May All Your Troubles Last As Long As Your New Year’s Resolutions

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I came across Joey Adams’ insightful wish on a friend’s December 31 Facebook update.  It made me laugh but at the same time brought home an area of serious concern. We are in tough economic times and unemployment blights the lives of millions of people. For the past four years my colleagues and I have provided a technology platform that has assisted many tens of thousands of jobseekers. ResolutionWe operate across the spectrum, from experienced professionals to the long-term unemployed and from those close to retirement to teenagers looking for their first job. From the data we see and the conversations we have, a few things are apparent:

Far too many people have a naïvely optimistic approach to job-search. They put insufficient time into planning, quality and action. Getting a job is a competitive activity. For every successful individual there are jobseekers who are not offered an interview as well as those who make it to the shortlist but do not receive an offer. So very often the difference between success and failure is time and commitment.

We have all made life choices that subsequently come back to haunt us. Daydreaming through the boring school lesson, the TV programme instead of homework, the qualification that was just too much effort, the lack of commitment that resulted in someone else getting the promotion at work or perhaps the fun nights out that meant there were no savings available to fund a new business.  All of these decisions have ripple consequences and the challenging economy has amplified this.

As we consider the new year and where we will invest our efforts and what plans we will stick to, I hope that career makes it to the top of the list. Employment vs unemployment and good job vs bad job affect a person each and every day. Some focus and effort can make a real difference. Let’s hope Joey’s cynicism applies just to the smokers and gym-phobic!

You can keep your problems

You see, I have enough of my own. Problems can be time-consuming, stressful and challenging. Now I don’t resent my own problems as an absence would suggest there is either nothing much happening in my life or I have no control over it. But just because I recognise the value of taking responsibility for my own life does not mean I welcome other people parking their issues at my doorstep.

And this brings me to one of the aspects of the welfare to work sector that I find most puzzling. People who abrogate responsibility and just expect someone else to find a solution to their difficulties are simply ticking time bombs on the cusp of their next misfortune. Until a person takes personal responsibility s/he just blows in the wind and cannot be relied upon. So why do so many advisors pick up the baton and step in to find a job for a person? They are simply reinforcing the message that the individual is useless and needs everything done for him/her. It won’t be long before something happens and once again the person is unemployed, passively waiting to be assisted again.

This does not mean that jobseekers should be just left to it, somehow knowing what to do and how to do it. But there should be a crystal clear message that the advisor is not taking on the customer’s problems but is simply providing help so the person can find workable solutions. When selling MyWorkSearch I often focus on how technology saves costs and is convenient to access whenever and wherever required. However if I had to pick one attribute that is transformative, it is retaining responsibility with the jobseeker. Because once people cease being dependent they start coping and from this comes confidence and confident people are far more likely to have fulfilled and successful lives.

So I am happy to help people; indeed I delight in it. But don’t ever ask me to own your problems. They are your’s to solve.

Pragmatic pulling

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When was the last time you played a computer game? Not some simple exercise on your mobile phone. I mean a complicated multi-player game with numerous controls, options and challenges. Learning how to master the game is hard. There is a lot to learn, from controller/keyboard commands to gameplay options and rules. And yet millions of people do this. Many of whom fail to get formal qualifications or are cajoled and encouraged in order to achieve them. So it is not a question of being unable to learn. It appears to be more about motivation to learn.

What also strikes me is the effort and research that goes into learning how to play a game well. Playing a video gameThe game may arrive with a booklet and have training segments. However the enthusiastic gamer will google for guidance, read forums and find videos showing other players’ tips and tricks. They will do all of this because they are motivated to succeed and know that learning this information is key to their gaming success.

I have spent considerable time in recent months visiting establishments that provide employability assistance to job-seekers. At the end of the course an assessor verifies that the learner has indeed understood what an employer is looking for and what s/he personally needs to do in order to secure and keep a job. What has struck me is how much cost goes into cajoling individuals through that relatively short learning journey and assessment. Pushing this information to learners is an expensive process. It all costs money – from learner recruitment to physical infrastructure to tutor and all the associated delivery resources. Currently the taxpayer, via the Skills Funding Agency, picks up the multi-billion pound bill for this.

