Don't worry, you are highly marketable

February 8, 2002

For academics who find themselves back on the job market, the advice is to rip up your CV and to see yourself as 'a solution', Olga Wojtas explains.

As the financial pressures on higher education show no signs of abating, colleges and universities are increasingly shedding staff. Many academics shy away from the prospect of leaving their university, assuming they are too old or too specialised to find another job and cannot survive outside the sector. But career consultant Colin Rorison believes academics are eminently marketable and simply need a little help in lateral thinking.

Rorison, managing director of CSP Scotland, has been in career counselling for almost 20 years, advising people from the boardroom to the shopfloor, and has worked with several universities north and south of the border. Employers generally offer only a financial package as a severance deal.

"What I feel has been missing is to put alongside the monetary sum access to independent quality advice that puts the employee in a better position to know how to view that severance package," Rorison says.

"The reality is that you're unlikely to get another job within education, and therefore you have to look at the skills you have and see whether they are applicable elsewhere."

Napier University recently hired CSP to advise staff leaving following academic restructuring. A spokesperson said: "We received very positive feedback on this process, not just about CSP as a company but the fact that Napier had put resources into this exercise. We don't know how well this type of service is used in higher education generally, but we felt it was a positive and supportive service to offer."

One academic who left is Elayne Burley, former head of business development. She was amazed by the range of transferable skills CSP identified. "You have experience of negotiating, juggling budgets, managing people without incentives, and you realise these are transferable," she says.

Rorison says academics are often unaware of the extent of their expertise. Technicians who think there is nothing else they can do have often been involved in experiments that have gone on to be commercially exploited, and are experts in explaining the workings of complex pieces of equipment to students. The trick is to identify your skills, says Rorison, and then rather than thinking of yourself as someone in search of a job, think in terms of problems outside the university to which you are the solution.

A key word of advice is to rip up the academic CV. One such was 17 pages long, Rorison says, listing publications and conferences attended, "all very valuable in the world of academia, but of very little interest elsewhere". A CV should be a maximum of three pages, highlighting achievements in an eye-catching way. But people typically write a CV that is little more than a factual record of what they did and when they did it.

"You need a document that does you justice and sells you hard, so the reader thinks 'this is an interesting person, we ought to meet them'," Rorison says. "If a potential employer sees you were involved in some significant achievements, the train of thought is 'they could do that for us'."

Market yourself, he urges, and send out your CV speculatively rather than waiting for posts to be advertised. The non-advertised market is one-and-a-half times bigger than the advertised one. "The CV lands on an employer's desk and they think 'this is a quality person'. Quality people are in short supply and always have been, even in the deepest recessions of the 1980s."

Burley has become a senior consultant as a result of networking. "Dealing with business development and enterprise, I was maybe a bit more aware than others that I had a huge range of links and networks, but until I had a couple of chats with Colin, I thought I must look for a full-time job, and look for it in the papers," she says.

Burley would ideally like to combine consultancy with a half-time job. She is not attracted by the thought of another full-time post: "Not because I'm lazy, but because one of the attractions of taking early retirement is to be able to get a bit more control of my own diary," she says.

Des McKenna, former senior lecturer in textile science at Heriot-Watt University, took an early retirement package after the merger of the Scottish College of Textiles with the university. He has retained a teaching contract for a third of his time, but juggled it so that he is teaching only one day a week from this term, freeing him to seek consultancy work.

"It's quite frightening that I've left, but I can see there are serious opportunities and it's a matter of grasping them. I thought when I had the opportunity, I'd better leave at a time when I had the energy to try to pick up the threads of another career." Heriot-Watt put him in touch with CSP after he asked for advice on early retirement.

"I think a good support system is quite necessary, partly to help people over a difficult time for whatever reason they leave, and partly to smooth things for the organisation so that people have a more positive attitude as they go."

Both Burley and McKenna are over 50. Rorison says tales of ageism in the workplace are exaggerated. "If you present yourself competently, in the right employment circumstances, it doesn't make any difference whether you're 58 or 30 years younger, because long-term employment is really rapidly becoming a thing of the past. If you come out of university today, you can expect to change employers four or five times, and there is also the concept of working for more than one employer simultaneously."

Burley, meanwhile, is enjoying getting up at quarter to eight and being at her desk by eight. "Whether I'll be financially well-off is another matter, but that's not everything. At the moment, I just feel so much less stressed."

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