Good day at the Job Club, dear?

Where executives get work

On the corner of Ludgate Broadway, a side street between Blackfriars and St Paul’s, there’s a ghostly office: full of unemployed bankers, lawyers and consultants, mere shadows of their former selves, doomed to rehearse their white-collar routine until… well, until they find a new job.

Every morning, just like the rest of us, they battle through the rush hour. They switch on their computers, send and receive emails, read the papers and make some calls. Sometimes they pop upstairs to the library, or outside for a bite to eat. After a busy day at the office, in which exactly nothing of commercial value has been produced – no goods, no services – they bid each other goodnight and go home. And when morning comes, they start again.

Not so long ago, these spectral figures were among the most successful in the City. Then, due to circumstances beyond their control – takeovers, downturns in niche markets, and the fragile condition of the economy – they were made redundant. Now their former employers, remarkably generous, are paying Meridian, an “outplacement” consultancy, a typical fee of £5,000 to help them get back to work.

The facilities for the jobsearch are startlingly good. As well as state-of-the-art computers and voicemail, Meridian offers extensive research materials and full secretarial support. On the top floor, private rooms – available by the hour to clients on Meridian’s most costly programme, as much as £20,000 for six months – have been furnished with wooden desks, comfy chairs and pictures on the wall. Clients, if they booked such a room and placed a family photo on the desk, could easily convince visitors – potential employers, or other useful contacts – that this was their permanent office. And visitors would never rumble them because the ground-floor reception, while not altogether anonymous, gives away little about the nature of Meridian’s business. What’s more, if Meridian’s client were to get carried away with the imposture, and put through a call to his or her “secretary”, demanding tea and coffee, the administrative team would play along. “Anything is justified if it helps clients find a job,” confirms Meridian’s managing consultant, Linda Jackson.

In the last 12 months, more than 700 clients have found jobs, a 70 per cent success rate within the set programme times. (On average, they take 13 weeks.) Following advice from consultants, eight per cent set up their own business and more than half move to work in a different sector. And in the process of changing jobs, nearly half increase their salary.

To the newly redundant executive, these figures provide reassurance at a time when it is sorely needed. “A lot of these people have never tripped up,” says Jackson. “They are the sort who went to university early, and were maybe the youngest in the firm to be made a partner, or managing director. A lot of them have a sinking feeling – ‘Why me?’”

Some are angry about what their employers have done to them. That can be difficult, because the employers pay Meridian’s fees. “We explain straight away that it’s a conflict of interest,” says Jackson. “But we respect confidentiality. If someone has instructed lawyers, I keep that to myself.”

One woman half way through her three-month programme was previously employed at an American bank. Margaret (not her real name) is 54, a divorcee whose mortgage is not due to expire till she’s 72. A month and a half ago, she was formally notified that her function was being outsourced (the euphemism of choice). “They had made a business decision,” she says, “and from a business point of view it was sensible. But for me it was terrifying, a real crisis.”

Released from her back-office duties, Margaret immediately consulted the bank’s internal noticeboard and asked “everybody [she] had ever said hello to” if they knew of any openings. She also took herself to Meridian. “The first time, I met these two women who I vaguely recognised from the bank. They said, ‘Margaret, we know you’re shit scared: it’s written all over your face.’ I said, ‘What do I do?’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry.’ It was fantastic to be able to talk to people with the same problem.”

Another former banker, whom I shall call Simon, was one of thousands of Natwest employees laid off when it was taken over by Royal Bank of Scotland. “I was on the board [of a subsidiary]. I made other people redundant, then helped to integrate the functions and build the new structure. The most psychologically difficult thing was keeping focus for nine months, while effectively digging myself out of a job.” For Simon, much younger than Margaret, redundancy was not unwelcome. “I took this as an opportunity to reassess who I am and what I want to do… The advantage of redundancy is that you get a lump sum, and a place like this makes [finding a job] enjoyable.”

