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Reframing redundancy: the many values of volunteering

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Reframing redundancy: the many values of volunteering

A guest interview with Carl Stopforth

This month we’re delighted to publish an interview with a great friend of Gerrell & Hard, Carl Stopforth. Through no fault of his own, Carl has faced periods where he was out of work, but has used this time to help others while also looking for his next role. He has gained a lot from it, not least renewed self-confidence and an understanding of the value of looking outwards during periods of stress.

We think Carl’s story is an inspiring one that we can all take something from, so we’re delighted that he agreed to be interviewed for a blog. Thanks Carl for your time and your honesty.

Carl, can you give us a potted history of your experience of being out of work and the relevant periods of your career?  

My first period out of work came after I moved to Ricardo having spent ten years at TRW (now part of ZF Friedrichshafen AG). I spent my last three years at TRW in Germany. It was an enjoyable period but I felt I had gone as far as I could there and decided to move on, a big decision at the time. I moved to Ricardo in June 2008 and was there for over two years before being made redundant as a consequence of the financial crisis.

It was a shock. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but that didn’t change how I felt. Regardless of how redundancy is handled, it feels personal unless you’ve gained some very specific coping skills, which my experience has given me!

I was offered the opportunity to return as a contractor but believed that if I hung on something I wanted more would come along at the right time. That’s quite a big part of how I see things now: no matter how hard things are, I have always believed I’ll look back and know there’s a reason why things happened as they did.

Then my role as an Interim Senior Project Manager at Protean came up. I welcomed the chance to work in a privately-funded corporation, though an interim role in the early days of a start-up felt like a gamble. While I was there decisions were made to change the organisational structure, which brought an end to my contract. I thought, “here we go again!”

Then I spent about a year as a Project Leader at Alexander Dennis before being headhunted for a Global Project Manager role with Hyva in the Netherlands. I had broad experience in project management and it felt like this was what ending my time at Protean and Alexander Dennis had been for. Here was a chance to run my own department, be responsible for other people and grow a function. But sadly I was made redundant again – and this time I was stuck in Holland! That was tough, but again my attitude was “this isn’t right, but it has happened and I will find out why in the future – one day this will be an event that led to something better for me.”

My next role was as a Programme Manager at Gurit - an advanced composites firm in the Isle of Wight. With no previous experience of composites I had to dive in, applying my project management skills to the challenge of relocating and learning a new role fast! But while I was there, a significant number of staff were made redundant, including me.

You’d already been volunteering at this point, but you stepped it up in a pretty big way at this time, which many will see as an interesting response to a succession of setbacks!

Yes. While living on the Isle of Wight, my wife and I had started volunteering with a local boating club. So I decided to take some time out from the chaos of moving from one unstable role to another by volunteering with the RNLI in Cowes, all while looking for the right role.

What was behind this decision?

At this time it occurred to me that I needed a career break. Repeated blows to my confidence had been shattering; when you keep getting knocked over you can only convince yourself to get back up again so many times. I was getting fed up and losing the will to renew myself through challenge after challenge.   

I spent just over a year volunteering at the local lifeboat station, all the while slowly realising that for my next role, whoever hired me would have to convince me they were the right employer for me rather than the other way round. This was a new mind-set and it was something to do with me recognising the value in my volunteer work. I started to be careful about which recruitment agencies I spoke to, choosing only those who were really interested in the individual at the end of the phone.

At this time I heard word that Lentus Composites in Oxford was a rising star, so I contacted them directly with renewed confidence. I carried this belief into the interview process and within two weeks was working for the business as a Programme Manager.  But despite a great start, the business had its problems and a number of people were made redundant, including me.

How did you take it?

Differently this time. I was feeling energised and positive because of my time volunteering with the RNLI and I’d made a conscious decision not to be defeated by another job loss. I had a notable shift in mentality that came from doing things for other people. I felt lucky to have had the chance to give my time to others and financially I was okay for a while because I’d saved. I thought, “don’t be scared,” and decided to volunteer again, this time with London Search and Rescue (LonSAR), part of the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue, qualifying alongside my wife to be a search and rescue technician and supporting the Metropolitan Police with missing person and body searches. It was gratifying to find my earlier voluntary work with the RNLI carried forward into this, as I was given responsibility for establishing a water section specifically for LonSAR.