So here’s a thought. What if a reasonable proportion of learners could be encouraged to self-learn? They could use technology to pull the learning they need and, when ready, complete the required assessment process. The main barrier is motivation. The person who is willing to invest time and effort mastering a game cannot be bothered to do this when it comes to what s/he perceives as someone else’s course and qualification. In an ideal world people would see how learning this information benefits them and would find the internal motivation to pursue the knowledge. However in the real world it does not happen and we invest a fortune in pushing education.

So what would happen if we made learning resources available online and paid people to achieve qualifications? I imagine that a payment of twenty five percent of the cost of pushing training would be sufficient to motivate many learners.  If half our students could self-learn one third of their training we would save a fortune in delivery costs. Meanwhile training provision could be focused on the harder to help groups that are not able to self-learn.

I can see how this would be politically sensitive. After all, why should ‘we’ bribe people to learn something that will benefit them? The answer in these straitened times could be that it is a pragmatic solution that could save a fortune. If you are not sure it is feasible, invest in a computer game and see how long it takes you to master the game-play!

Common sense and practical help

MyWorkSearch is a commercial organisation and without revenue we cannot continue to operate.  We know that our service helps people back into work however we unfortunately need to charge for usage.  For the past eighteen months thousands of job seekers have been provided with MyWorkSearch by Jobcentre Plus with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) paying us.  Our research reveals that over 60% of those enrolled secure new jobs within three months and the average time is 62 days.  Thus the government has in return for its payment helped a person to come off benefits and return to being a tax-payer.

This publicly funded provision has now come to an end and it is ironic that it has done so at a time when the DWP publishes a research report “Job Search Study: Literature review and analysis of the Labour Force Survey” which looks at the characteristics of job search and what works.  This 118 page document provides a wealth of statistics and observations, however it was four of them that really stood out for me.  None of them are a huge surprise however it is easy to lose sight of their importance.

The first is the authors’ observation that: “The majority of theoretical and empirical studies of job search date from a time either before the rise of the Internet or when its use for job search was less developed and widespread”.  The second is that between April and June 2009 over 80% of job seekers used the Internet to look for work.  In other words, the majority of ‘industry experts’, advisers, civil servants and ministers learnt their skills, developed methodologies and formed their opinions at a time when offline job search predominated.  Yet nowadays, across all demographics, online is the most likely activity with the bulk of adoption in the past several years.  Indeed given the growth of online that was being observed quarter by quarter leading up to this research, 2 year old 2009 data materially underestimates current usage.

The third area that was commented on was a person’s social network.  Across a broad spectrum of roles an extremely good source of employment is an individual’s contacts.  When an organisation is hiring it is often those connected with the vacancy who are best placed to know of the opportunity and suggest a potential recruit.  So individuals with a wide network of people who are positively disposed to them and who communicate their availability are far more likely to receive a timely and warm introduction to prospective employers.  Equally, those without networks or those whose network comprises fellow unemployed, are less likely to hear of and be recommended for opportunities.  Social networks can be local and personal, such as former colleagues, fellow school parents or neighbours.  They can also be online via the many network sites that exist.

The final area is self-efficacy.  People with self-belief in their own qualities and their likelihood to secure a job are far more likely to obtain employment.  This self-fulfilling positive approach is clearly harder to maintain the longer a job search takes or when a person comes from a community where unemployment is the norm.

All of the above pre-supposes the desire to find a job and this in itself cannot be taken for granted.  It also assumes possession of minimum skills to make the person employable.

There are not enough jobs out there for every person who needs one.  But there are jobs for many people who don’t have one and are looking for one.  Reading through this report confirms my knowledge that we are doing the right thing with MyworkSearch; it also frustrates the hell out of me that an obvious, inexpensive and effective service is being cut at a time when it is very much needed.

MyWorkSearch will continue to prosper with our other contracts and I am optimistic about the future.  However I do wish we could find a way to offer the service to every newly unemployed job seeker.  Hopefully some senior policy makers will read this DWP research report!

You can lead a horse to water but can you make it drink?

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Mixing metaphors, the elephant in the corner of outplacement is the extent to which job seekers accept and act on the guidance they are offered.  A good many do.  They take advantage of the knowledge and experience offered them and benefit accordingly.  But a meaningful proportion does not.  For reasons such as cynicism, depression, pessimism, disillusionment and lack of confidence they simply don’t engage with the process.  A negative spiral kicks in and the consequences can be long-term unemployment.