He’s already been through intensive assessment, with psychometric tests and feedback from friends, associates and former colleagues. Taking a week away from his family, he filled in a 22-page “Career review”, starting with his name, address and qualifications, then moving on to describe his skills and achievements, what frustrates him at work and his preferred leadership style. Sitting in a first-floor meeting room, Simon pulls the document from his briefcase. Here and there, he has highlighted his own observations, including, I will fight to defend my teams , and I would like to be different when my children squabble . “A lot of people might think this is bollocks, but I found it very helpful.”

He’s also been on a course with an image consultant, Gill Hicks. “She teaches you about personal impact: habits you may have fallen into, how you shake hands, what you’re wearing. She illustrated the importance of your appearance brilliantly, by taking off her jacket, then her earrings and her belt, and removing her lipstick. Then she put on a sweater. She totally lost her authority… If your appearance isn’t right [at interviews] you’ll get less [salary] than otherwise. If you go dressed like that” – he indicates my open-necked shirt and casual trousers – “you won’t get much more than £50,000.”

Today, Simon is working on his CV. “I’ve lost track of the number of CVs I have seen,” he says, with reference to his former former life as an employer. “Some of them told you very little, and others just didn’t catch your eye. They didn’t tell you, quickly , who the person was and what they could do for you.” He knows what is required, then? Pressing a blank sheet of paper just above the the middle, he says: “You have to make the personal impact just there .”

Meridian is not the only private company helping the unemployed to find work. Many others, paid by a single client organisation – the government – run training centres all over the country. One of the biggest centres, not far distant from the City of London, but about as remote as you can get in terms of demographics, is run by a company called Kennedy Scott, in a converted factory off the Holloway Road. The owner, Theresa Scott, says, “You can make a lot more in the commercial sector, but commercial organisations often don’t pay on time, whereas the government gives you a good cashflow – and your bank manager likes that.”

It would be difficult to miss the contrast, not altogether superficial, between this low-budget bureau and Meridian’s opulent facilities. The walls are bare brick, the windows glazed with wire-mesh to keep out burglars. A photocopied sign warns, “Because of continued abuse of our telephones, all telephone calls will be monitored and recorded.” In a room allocated to younger jobseekers, where the carpets are sticky underfoot, I notice a clipboard has been decorated by a bored client. It shows a man with his tongue sticking out, a naked woman, and a heavily inked enquiry, “Wazzup with dis shit?”

The clients of Kennedy Scott, referred here by the Employment Service, have been jobless for at least 13 weeks. Difficult cases include lone parents lacking confidence, ex-offenders convinced that their criminal record will hold against them, people who consider themselves too old to be rehired, and refugees whose English is poor. “People come in and believe they will not get a job, ever ,” says Mike Ivory, the centre’s manager. “So a lot of this is about building confidence.”

Ivory feels his job would be much easier if jobseekers were sent to him earlier, before weeks and months of unemployment had destroyed their motivation. “But that’s only my personal feeling,” he insists, conscious of the presence of a government press officer. (From September, the government will increase the preliminary jobless period from 13 weeks to six months.)

On a wall-mounted paper chart, younger clients have filled in three boxes: their last job, the job they’re after, and their dream job. Under those headings, somebody called Colin has written, “dispatch clerk”, “web/graphic design” and “whatever Richard Branson does”. Another young man, Lee, has written: “chef”, ”?”, and “B Lazy”. But this doesn’t bother Ivory’s assistant, Frank Overland. “I like lazy people: they’re efficient.” He laughs. “And it doesn’t half knock them back when you tell them that.”

Overland considers the business of Kennedy Scott to be, essentially, sales. “I tell them [the unemployed] that they may be nice people but to me they are products. I follow that up by saying that companies may take them on as though they’re just another desk or filing cabinet – just to expand the business – but that if they are good companies they will treat you like people .”

This morning, Kennedy Scott is running a session on interview skills. “We make them think about personal appearance, questions to ask and body language,” explains Ivory. “We teach them to talk about their strengths and weaknesses, and make the weaknesses sound like strengths: ‘I can be stubborn, but I know my mind…’ We tell people who lack confidence not to undersell themselves, not to say, ‘Please don’t pay me what I’m worth.’ And we emphasise that the interview hasn’t finished until they’re off the premises.”

