Get ahead in housing
Starting a career in housing has changed, with the onus now on personality and experience rather than sector-specific qualifications. Here, Simon Brandon finds out what landlords look for in a prospective employee.
Source: Spencer Wilson
When did tenants stop being tenants? Mick Leggett, chief executive of Peterborough landlord Cross Keys Homes, recalls giving a talk at another organisation in 2001. After he had finished, a resident piped up to mention that not once had Mr Leggett mentioned tenants.
‘He did,’ a fellow attendee replied. ‘Every time he used the word “customer”.’
It’s difficult to imagine the same misunderstanding happening in a housing association boardroom today. But 30 years ago it would have been just as hard to imagine the paradigm shift that was about to take place.
‘In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tenants weren’t perceived as customers at all,’ Mr Leggett says. ‘They were often seen as a nuisance. It was years before I realised they were paying my wages.’ And now? ‘Housing is a customer service business as much as a technical one,’ he adds. ‘It is paramount. Customer service is ingrained in everything we do.’
Times have changed
Although groups such as the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England dislike the word ‘customers’ because tenants have specific rights, those social landlords that have adopted the ethos of putting their ‘customers’ first have needed to re-orientate and reshape themselves and what they do. Recruitment has not been immune to that process, and the competencies required of new employees have changed, too.
So what should individuals who want to break into the sector do: train first and then apply, or learn on the job? It seems that these days many employers in the sector, including Cross Keys Homes, are opting for those on the latter trajectory. They are certainly looking for more than technical know-how in their new intake.
‘The workforce has changed massively and I think employers’ expectations of their workforces have changed,’ says Grainia Long, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing. ‘The previous model of learning up until your mid-20s and then working until retirement has gone, and I think that’s a good thing. It excluded lots of people from education, and it also embedded quite a narrow approach to education.’
Today, Ms Long adds, employers realise there are many ways to learn the skills demanded of this sector, and are turning this to their advantage. ‘That awful cliché - the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach - is gone, thankfully,’ she says.
Earlier this year the CIH completed its five-yearly review of learning and development in the sector. The review involved surveying 1,000 housing professionals, 61 per cent of whom had either seen or expected to see a rise in in-house delivery of learning and development. ‘In other words, employers want to continue to invest in learning and development but they want to do it onsite and in their own working environments,’ Ms Long adds. ‘They want to see colleagues learning together.’
Many organisations are now more likely to try and find the right people first, and then teach them the job-specific skills they need, explains Helen Giles, human resources director at homelessness services provider Broadway. This approach is called competency-based recruitment, and housing organisations were among its early adopters, she explains.
‘Housing associations as a whole have great recruitment and selection practices,’ says Ms Giles. ‘They tend to look for people with the right competencies and attitudes, rather than people who may have the skills but are awful to work with.’
So what are the competencies employers are looking for these days? ‘I want somebody driven by a social purpose. That has to be the Blackpool in the stick of rock - running all the way through,’ says Tony Williams, group director of organisational development at Orbit Housing Group. ‘But - and it’s a big but - whereas in the past that has almost been a pass into the social housing sector, in the future we have to have a balance between that and a whole set of competencies around delivering results, around performance management and transformation [of the housing sector].’
Tom Leon-Grimes is 16 years old and already forging a career in housing. He’s a housing management apprentice at Orbit Heart of England, in its Stratford-Upon-Avon office, having opted for learning on-the-job, rather than pursuing a more academic route. ‘I had the option to do A-levels but it wasn’t for me,’ he explains.
‘This apprenticeship will give me NVQ qualifications in housing. I didn’t have any experience in housing, so they have trained me up the way they want to run their business.’
Mr Leon-Grimes and other housing professionals of the future will have to be far more commercially minded, says Mr Williams. To deliver on providers’ social purpose will mean creating efficiencies, reducing costs to permit spending elsewhere.
‘We want a great attitude and interpersonal skills,’ states Mr Leggett. ‘What gets you out of bed in the morning?’