This is very frustrating for all concerned.  The people who work at my company, MyWorkSearch, and our competitors get up in the morning with the intention of helping job seekers.  We passionately care about the results we achieve and are saddened by those who don’t take the useful guidance that is made available to them.

This is the leading the horse to water bit.  But what about the drinking?

Last year, in October, I wrote about how we had identified this as an area we wanted to research (https://blog.alberg.co.uk/2009/10/23/the-job-search-conundrum/) and stated that I would return to this as a topic.  Since then we have made considerable progress.  Our research has helped us discover the areas to focus on and our design and development teams have made great strides in implementing improvements.  For example:

Usability is an area we have to work really hard on as if it is difficult or not obvious what to do next a proportion of people will give up.  We have transformed MyWorkSearch with a comprehensive redesign. We have looked at ‘user journeys’ and tried to eliminate the areas where a person can get confused and cease activities.

Allowing flexibility whilst providing the option of a guided route.  Some people want the freedom to self-serve our advice, content and tools.  Others want to be guided through a stepped process.  One size does not fit all and providing this choice removes usage barriers.

Sometimes there is provision for a person to assist individuals as they progress on their path to re-employment.  Knowing who is succeeding and who needs help is key to providing targeted assistance that makes the most of this expensive resource.  We therefore developed a reporting engine that allows a person to see who amongst a group is effectively using MyWorkSearch and the job seekers that would benefit from personal assistance.

The above are all hygiene areas.  They are the basics of a sensibly designed system.  Although they may not be easy to get right we know that they are essential for an effective online re-employment solution.  The area that has most long-term potential and goes above these quality foundations is our Nudge Engine.

Our Nudge Engine is designed to understand each job seeker as an individual and provide personalised guidance and prompts that nudge the person towards the best outcome possible.  Through understanding human psychology and statistics we can populate our Nudge Engine with rules that help each person get the most from MyWorkSearch.

We started work on the Nudge Engine a few months ago and it is about to go live.  We see these personalised small steps as the key to helping individuals succeed.  I will let you know how we progress.

Don’t take your career for granted

I had a bad day today.  We are in troubled economic times, there is high unemployment and I found myself at MyWorkSearch on the wrong side of a bidding war when trying to hire someone.  There is a particular capability I think MyWorkSearch will benefit from and, in a sector I know rather well, very few people who have the required skills and approach.  So I approached someone I rate and offered this person a very attractive financial deal combined with huge flexibility on how they would undertake their role.  Unsurprisingly, their current employer was not best pleased at the prospect of losing this person and they made a successful counter-offer.  Putting the personal disappointment and inconvenience to one side for the moment, this experience has brought home to me just how very useful it is to have a much sought after capability.  Even in a bad market employers will do whatever they can to secure or retain an unique set of skills.  And this was an employer that has been making redundancies and freezing pay.

If there is one good thing that comes out of this recession and the horrendous impact of unemployment on so many families, I hope that many more people will think about their career and the value they bring to an employer.  In a world that is increasingly harsh and pragmatic the person who has something an employer absolutely needs will find life a lot more secure.  I think far too many of us for far too long have done what we enjoyed or stumbled into and have not focused on directing and managing our careers.  We may be good at planning and strategy when undertaking our jobs, but do we apply these skills to our own working lives?

I started this blog by complaining about my bad day.  If all goes to plan I will soon have a good day when someone else I know who is also brilliant will, I hope, accept my employment offer.  And if this person reads my blog at least their day will improve when they either accept a great offer from us or discover just how much they really are worth to their current employer!

My iPhone and what it has taught me about business

Many, many years ago, my first ‘mobile’ phone was built into my car.  My next one was a small briefcase that I hauled around if I needed to make calls.  Over the years phones got smaller but essentially they did the same thing: they allowed incoming and outgoing calls.  Then ‘smartphones’ emerged.  As well as making calls one could have a diary or run an application.  Whilst ownership of this type of phone provided some sort of geek bragging rights, the reality was that they did not work particularly well and were impractical to integrate with other computers and servers and thus were often more hassle than value.  The Blackberry was the first device to really make email easy and it integrated superbly well with Microsoft Exchange, meaning that my diary, calendar and email were always up to date on both my computer and my phone.   However, certainly in the early days, the Blackberry was a one-trick pony.  Other than the email suite, the device did not offer much more.  I played around with a number of Windows Mobile and Symbian phones but, despite being comfortable with technology, I always found them hard to use well.

