STRiVE Issue 5

by George Upfield

I should warn you, my route to employment is quite a long and convoluted story, so get comfy!

I suppose the first time I realised where I wanted to work was not long after I started volunteering with Guide Dogs at their Regional Centre in Leamington Spa. I was 16. I sensed there was a real ‘family atmosphere’ throughout the organisation. And in addition to this, I knew that I’d need a guide dog to help me navigate when I left school for university. Somehow, I felt that I wanted to return the favour in advance! So, over the next few years, during my school holidays, I did work experience with Guide Dogs whenever I could. I wanted to get experience of working in an office and also to make my presence better known within the organisation.

When I was at the University of Reading, I discovered that Guide Dogs’ headquarters were not far from me and managed to make a few coincidental encounters with staff from their HQ at Hillfields. However, as I was studying Classics (basically Latin and Ancient Greek language and history), I was doubtful that my degree would lead me down my desired career path. Nevertheless, I continued volunteering and completing occasional work experience during the holidays, utilising the hours I’d accrued to help me achieve the Red Award (the University of Reading’s equivalent of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award).

After I graduated from Reading in 2019 with a 2.1, I was nominated as Young Regional Volunteer of the Year at the Midlands Guide Dogs Volunteer Awards. At the ceremony, my Dad and I got talking to Tom Wright, Guide Dogs’ CEO. My Dad asked if he could help me get a job within the organisation, and Tom kindly said he’d ask around. He got one of his colleagues to call me and we had an initial chat to find out what I’d like to do. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear anything after that, so I contacted him again, after which someone else contacted me and effectively said I had to apply the same way as everyone else. The job centre in question, called Charity Works, couldn’t even guarantee that I’d end up working for Guide Dogs. It would be very much down to potluck. As you can imagine, I felt quite disheartened.

Not long after this, having gone through several rejected job applications, my Dad and I bumped into a family friend who lives on a local farm. My Dad told him about my struggles to find work, to which he suggested asking a local woman who was one of the Heads at the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire. I immediately assumed that farming wasn’t my cup of tea but sent her my CV anyway. While volunteering at the British Motor Museum one day, I received a phone call from the lady saying she liked my CV, and would I come in for a chat about what sort of work I’d like to do! I met with her, and we agreed I’d do six weeks’ work experience, each week working in a different department. Honestly, the first team I worked with was the one I enjoyed the most. Bureau Services sounds interesting, and my job was to answer phones and help callers set up online pig movements for when they shipped livestock to farms, markets or abattoirs. I loved it!

Meanwhile, as I’d won the Regional Volunteer Award, I was automatically nominated for a National Volunteer Award at the ceremony at the Guide Dogs Centre in Atherton, Manchester. While there, my Dad and I got talking to Katie Wery, Guide Dogs’ Head of HR. My Dad talked her through the application process I’d used to try to get into the organisation and asked why it was so difficult for a young visually impaired person to get a job at Guide Dogs. She said she didn’t know and took our contact details, promising she’d get back to us. Fair to say my Dad and I were sceptical after my last experience.

At the end of my six weeks’ work experience at AHDB in December 2019, my manager from the Bureau Services Team approached me with the offer of a paid fixed-term contract. Of course, I said yes! However, Guide Dogs rang me that same day and offered me an internship at the National Centre for six months starting in February 2020. Even though I’d just been offered the job at AHDB, a job at Guide Dogs was my dream, and so I accepted.

I started off at Guide Dogs doing administration in HR, then after a month got told I had to work from home due to the advent of COVID-19. I was then furloughed for four months! I managed to keep myself busy in that time by walking the dogs, listening to audio books and doing online FutureLearn courses. At the end of my furlough in late August 2020, I moved from HR into Diversity & Inclusion, then to Visitor Experience in early December, and then finally to Research in March of this year. My contract kept having to be extended, because due to furlough, I hadn’t had the chance to fulfil the six months I’d been promised by July. Towards the end of my contract in April and May, I applied for various internal vacancies within the organisation, and in July I started my new permanent role as Operations Support Coordinator for Reading, now commuting to HQ at Hillfields two days a week!

So what’s the point of me sharing my story with you? I suppose it’s to reiterate that you should always persevere and keep applying, regardless of how many rejections you receive. Secondly, get as much work experience as you can; this will not only give you greater insight into life in the workplace, but also get you noticed. It’s not only what you know but who you know! Thirdly, be open-minded. I initially thought that Guide Dogs was the only place I could work, but it turned out AHDB was very enjoyable too. It’s always good to just try new things.

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