Ms Giles, meanwhile, cites three main qualities in a candidate: intelligence, conscientiousness and stability. ‘If you’ve got those, then you’ve got people who will learn quickly and determinedly, and they will soon learn the job content,’ she says.
Let’s assume you have these qualities: how can you improve your chances of landing a job in the housing sector? Thanks to the tanking economy, it’s a buyer’s market in recruitment these days and competition can be fierce.
‘Pre-recession it was an employees’ market. It was hard to get good people,’ says Ms Giles. ‘But now young people can’t get jobs for love nor money, so it’s much easier to find people for entry-level jobs and frankly for lower wages.’
In other words - be prepared to manage expectations and aim low. ‘People have to be prepared to start at the bottom,’ she adds, citing an administrator in her department with a master’s degree.
Large housing organisations are now so complex and varied in the roles they offer that career progression doesn’t have to be linear; a good employer will provide the training and development to allow their staff to move either laterally or upwards into a role that best suits them.
The right experience
A beefy CV helps too. Housing degrees are, perhaps, a bit of a red herring here. ‘Virtually any degree can show purpose around wanting to learn, wanting to better yourself,’ says Mr Williams, ‘and that to me is more important than getting a housing degree. [A degree] shows a level of intellectual ability and an ability to learn and to apply that knowledge. What we then have to say is: are you the right sort of person for us in the sector in future? If you are, great - we will provide you with those opportunities [to learn].’
Instead of a degree in housing, employers may look for voluntary experience in the sector. ‘Charity work, voluntary work - we ask about [candidates’] values,’ says Mr Leggett. ‘You need to get stuff on your CV that marries up with what housing is about.’
Third, do some research. Competency-based interviewing does not involve hypothetical scenarios - ‘what would you do if…’ - but instead asks candidates to recount real-life demonstrations of the qualities required of them.
‘[Candidates] need to be good at looking at employers’ specifications, and asking themselves: do I possess those competencies, and how can I demonstrate them?’ says Ms Giles. ‘And what is it about housing that they like? The employer will want to see that they have thought about what the work entails and why they are a good fit for it.’
Doing research on a prospective employer can even mean going along for a visit. Mr Williams says Orbit welcomes such approaches from potential employees. He is upbeat about the quality of young recruits coming into the sector, too. Housing providers might be looking for much more than technical know-how, but they are finding people who fit the bill.
‘Younger people do have a social conscience and they want to join organisations with an ethical core, so that they are giving something back,’ he says. ‘It is really encouraging for the future.’
A matter of degrees
Last September Inside Housing reported a drop in the number of Chartered Institute of Housing-accredited housing courses available in British universities. The number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses fell from 30 in 2010 to 25 in 2011. This year, Salford University has dropped its housing courses, taking the total down to 23.
A spokesperson for the CIH says that this year, ‘changes to funding for higher education in England have affected CIH-accredited courses, but the scale of this effect is unclear’. The CIH will not have data on the number of applications to their remaining accredited degree courses until late October.
Like the universities that scrapped courses last year, Salford cited a lack of demand as the reason why it has dropped its housing courses. Undergraduates, in particular, seem to have less of an interest in studying housing than they have in the past.
Housing providers claimed the shift from degrees towards on-the-job learning suited the growing complexity of their businesses.
Today, say lecturers, housing degrees are a mixture of both. Dr Jo Richardson, principal lecturer in the Centre for Comparative Housing Research at De Montfort University in Leicester, says most housing students are already employed when they begin the course and that many go on to become senior managers.
Dr Angela Maye-Banbury, principal lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University’s department of architecture and planning, says demand is high among postgraduates.
There will always be a need for housing degrees, she says: ‘It’s precisely at a challenging time like this that we need to value and invest in really skilled, educated people to effectively manage one of country’s most important assets - our housing stock.’
Ultimately, the choice whether to complete a housing degree should be based on a student’s desire to learn, rather than as a free pass into housing employment. ‘Do what you love, because you are going to be the person sitting by yourself in the library freezing cold at 11 o’clock at night,’ Ms Long says.