Then I got an iPhone and I was blown over.  Every element of the user interface worked well.  It was thought through, logical and had great design.  It was a joy to use.  What was truly impressive was how Apple had created an environment whereby other developers could create applications to work on the iPhone that were doing vastly different things but despite this still functioned in a similar fashion and were intuitive to use.  No other device on the market managed to combine this flexibility with ease of use.  Rival capable devices were typically hard to use and each application had its own learning curve.  How was it that all those rival companies that had big R&D budgets, numerous talented engineers and the same customer research data had either failed to recognise the requirement or failed to deliver it?  What had no doubt been regarded as impossible had been achieved by Apple.

For a decade I have been running businesses that have invested heavily in creating software delivered business solutions.  I have observed that it is relatively easy to get developers who can write code that is reliable and indeed can engineer complex algorithms.  What is really difficult is creating a user interface that is a joy to use.  The wider the range of functionality the harder this is.  The more need there is to add an extra menu option or button or to create inconsistent operating rules that simply confuse users.  If a person’s hobby or career require mastery of complex software there is a chance that the individual will invest the required time to learn how to properly use it.  However most people are not this committed and they simply give up and either stop using the product or stick to a fraction of its real capabilities.

In February 2009 my company started building an online solution for outplacement.  MyWorkSearch was designed to provide the information a job seeker requires to manage their job search and the tools to assist the person in achieving this.  We spent over six months creating it and it incorporates considerable expertise and tremendous functionality.  Those who spent time using MyWorkSearch were extremely complimentary, however many also said that it was daunting.  Too many options, menus and features.  Unless one spent time getting to know the product one could find it overwhelming.  Over the next several months we made numerous improvements and this certainly helped matters, however it was clear we had no iPhone.  Our competition did not either, however this was not the point.  My colleagues and I felt that just because most people accepted that big software applications had to be complex, we should not.

So in December 2009 we started work on version 2 of MyWorkSearch.  We met with designers, usability experts and e-learning professionals.  We put together a team and have spent over six months intensively re-thinking MyWorkSearch and then implementing these new ideas.

On Sunday 11th July we will be upgrading to this new version.  I am so very, very pleased with what our team have produced.  We have been uncompromising in our efforts to push beyond functionality and achieve usability.  Whenever we have been stuck the iPhone has been a clear signal that the intractable does have solutions.  In a previous post I wrote about our observation that some users did not take full advantage of the resources we were making available and appeared to be giving up.  I hope that improving usability will make a difference to this.  We will be monitoring the outcomes and this is a topic I will be returning to.  Meanwhile I want to thank Steve Jobs and his team at Apple.  Sometimes it takes someone else to show that the bar was set too low.  As well as making a great phone Apple have also contributed to what is fast becoming the most powerful and effective tool available to those in career transition.

MP-45

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Every day at MyWorkSearch we help thousands of people with their career choices.  Whilst this is a serious business that fundamentally affects people’s lives there are occasions when we look at the light-hearted side of our profession.  So on a quiet Friday afternoon and with the media dominated by the election, the MyWorkSearch team started thinking about what careers politicians could try should they not be an MP on May 7th.

The Prime Minister would be a perfect Community Diversity Officer, having successfully placated Gillian Duffy, the pensioner he branded a ‘bigot’ earlier in the week, whilst David Cameron, with his liking for (public sector) cuts and love of the outdoors would make an ideal butcher. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who likes putting a spanner in the works, is recommended to try his hand at plumbing should things not work out for him next Thursday. We also felt that the original ‘Blair Babe’, Jacqui Smith, would make an ideal Ann Summer’s party organiser, George Osborne an estate agent and Vince Cable, used to playing second fiddle, would be an ideal second-hand car salesman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, BNP leader Nick Griffin, who is used to being abused in public, would make a perfect traffic warden should he not be elected to parliament.

