Karen Sanders speaks about her working life as a secretary and about jobseeking during the Covid pandemic.
Karen Sanders has had a varied secretarial career of ups and downs, weathering recessions, bullying and a lack of encouragement to upskill or take the initiative as well as Covid-related redundancy. Despite all her experience, she believes she has faced a certain degree of ageism in the recruitment process, which has meant months spent looking for a job during the pandemic.
Karen started teacher training after she finished full-time education, but didn’t enjoy it and decided to do a secretarial course so she had something to fall back on.
She started work as a receptionist/typist in a car showroom, but soon moved to a job at a building surveyors in London, which involved seeing through conversions of derelict old buildings for use by housing associations. She found that much more interesting and picked up quite a bit of knowledge about the industry.
But recession in the 1990s hit the construction industry late and hard. She had to reduce her hours and, when her commuting costs were taken into account, it didn’t make good financial sense to stay in the job. She didn’t like commuting either and, by that time, had a car. She looked for something more accessible and ended up at a well-known watch manufacturer’s. The job was quite routine and more junior than she had expected so Karen went around asking for extra work in other departments, which wasn’t the norm and seemed to her to be frowned upon.
So she moved again and started working for a management consultancy. That included preparing presentations for clients, working on change projects and carrying out psychometric testing on behalf of clients. She stayed for four and a half years, but eventually left for a better paid role.
Karen’s job at a major accountancy firm involved working as PA to a head of department. In the wake of the Enron scandal in 2002, however, she was made redundant and took on a temporary role at a pharmaceutical company. When her team expanded and a new manager came in, everything changed, however. Karen felt that her manager wanted someone more on the HR side and less secretarial and that she was being pushed out. “She tried every method to get me out. It had a debilitating effect,” says Karen. She eventually took redundancy. “I didn’t pursue legal action, but it left me feeling very stressed. I would dread going to work. It was like someone was watching you all the time to see if you would make one tiny mistake. I came out of that with virtually no self-confidence.”
She did a series of temporary jobs afterwards in the training, pharmaceutical and hotel industries before landing a role at another accountancy firm where she worked for three people in the tax department. Most of her work was for a senior partner who was very ‘old school’. Karen enjoyed working for him, but describes the firm as fairly Victorian, with lots of rules and not much encouragement for people to take any initiative or to upskill.
She was working there when the Covid pandemic started and had to move to working from home. She says some colleagues found it difficult to adapt to remote working which had a knock-on impact on the work she could do. Combined with the summer lull in tax-related work, Karen was left with little to do. She was put on furlough and says it didn’t come as much of a surprise when she was offered voluntary redundancy. “I was sacked on Zoom,” she says. “But then I had to go in to clear my desk.”
Her firm paid for a legal adviser, however, and she managed to get extra redundancy money because the firm acknowledged that it would be more difficult for her to find a job due to her being 60. “It was a fair redundancy package,” she says.
She left in September and spent the next months looking for work. She has taken advice on redesigning her cv to make it more skills-based than chronological. She had previously been advised to take out any dates so as to disguise her age. Since September, says Karen, she describes “plodding along, applying for whatever is suitable”. She feels her age has made it more difficult, even though she has a lot of experience, has rarely taken sick leave and has a good work ethic.
She took up a temporary job in a mass vaccination centre doing administrative work. The job search has picked up since 19th July when Covid restrictions relaxed and she has accepted a job offer, but on significantly less pay and fewer holidays than she had before. Another possibility she had been considering over the last months is to go freelance as a virtual assistant. She doesn’t have much of a pension because she has mainly worked for small companies without pension schemes so she is likely to have to keep working for some time.
Ideally she would like to work for the National Trust or in conservation or archaeology – areas that interest her. She feels she is at a crossroads after the Covid experience, but that she has lots to offer. “I have adapted to so much change over my career, I have a lot of work experience and I am very reliable,” she says.
*Karen Sanders is not her real name.
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