The toughest part of the job of finding a job – for smartly dressed former bankers and beanie-hatted former dispatch clerks alike – is getting an interview in the first place. Responding to job ads is like playing the National Lottery: it could be you, but probably won’t be. The same goes for recruitment agencies: they may put your name forward, but they’ll submit many others too, and the process is entirely out of your hands. The most effective strategy is the speculative job search: approaching potential employers directly, to find the three out of four jobs which are never advertised. But this strategy is also the hardest. To learn how it is carried out, I join a group of Meridian clients for a day-long training session, “Get That Meeting”.

There are 12 of us, representing a broad range of ages and ethnic types. Ten men and two women, including Margaret, the divorcee with the mortgage, who talks more than most and does not conceal her anxiety. For the first hour or so, several participants use defensive body language: sitting back with arms folded, as if to say, “I really shouldn’t be here.” But they gradually warm up as the coach, Robin Nyman, explains his techniques.

Nyman has neatly parted hair, a trim moustache and a sober tie held in place with a clip. His pedagogical style is unalterably perky. “A job search campaign is really a sales campaign,” he says, “with the jobseeker as both salesman and product. To sell any product normally involves a meeting, because people tend to buy from people they like – and they can’t like you until they have met you. Your task is to create enough interest in you for someone to say, ‘Yes, we’ll meet.’”

Briefly, that process goes like this: research the company to be sure you can offer them something they need; telephone them to check various details, such as the spelling of your target’s name; send a short letter asking for a meeting, with attached CV; and follow up with a phone call (never expect them to call you). Don’t take no for an answer.

In practice, of course, it’s more difficult. For a start, there are gatekeepers to pass: switchboard operators and secretaries can be difficult. And your target will probably be reluctant to meet you. But Nyman has ruses for taking control of conversations, revealed in his handouts in tables and flow charts. Here’s an example: We’ll ring you back . “Thanks, but it can be difficult to get hold of me. When is the best time to call back?” No, we’ll definitely call you . “OK, but if you haven’t been able to get hold of me by, oh, let’s say, Friday lunchtime, is it OK to call back?” (Another goes like this: We’ve got your records on file . “Oh, I appreciate that, but how often do you look in your file? And how will you find me when the need arises?”)

After lunch, Nyman demonstrates his techniques by making calls, on a speakerphone, to companies he chooses at random from a phone book. Even the most cynical members of the group look impressed, actually bursting into excited laughter when he puts down the receiver. But one – let’s call him Edward – says that if it had been him on the other end of the line he wouldn’t have taken Nyman’s call. “If you asked for me and didn’t sound as if you knew me, I’d say, ‘Who’s asking?’”

Without missing a beat, the teacher says: “I would say, ‘Robin Nyman. And you are…?’

“You need to be aware of the type of objections your contacts will hit you with before they agree to meet you,” he says cheerfully. “One of the most difficult to answer is, what’s in it for them? If you can answer that…” He raises his hands and flutters his fingertips as though convulsed by an electric charge. “Ding ding ding!”

That’s it: the single most important issue for jobseekers, whatever their background. Even the least confident, apt to dry up on the phone and easily hurt by rejection, will find work if they can offer what employers need. Telephone techniques, Nyman more or less confirms, merely make the jobsearch run more smoothly.

Whatever concerns individuals raise, Nyman offers a jaunty solution. You lack the confidence to call? “Just pick up the phone.” Don’t like making ‘cold’ calls? “Then send a letter first and make a follow-up call.” People never call back? “Don’t ask them to: you call them.” They don’t answer the phone? “Hang up after six rings.” You’ve already received a rejection letter? “Use it as an excuse to call back.” Afraid of rejection? “You will definitely hit rejection, but don’t take it personally.” And so it goes on. Throwing these worries at Nyman is like trying to drown a plastic duck: despite the group’s determined efforts, he always bobs back. As Edward puts it – impressed almost despite himself – employers would give Nyman a job just to get rid of him.

2535 words. First published 1 August 01. © FT Magazine