic marker across what used to be the top of the box.
Breathing a mighty sigh of relief, I thanked the clerk, and ventured back into the cold to commence the job hunt.
The thrill of the chase
The next couple of weeks were tough.
Work experience gained overseas counted for little.
Risk-averse employers wanted to poach somebody already performing the exact same role at one of their competitors, rather than hiring somebody based on skills and experience.
Recruiting firms conducted time wasting agency interviews. The goal of these was to try and harvest contact details of past employers (in the hope of converting them into new clients) rather than helping candidates find suitable work.
Temp agencies offered last-minute low-skilled short-term placements. They were poorly paid, and the main selection criteria seemed to be having a warm body.
With each successive day of job hunting my meagre savings remaining, after backpacking my way to London, dwindled.
The spectre of Christmas loomed large.
The one constant message delivered by recruiters and HR staff alike, was that the job market shuts down in mid-December for the holidays, and doesn’t pick up again until early February.
The gods smiled
Late on a Tuesday afternoon, four weeks after I had arrived at Heathrow, a harried recruiter called.
He was desperately seeking to rescue an awkward situation where a candidate had accepted a role, then reneged at the last minute after having subsequently landing a higher paying gig elsewhere.
“Can you start tomorrow?” asked the pimp.
I didn’t know anything about the firm, the location, or the role.
“Yes!” I eagerly replied.
“Do you know Microsoft Access?”
I’d never heard of it.
“Of course” I lied, with as much bravado as I could muster.
I needed a job! A man can only subsist on peanut butter sandwiches for so long.
“Great! You need to be at the client’s office in Reading tomorrow at 09:00, for a two-week contract paying £30 an hour. Any questions?”
“Where in London is Reading?” I asked, still unfamiliar with the local geography.
“Uhhh…. West London. Just a short journey from Paddington station” he lied, it turned out Reading was 40 miles outside of London by train!
A complete idiot’s guide to…
I walked to the closest Waterstones bookstore and spent several hours skimming through the appropriately titled “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Microsoft Access”.
It turns out that Access, which I knew nothing about, was a lot like Excel. As an accountant, I was unhealthily familiar with Excel.
There are very few things Excel can’t do, but a great many things that it shouldn’t be made to do!
Fortunately for me, the client knew less about Access than I did.
Fortunately for the client, I was a fast learner.
That first contract was certainly an adventure, with a steep learning curve, and no safety net.
However it ended up resulting in a win-win outcome: the client happily received the proof of concept solution they desired, and my resume now included some much needed local experience.
A happy ending… and a beginning
The money I earned secured a lease on a fully furnished, “all bills included”, basement studio flat.
Word of mouth started to spread, leading to another freelance contract, this time based in the City.
Just a few short months earlier I had been a permanently employed Accountant, driving a crappy student car, living in the town I grew up in… and the owner of a pair of matching hairy arms.
By Christmas time I had fallen into the IT profession, traded the car for a backpacking adventure, lived in central London… and possessed one arm that remained decidedly less hairy than the other.
At this point I could end this story on a happy note, leaving the audience with the impression that your (less than) humble protagonist had taken a risk, overcome adversity, and lived happily ever after.
Except life seldom plays out like the ending of a Hollywood movie.
A little fear
I experienced a temporary rush of fear when I realised I had duct taped my arm. It was short-lived and easily overcome.
I experienced a similar rush of fear when it appeared that my job interview clothes were forever lost to the complex machinery of the global postal system. Again it was short-lived and overcome with relative ease.
Everyone experiences fear when they contemplate changing jobs.
Most times people seeking a job are looking to cleanly transition from a role they already occupy to something new. The motivations behind seeking a change are many and varied, including:
- A higher rung on the corporate ladder
- More money
- Status or ego
- Shorter commute
- Not having to wear a shirt and tie
- Flexible working conditions
- Better work/life balance
This fear is also short-lived, and usually conquered with relative ease.
A larger fear
A scarier scenario confronts job seekers who do not enjoy that luxury of choice.
Perhaps they have recently graduated, been fired, made redundant, relocated to a new locale, or been released from hospital… or prison!
In such circumstances, job hunting is undoubtedly tougher.
The financial imperative, of having bills to pay and needing to eat, places the job seeker in a significantly weakened negotiation position.
My relentlessly ego-bruising, and ultimately unsuccessful, search for Accounting jobs when first arriving in London is an example of this.
There was an inverse relationship between my remaining bank balance and the amount of pressure I felt.
It was definitely good luck rather than good management that resulted in my reaching the first rung on the London career ladder. I appreciate my good fortune, and recognise things could have worked out far differently.
However this was far from the most frightening career moment I have experienced.
The biggest fear
Over the years there have been several times where I have felt ambushed, caught out by structural changes occurring outside my professional niche.
One moment I possessed skills and experience that were highly in demand. I could name my own price, and had clients beating down my door to procure my services.
Life was good.
Shortly afterwards, often only six to twelve months later, fashions had changed and those same skills were yesterday’s news.
Suddenly I was an accomplished solver of problems that paying clients no longer had!
That is humbling.
What would you do if you suddenly discovered that your specialist niche, or entire profession, was no longer relevant? History is full of precedents, ranging from mudlarks to html developers.
If you are fortunate, you will possess some complementary skills that do remain in demand.
These skills form a bridge from your immediate state of obsolescence, towards your next paying gig. Ideally that next job provides the opportunity to re-skill and regain relevance.
Market forces may demand a step back in order to keep progressing forwards. You may need to adjust the perceived value of your time, accepting a lower day rate or salary until you once more possess skills that are in demand.
If you are not so fortunate, then you face a frightening and confronting technical problem. The prospect of being technically redundant, and the skills you possess being unemployable.
Possibly with a mortgage to pay, and a family to support.
All things come to an end
The lesson I have learned from these experiences is the importance of keeping a watchful eye on emerging events, trends and technologies.
Think through both the short and long-term implications of each, particularly regarding how it may impact my ability to earn a living.
Sometimes these changes are visible from a long way off, such as:
- software services replacing physical products wherever possible
- standardised curriculums delivered for free via the internet, eliminating the majority of skilled teaching and academic positions
- any role reliant predominantly on repeated physical activity being replaced by robots; including pharmacists, soldiers, tradespeople, and all forms of vehicle operators.
Other times the changes are much more abrupt and unexpected:
- the dotcom bust
- the Global Financial Crisis
- the current uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
In each of the latter cases, the pipeline of projects being incepted by paying clients rapidly dried up. Surplus skilled staff found themselves being jettisoned into a job market already flooded with similarly experienced people.
The laws of supply and demand establish a new market price, determined largely by those most desperate for a wage, and who are unwilling to relocate in search of a more favourable outcome.
Timing is hard, direction of travel is easier
Attempting to predict the timing of these changes is a mug’s game. However in the majority of cases a suitably interested observer can identify the direction of travel, and work through the long-term implications for themselves and the future of their livelihoods.
Sometimes this will result in a deep-seated sense of fear, or a feeling of impending doom. Heed this feeling, identify where it originates from, and take action early to mitigate against that danger.
Ignorance won’t make it go away. Extinction lurks around the corner for the unwary.