Thursday, 15 October 2015

So much for being a "striver".

I worked in the private sector for ten years before the recession put paid to my career and since then have worked in Universities. This is the story of me, as the "striver".

Early 'career': Private Sector.

I left University in 2000 with a graphic design degree and started work the same year in the private sector, supposedly hired for my graphic design skills but in reality I was no more than a print room skivvy. I was stuck in that job for nearly three years. I had no payrise for years (despite the company doing rather well), working conditions were awful and I had to be nice to people who treated me like shit. I hated it. I was very depressed (although it took a long time to realise it) and eventually my mood got the better of me: apparently it was ok to swear and throw things if you sucked up to the boss and were part of his clique but I didn't and I wasn't. I was sacked. I could have contested the dismissal because there were no proper disciplinary procedures in place. But I was glad to be out - even though it meant months of scratching around for freelance work and occasional moments of despair when trying to make a meal out of a couple of budget items in my cupboard (some rice and a tin of chopped tomatoes on one occasion). It was a very low period in my life.

I needed whatever work came along and managed to get a bit of envelope-stuffing and data entry work at the University of Manchester. It didn't pay enough to live off but I was treated like a human being: despite the fact that a chimp could have done the work.

Eventually I managed to get a 'proper' job as an artworker (creating designs from brand guidelines or the concepts of creative designers) in an advertising agency. It was ok: the pay was a little better and I was treated somewhat like a human although the expected additional hours for no extra pay were unreasonable. Then a bigger advertising agency came along and the owners were happy to sell. I was the newest staff member and first out the door. I hadn't been there long enough to get a decent amount of notice and so I was informed on Monday at 5.45pm that I would be leaving on Friday at 5.30pm. As it turned out, on Friday I didn't show up: I had two interviews and before the end of the day, I had a new, better job. I wouldn't be starting for a month but the company who'd made me redundant still needed me to do my job for another two weeks: I charged them double my previous hourly rate. That's private sector short-term-thinking for you.

The new job was ok. It was a very small agency and I had a little more input and more responsibility. They paid quite well and gave me a decent payrise the first year, too. I rewarded their decency with my loyalty and was there for over three years until the economy began to collapse. It was clear long before the recession actually happened that things were going wrong. Most of our clients stopped giving us work and my employer had no other option but to let me go: they could do the work I was doing themselves now that there was so little of it and they couldn't afford to pay me any longer.

This time, I was given a months' notice and a small but not unreasonable amount of severance pay. But this time it was different. I now had a mortgage and the oncoming 'credit crunch' as it was then called was giving everyone the jitters and there were very few jobs around: particularly in my line of work. It was a rough time. There were jobs advertised and I got interviews, even second interviews but my recruitment consultant's despair was indicative of the time: employers seemed to be advertising jobs but not hiring anyone. I spent time and money having my suit drycleaned, printing work out and preparing a portfolio and getting trains, trams or buses to job interviews only to get nothing.

I was scratching around again and managed to get some freelance work. I'd had to price myself very low to get it and I had to travel a distance to work, which cost money. I'd get that off my tax but of course I still had to pay it out and wouldn't 'get it back' for nearly two years, so I was really out of pocket. The hourly rate I was charging was nowhere near enough to pay for sickness leave (which fortunately I didn't need) or time off and the work I was doing was desperately uninspiring.

In another sign of the times, my being there actually helped to make most of their employees redundant. Part of my work was to train some staff how to use design software more effectively. Their employees didn't have the skills to do their jobs, presumably because people with those skills would have cost more. Now they were paying me a pittance to train them up. Once I'd trained one of them, they got rid of four people. It had dawned on them that if they worked harder themselves and got one person to do the work of two or three, they could sack all but one of their employees. For a few weeks whilst I finished off work on their website, it was just me, the two owners talking big shop on the phones, and their solitary employee who had been to University and was now making them coffee and cleaning the toilets as well as using the new skills I'd taught her to work three times as quickly. One positive thing I can say about them: when I invoiced them, they paid me more or less straight away, unlike a lot of companies who employ freelancers.

