Opinion: Real Experience? Employers Should Put Their Money Where Their Mouth Is

By Dawn M. Sanders

All of this hot air from employers about not just encouraging diversity, but diverse experience is just that – a load of empty lip service.

My own experience is, I have been a single mum, raising my son single-handedly since day one, but during that time, did 2 degrees, qualifications in between – not to mention holistic alternative therapies.

Yet, nearly a year and a half as a freelance journalist and, all I get is thin air when pitching ideas for articles. I did the pitching course offered by my union and found it really useful – thing is, editors can rarely be bothered to give you 3 word rejection messages i.e. ‘sorry but no thanks’ – oh actually, that’s 4 words, but you get the gist.

Some time ago, I resolved to seek part time work as a top-up to my benefits on permitted work, as freelance journalism is clearly not a reliable enough income or more to the point, often a dead end game, no matter how passionate I am about my subject areas.

Problem is, in looking for part time something, that is just turning out to be yet another layer of dead end pursuits despite persistence.

I have multiple job alerts coming in every day – many of which are repeats of the same ones I’ve seen on other job alerts, many are supposedly under a certain category, such as campaigns or research, yet they’re not campaign or research jobs at all, such as something in hospitality.

Not only do I sport 2 degrees and certificates in between, such as a business qualification or my certificate in Community Development – I have the years of first-hand experience of homelessness, special educational needs and all of it’s limitations or rewards, as my son has additional needs, so I spent years navigating systems and fighting for equality for us both. Being a single mum with a visual impairment, renders  double stigma, double prejudice – guaranteed …

Yet, despite putting in an additional disclaimer explaining my lack of job experience and twice as much academia on applications but compensating with informal experience, such as with my political activism and campaigning – again it’s “sorry but on this occasion…”

And so it goes.

So, why isn’t the ‘real experience’ of actually being homeless, a single mum, informal political activism/campaigns, being at the forefront of discrimination for additional needs, considered real experience enough to work with others in similar circumstances?

At the end of the day, employers want that all-important so-called experience and they spell it out as ‘most haves’ on job applications: must have’ 3 years’ experience in an advisory role; must have experience of problem-solving; must have experience in a leadership position; must be passionate about making a difference to disadvantaged young people -etc etc.

Well, as it happens, I have most of those things – via the university of life!

Yet, when I’ve been a “service user” assuming the pecking order of ‘professional’ and client, inequality in the relationship is set by default.

It’s obvious for example, when someone is sitting opposite you when discussing your rehousing needs, they more-often-than-not have only gained their experience through either studying statistics, research/degree or any given avenue, but not necessarily having been homeless themselves. I would much prefer a more equal scenario where the person assisting me has actually “been there and done it” – replacing so-called professionalism with empathy. Imagine the shock if someone were to casually ask a housing officer or self-employment mentor, ‘have you ever slept rough in Regents Park or, did you opt for self-employment, because of a double whammy scenario of being frozen out of the job market? Chances are they would be ruffled by the challenging nature of the questions, let alone the audacity to ask in the first place. Of course not all situations are like this and it’s easy to tar with the same brush, but most of this henges on my wealth of life experience.

It is only apparent from their often calloused demeanour or slightly elevated position from which they converse or engage with you that says it all.

So when for example, I have applied for a job with Shelter, the leading homeless charity, for get it – being homeless first-hand just doesn’t cut it, the unspoken presumption being, if one has been homeless, they lack the professionalism required in today’s sterile environment of meritocracy – resulting in further inequality.

I’m not a big career head, but even getting a foot-in-the-door to be moderately successful as a journalist seems like trying to break into acting or something ultra-difficult along those lines. I also know I’m not alone – how many single parents, usually mothers, have not had the opportunity of the job market during their child’s formative years. Of course it’s possible, but much harder with a child who has additional needs and childcare is harder to come by or one has to be extra careful about who they trust to babysit. It is all coupled of course, with the fact I’m visually impaired and, upon entering a job interview, the interviewer recoils on first sight of you and is more concerned with how you’ll get home or make the stairs, rather than looking at your credentials.

Sticking my head in the sand of academia was a kind of coping mechanism, of course I had the desired aspiration for the outcome, but it was alright up until I completed my degree courses or whatever course I was doing at any given time, but going out into the world of ingrained scepticism, assumptions or preconceptions is not only harsh, but it pushes you into self-employment which, is hard enough work, but journalism?

Of course I don’t mind working hard and persevering and I think of all those people more easily discouraged or who have been at other disadvantages to me: a woman facing domestic violence and all its fallout; the veteran sitting in a doorway, because he hasn’t got enough priority points on the housing register or maybe just doesn’t have the resources, skills or confidence so has turned to drink.

So when people in those types of circumstances want to pick themselves up, gain some skills and then get to work and contribute to their own economic wellbeing, where does the ‘big break’ come?

Of course getting to work doesn’t always mean some high-flying job with top pay – a job at Tesco can be rewarding if you have been unemployable or unavailable for years, but for those of us who, after the kid has flown the nest and who aren’t getting any younger, the options are more limited all the time.

For employers who only want qualifications or formal experience and then trumpet equal opportunities, remember: equal opportunities is not just about employing people from minority groups, although that is definitely obligatory and challenges that employers walk the talk; but it should also apply to those of us who, not only have made the grade within the padded confines of academia, but who have graduated from the university of life, as in my case, my son is my credit as is my resilience.

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