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Raise your game

The recession may be putting obstacles in your way but it needn’t be the death of your career. Simon Brandon shows you how to make it to the next level

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Reaching the next level can seem impossible when surviving the game at all looks tricky.

The recession, funding cuts and the uncertainties around last week’s comprehensive spending review have made career development much harder for many workers. In order to grow, people need space and opportunity, and the economic situation is depriving housing employees of both. Even highly experienced managers are finding it much harder to change jobs than in the past.

But at the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, there is opportunity in adversity. Times may be tough, but that doesn’t have to mean game over as far as your career development is concerned.

Our strategy guide can help you negotiate the obstacles that may be hindering your progress. If you hope to move to another job, whether inside or outside your organisation, you can take some comfort that they do exist - and below is some advice on how to maximise your chances of progressing in your career.

If you are staying put, and feel that shrinking budgets and an increased workload are hindering your development, then help is also at hand.

Things may not be quite as bad as they seem

Like everyone else, housing providers are looking for savings and efficiencies, and that includes making redundancies. For many, the future is uncertain.

‘The job market [in housing] has quietened over August and September,’ confirms Caroline Hooper, head of interim executive recruitment at Badenoch & Clark. ‘Organisations were awaiting the results of the CSR and potential changes to the benefit system.’

Yet the bigger picture may not be quite as dreadful as it first appears. The housing sector is not experiencing a contraction across the board. Ms Hooper says her firm’s housing teams have reported an average 17 per cent increase in job vacancies across the sector so far this year, compared with last year’s figures. The search for efficiency will cull some jobs, but it creates a demand for others. In particular, Ms Hooper adds, the trend for collapsing group structures has led to increased demand for strong operations and performance managers working in business development.

Olivia Spruce, development manager at recruiter BS Housing, is bullish enough to take issue with the view that the housing market is ‘stagnant’. ‘The social housing market may have witnessed a stagnant or downward trend in terms of funding, but from 2009 to 2010, it witnessed an increased turnover of £1.5 billion and a property portfolio which increased by £6 billion,’ she points out. ‘In my opinion, this is respectable growth within a recessive economy - and from this perspective, there is room for cautious optimism when it comes to career development.’

Search out opportunities

Cautious optimism is a good start - but how can you put it to use, especially if you find yourself with an increased workload and little chance of moving forwards? ‘This is the job you’ve got, so make the most of it,’ advises Ros Toynbee, director of thecareercoach.co.uk. ‘Ask yourself - what are the bits that are interesting to me? Could I be coming up with ideas for projects that will allow me to develop those areas?’

If you find yourself with extra responsibilities, find out whether they offer chances to strengthen your skills and knowledge in the direction you want your career to progress.

‘Although an increased workload often creates increased pressure, it does provide you with the opportunity to broaden your horizons when it comes to the breadth and diversity of your experience,’ says Ms Spruce. ‘This really can enrich your CV.’

Don’t become despondent

Gloominess is a natural reaction to finding your personal and career development stifled, says Ms Toynbee, but it should be resisted for both emotional and practical reasons.

‘What you mustn’t do is moan about it - at least not visibly,’ she adds. ‘Show that you are taking it on the chin and getting on with it, and don’t let your colleagues suck you into negative conversation where you might be overheard or where they might pass on what you said.’

Certainly increased workloads and job insecurity are going to lower morale, but how you react is crucial. Standing out now as an optimistic, resilient employee will mean you’ll be first in line for a promotion when the good times begin again.

‘The first step to developing your career within a changeable market is to remain positive,’ says Ms Spruce. ‘Embracing this mindset will not only distinguish you from your peers and competition, but it will also enable you to remain focused on the tasks in-hand and not to make ill-judged decisions.’

Take control

Companies might be forgiven for giving the career development of their employees a lower priority at the moment. But rather than indulging in self-pity, take control of your own development. Start positioning yourself so you’re ready to pounce on opportunities when they reappear.

‘Look at your organisation’s competency frameworks - if you want to be a manager, find out what the qualities and behaviours associated with that next level are,’ says Ms Toynbee. ‘Think about - “Where do I score on these things? Where could I be improving? How can I go out and get that development?”.’ For example, are there any courses you could be doing in your spare time to boost your skills?

Develop a keener interest in the sector and the politics behind it; such knowledge is becoming more valued, whether you are hoping to develop your career with your current employer or by moving jobs.

‘If you want to move up bring a wider knowledge of the sector’s landscape and market,’ says Ms Hooper. ‘It’s quite politically driven at the moment, there are lots of ideas for how it is going to evolve, and knowing what is being hotly debated at the moment [for example the impact of last week’s comprehensive spending review] - and being able to talk around that - is quite important.’

Give yourself the edge

So you’ve done all of the above and you’ve spotted a promotion or new job you want to go for. What now? If you haven’t rewritten your CV in a while, now is a good time to do so. Employers’ requirements have moved on over the past few years, says Ms Toynbee, and your CV and interview skills should reflect that.

Again, you need to be active rather than passive; instead of simply listing your skills, use your job application to let your prospective boss know what value you have added to your current organisation and how you will benefit theirs.

‘It is a flooded [jobs] market and you do have to stand out. Be very clear about the impact you have had within your organisation. If you’ve increased sales, saved money, created efficiencies, let them know,’ Ms Toynbee advises - and if your achievements are quantifiable, then all the better.

Interview techniques may have changed since the last time you changed jobs, points out Ms Hooper. Rather than asking scenario-based questions, for example, ‘What would you do in such and such a situation?’ - interviewers focus much more on their interviewees’ specific competencies these days, she says.

‘Interviewees now need to come armed with plenty of relevant examples demonstrating work they have done before,’ she warns.

There’s nothing to stop you seeking out opportunities even if you haven’t seen a specific job advertised. Be creative in your job search, consider other ways to make yourself known aside from responding to job ads. Do your research and send in speculative applications; set up meetings, network as much as possible, or offer to work freelance or on a temporary basis.

Though the temporary market remains tough, it’s not dead’, says Ms Hooper. ‘There has been an increase in contract recruitment. What we are witnessing is that this uncertainty is increasing the need for temps.’

Don’t dismiss temping out of hand, agrees Ms Toynbee. ‘Once you’re on the inside, you have early access to jobs advertised and you have a foot in the door.’

Levels of difficulty in the workplace may have been cranked up recently, but clever tactics will keep you in the game.

It’s tough out there

James Andrews*, is a middle-tier manager at a large urban local authority. He is looking for a new role as he expects to lose his job as a result of the public sector cuts revealed in the spending review last week.

‘I tend to get most of the jobs I go for - I have loads of experience,’ he says. ‘That used to be the case anyway, but I haven’t even been shortlisted for the last six jobs [middle management positions] for which I have applied.

‘Generally with social landlords, there is a personal specification that goes with the job, and if you meet those requirements they will shortlist you. I have been on interview panels myself and I know how it works. And I have only been applying for jobs where I meet the personal specification. But I’ve only received standardised responses to the last few applications I have submitted to big registered social landlords - “due to the volume of applicants” .

‘There are no temporary jobs coming through either. One agency job I applied for had 300 applicants. That was about two months ago - that was my first inkling that there are so many people going for each job now. I’ve never known it to be this tough. Someone with my experience not even being shortlisted for jobs - that tells you it’s going crazy.

‘It’s becoming so difficult. I’m looking several times a day at job websites, Inside Housing, The Guardian - yesterday there hadn’t been anything new in my area for two weeks. ‘

*Not his real name

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