Before redundancy, I'd been slowly building up some savings that I had intended as the start of a pension pot: of course, most private sector companies don't offer pensions so I didn't have one. Now, that had all been spent on getting to the end of our fixed-term mortgage and, you know, food and electricity. I had no money and no job. I was 31 years old.

New career: starting again and getting out of the private sector.

My girlfriend was offered an opportunity in Edinburgh. I had no reason to stay in Manchester, so we moved to Scotland. I again suffered the same old routine of being ignored by employers even when I'd had two interviews with them. Eventually, I managed to get some temp work at the University, working in their pensions department. I desperately wanted a permanent job at the University - or any University: in the private sector I'd been made redundant twice and had to sell myself at a bargain basement price to get some freelance work. I wasn't needed there very long but soon after I was asked to go and work in another University department.

There was a week in between these two temporary jobs: it just so happened that week was the 2010 general election. I stayed up all night watching things unfold and wished I hadn't bothered. The following week I cried when I saw Gordon Brown leaving Downing Street with his family: I wasn't his biggest fan but any Labour Prime Minister is preferable to any Tory Prime Minister; my working class upbringing had taught me that.

In the new temp role, I was out to impress. I had no reason to suspect that it would lead to anything permanent and I had competition anyway: three other temps in the same office who were all victims of the recession one way or another and all had been there longer than me. One day, a staff member was asked to leave and I was asked to take her role. I had no idea what I was doing: I'd never done proper admin work in my life but the only answer was "yes". I was still on a temp's wage and still only 35 hours a week. But I worked a lot more than that to make sure I was doing a good job: and I had a lot to learn. I knew that soon, someone would return from maternity leave and I'd be out of a job but in fact, the department were able to keep me on doing the same work: although I was shunted from a proper desk to a side-table which barely held the weight of the pc and the paperwork I had to deal with was in piles on the floor.

My line manager kept on making extra demands, knowing I'd say "yes" and that I'd get it done, too. I was working really hard, long hours on a temp's wage. Eventually, my efforts were rewarded: I was given a 6-month contract with the University on a standard secretary-level wage. I kept toiling; it got extended. I kept toiling, expanding the role I was doing and I was given a permanent contract. By that time, I'd taken on a lot more responsibility and after I'd been a University employee (not including my months as an agency temp) for a year, my line manager and two more senior staff members managed to get my job re-graded to a senior secretary position. At the age of 33, I was back on the same salary I'd been on before the recession.

Since then, I'm back in Manchester, working just as hard as ever. I've moved up one more pay grade. I'm now 37.

The future: do I have one under Tory rule and permanent austerity?

Universities have been forced to cut costs due to budget cuts. My last two salaries have been downgraded from what they would have been just a few years ago and every time a senior staff member moves role or leaves, their position is left unfilled or a reorganisation happens that saves chunks of money. Soon I will take on extra work due to the forced redundancy of a senior member of staff and my salary will not increase. This morning, we were informed that in the next few months, further structural changes will be agreed: it was not said but the mood made it clear this would not be good news for some University admin staff.

I don't deal with any administrator who doesn't have too much work to do. And yet it seems certain there will be fewer staff this time next year and with no end to the Tory ideological crusade against public services and institutions, I can only imagine the squeeze continuing for the foreseeable future.


After Thatcher, her ideology continued under Major and then Blair and Brown. Work hard and you will be rewarded. Trample on the weak; look after yourself. Yes, Labour were in power the days leading up to and including the crash but it was Tory ideology and the unregulated City of London created by Thatcherism that caused it. It is the Tory SELF that makes so many private sector bosses so relentless in their pursuit of short term gains for themselves.

After a long, hard struggle to get back to the position we were in before the recession, and having escaped the nasty, crushing treatment doled out to private sector workers, I may have "strived" only to get myself into another career with a doomed future.

**** the Tories. **** New Labour. Save us, Jeremy.

No comments:

Post a Comment