Having searched though 12 politicians’ profiles, our full list of recommendations is as follows:

POLITICIAN & CONSTITUENCY SKILLS,EXPERIENCE, PERSONALITY IDEAL JOB

Gordon Brown, Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath

Likes meeting members of the public, not afraid to express his views,  champion of minorities (especially Eastern Europeans) Community Diversity Officer

David Cameron, Witney

Member of the ‘Bullingdon’ club, likes making cuts, enjoys running outdoors, wants to ‘beef up’ national security Organic butcher
Nick Clegg, Sheffield Hallam ‘Man of the people’, likes putting a spanner in the works Plumber
Jacqui Smith, Redditch Original ‘Blair Babe’, knowledge of education, detention and sex laws, husband enjoys adult films Anne Summers Party Organiser
Vince Cable, Twickenham Experienced orator, good with numbers, used to playing second fiddle Second-hand car salesman
George Osborne, Tatton Used to making predictions on the economy, intricate knowledge of mortgages having been investigated over his repayments by the PSC Estate Agent
John Prescott, Hull East (Standing down in 2010) Likes fast cars, knowledge of self-defence, experience of being a deputy Police Chief
David Miliband, South Shields Expert in foreign etiquette, known for charm, used to waiting (in line to become next Labour leader) Concierge

William Hague, Richmond (Yorks)

Known for comic wit during PMQs, experience of TV presenting, preceded David Cameron, boasts 14 pint minimum

Warm-up comedian
Ed Balls, Morley and Outwood Reputed for being aggressive & ambitious with a treasury background. Once called the ‘most powerful unelected person in Britain’ as a civil servant Bailiff

Lembit Opik, Montgomeryshire

Rated most liberal MP in parliament, known for liking twosomes

Erotic fiction writer

Nick Griffin, Barking Cambridge graduate with good writing skills, likes uniforms, used to daily abuse from the public Traffic Warden

Just because you’re out of a job doesn’t mean you don’t have skills that can be employed usefully elsewhere. Our list of alternative jobs for MP’s demonstrates this and we hope that come May 7th, if any of these MP’s do need further career advice then MyWorkSearch can help them in this search.

Have a great bank holiday and normal serious service resumes on Tuesday!

Richard

The job search conundrum

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Looking at how people use MyWorkSearch and MyNewjob.me has thrown up an interesting challenge. Since our process is managed by sophisticated software we know what our users are doing and equally what they are not. What has become clear is that a noticeable proportion of new users are not particularly active. There is a disconnect between stated job search activity and actual job search activity. Unfortunately by the time they find out just how difficult it can be to get a job in this market many of them are thoroughly demoralised and their job-search effectiveness reduces.

Our ability to track what people are really doing as opposed to what they state they are doing is opening up tremendous possibilities for the career transition profession.  We can research ways of encouraging job-seekers and see what processes really do result in higher activity levels and which ones do not. I know that the answers will be fascinating and this is a subject I will return to in future posts.

On a personal level I find this interesting and frustrating. Unlike losing weight, getting fit, or giving up smoking, a successful job-search process is not a lifelong change. It is something that for many may not be a lot of fun, however do it assiduously for several months and a new job should be secured. The pressure is then off and normal life can resume. However logical this may be the realities of human behaviour are different. This is a very important challenge for our team and one we are committed to.

The 25th!

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Our developers assure me that we will be ready to launch on the 25th. In some ways our site reminds me of a house being redecorated. As one approaches the completion date it looks an awful mess with loose ends and unfinished items all over the place. However as the clock counts down each item is dealt with and suddenly one is presented with all that had been planned for. So I hope it will be with our site!

We have now put up a holding page at http://www.myworksearch.co.uk/ and there is a video that explains our offering. Later this week, once we can start taking subscribers, our complete marketing site will go live. Given the time, energy, passion – and money – we have put into this it is very exciting.

The last few days have seen emails fly around the team as we debate the subtler nuances of our marketing website. I do wonder whether anyone will ever read it with the same eye for detail as we have. On the other hand there is the risk that our familiarity with its content means that we miss some howler of an error that will be obvious to everyone but us.

Myworksearch.co.uk and Mynewjob.me are the culmination of months of long days and creative energy. For the team it has been an all-consuming endeavour. However we must not lose sight of the very real problems that led us to create the sites. Unemployment in the UK is now at its highest level since November 1996 and is expected to continue rising, with over 3m likely in 2010. As The Times recently put it, “Applying for work has become a full-time job in itself.” Competition for jobs is now so fierce that almost 400 people are responding to every job centre advert for some occupations.

But there are jobs out there and the solutions we have created will help many thousands of people find vacancies, effectively apply for them and return to work far sooner than they otherwise would. This will make a huge difference to households up a down the country and provides a tremendous motivation to the team.

All the best

Richard