Andrea Nicholas-Jones talks to workingwise.co.uk about her career working in social services and vocational training and her current job at Action for Elders.
Andrea Nicholas-Jones has had a long and distinguished career in vocational training, equalities work and addressing many of the issues faced by Wales’ ageing population. She now works a portfolio career so that she can have more control of her work and a greater variety after having come to a point of complete overwhelm some years ago due to unmanageable workloads and her experience and contacts are proving invaluable to her new employer, Action for Elders, which has just relaunched its campaign against age bias.
Andrea’s own career undermines some of the negative myths about older workers, for instance, that they can’t learn new skills. Andrea’s career has been hugely varied and continues to span a range of different areas, from care leavers to older people.
Her first job after she graduated with a degree in law and industrial relations in the mid-1980s was as a trainee for Tesco. At the time she was hoping to go into HR. Eighteen months later she was relieved to be able to leave to have her daughter after realising it was not the right environment for her. She never returned. Andrea didn’t qualify for maternity leave and there was no flexible working so she resigned and took a postgraduate course. When her daughter turned one and with another newborn baby in two she applied to the Job Centre for part-time work. She was turned away because she was overqualified – part-time graduate-level jobs being unheard of in those days. She did a couple of part-time roles in retail and dentistry and then got onto a community programme where she worked with the Youth Opportunities programme teaching people will few skills literacy, numeracy and life skills. Many of the participants weren’t very enthusiastic to be on the programme so the team had to be creative to engage them.
There Andrea met someone from the Welsh Joint Agency Committee exam board who were developing national vocational qualifications. Through him she got a job doing a functional analysis of jobs ranging from dry stone walling to bricklaying. “It was a very early iteration of the NVQs and involved breaking down the tasks to form a curriculum,” says Andrea.
After that she worked as a trainee manager in a third sector organisation to deliver NVQs in everything from IT to carpentry and with the National Occupational Council to develop more NVQs in the care sector, eventually moving from the voluntary to the healthcare sector, implementing NVQs across Wales, including a Level 4 qualification in health management and working on a pilot for a healthcare assistant role for medics and other professions allied to medicine. She rose up the ranks rapidly through consciously shifting jobs to gain promotion. In the late 1980s she was a training assistant, but by 1992 she was a specialist adviser.
In 1999 Andrea moved to a new quango body – a Special Health Authority – and joined the civil service, but the role was short lived. However, because of her HR background she ended up working on the first HR strategy for NHS Wales.
From there her career expanded: she worked for the Race Equalities Council on the 2002 Race Relations Amendment Act in the education sector; was then headhunted to lead work on the Gender and Disability Act across the Welsh government and started work on Wales’ strategy on ageing. That work expanded to include care in the community and carers. It was a huge role. Andrea says that when she eventually took voluntary redundancy she was replaced by four people. Wales has the oldest population in the UK and its work on ageing cut across areas as varied as housing and education and was backed by a substantial budget.
Andrea is very proud of what was achieved, but found it frustrating to see that groundbreaking work wither in latter years as the Welsh Government’s focus turned more towards children. “We were so far ahead of other parts of the UK and now we are behind,” she says. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Andrea was when the role expanded to include all aspects of adult social service. “It was too huge and the correspondence was unmanageable,” she says. Andrea was 55 and she grabbed the chance to take redundancy.
For the first year she did nothing except try to recover. Then in 2018 she started taking on consultancy work, including working with care leavers and children with learning difficulties. Just after the pandemic took hold in 2020 she took on the role of director of partnerships at Action for Elders. For that role she works remotely. On the side she does other work, such as training, conducting stage two investigations into complaints against local authorities, being on fitness for practice panels for Social Care Wales and working on Wales’ anti-racist action plan and on elder abuse through her trustee position on Hourglass. “I have a finger in different pies,” she says.
Andrea says her experience and contacts across the Welsh government and third sector are useful for her job at Action for Elders. She feels her work is very much acknowledged and appreciated, although she says that working in the third sector requires different skills to her previous job. She likes the fact that the job is not full time and is very flexible and she is certainly never not busy. However, having lots of different roles, including being part of a mentoring scheme, means she has more control and can manage her work better. “I overcommit, but I can manage because I can say no,” she says – unlike in her previous role where she felt she was constantly firefighting and unable to look at the bigger picture.
She likes Action for Elders’ focus on the positives of what makes for meaningful lives and on health prevention, although she admits getting funding can be an uphill task in the current economic climate despite how the group’s work helps to relieve the pressure on the NHS and social care services. Securing longer term funding for continuous work rather than one-off pilots is hard, she says, and she feels that the work of the third sector is not valued sufficiently by those in power. Despite that, she has non intention of stopping work. At 61, she says she will keep on working as long as she is still enjoying it. She admits: “I have a very, very low boredom threshold.”