You still needed a job during this time and were also looking for work, weren’t you?

Absolutely. Everyone knows that finding and applying for a new role can be a full time job in itself, but what was key for me at this time was that my volunteering meant I couldn’t treat job-hunting as a nine-to-five even if I wanted to.

That was a valuable lesson for me: when you don’t have a job, you can con yourself into thinking that unless you dedicate every minute of every day to finding one, you have no chance of succeeding. But that’s just a trick your stressed mind plays on you that doesn’t help at all. You can’t productively job hunt all day every day – there’s only so much you can do. Volunteering took me out of my own head and stopped me feeling guilty because I wasn’t on my laptop 24/7.

During this time I also did some further voluntary work with Leap Confronting Conflict, a national youth charity that provides conflict management programmes and support to young people. While I wasn’t involved directly with the affected youths, I felt my work supporting management allowed them to spend more time focusing on this, meaning other people got something positive out of my situation.

Did volunteering for charities that deal with people in tough circumstances present you with some upsetting experiences during an already stressful period?

Well, yes, obviously no matter how bad your position feels, there are always people far worse off and that became pretty clear to me, but it’s no good being preachy about that: it doesn’t truly help your circumstances or mine to know this when we’re out of a job. But how about knowing that there are people worse off than you and that you can help them? It gets you out of your shell if you can give something of yourself to others; it makes you feel more comfortable in your own skin. You’re not being paid, but you’re adding value.

This experience brought me to summer 2018 when, thanks to Gerrell & Hard, I got my current role at Penso.  Gerrell & Hard had kept in touch and had been one of the good agencies who were focused on the individual. Penso is a successful company and I feel lucky that I’m able to work through the pandemic without being put on furlough. 

Has the way you cope emotionally with redundancy changed?

My experience of redundancy and of gaining a sense of personal value in my time out of work has made me philosophical about it, yes. When you’re made redundant it feels personal and it knocks your confidence in the most horrible way. But it’s not personal. The leaders who make these decisions don’t do so lightly. They’ve been where you are and we’re all the same. The executive who signs off redundancies is also a person for whom this is not easy. To cite a well-worn phrase, it’s not your experiences, but how you respond to them, that shapes your life.

What advice would you offer to anyone who finds themselves out of work for an extended period?

Some people will have a more pressing need to be back working than others. But most of us need work and if you’ve lost your job it’s tempting to spend all your available time trying to find a new one.

A job search will probably take longer than you want it to – but don’t let that kid you into thinking you need to spend all day, every day on it. A lot of those hours will be “junk hours” where you’re not being productive. Review your job alerts and then go and do something else. Spending all day every day on a job search will make you feel useless because there are limits to how productive you can be when there are only limited actions you can take.

I think of job-hunting as being like a sprint: do your 100 metres once a day, then do it again the next day and so on. You can spend a lot of time carpet-bombing all and sundry opportunities, but it’s better to concentrate on finding quality opportunities and putting your effort into managing the next part of the process – working with a good agency, getting your CV up to scratch and selling yourself. Those daily sprints will have built you up and left you energy to get through the next part, which is nailing the job – that’s the hard bit and it’s where you really need to concentrate your energy.

Volunteering means willingly giving. What has volunteering given you in return?

After a number of blows to my confidence, voluntary work gave me the conviction that I’m a person who’s done valuable stuff in the most challenging periods, and I’m more than “just” a job. It helped me to get out of the echo chamber of my mind and away from all the negative, ultimately useless thoughts I was having.

To volunteer you need a passion for the success of an organisation outside of yourself and you tend to carry that into employers: a determination not to fail the business, and for it not to fail you. I think that makes for a valuable employee - someone determined to be the best they can - and I think employers can see that in a CV.

Above all, volunteering means providing a service for someone who could really benefit from your time, and that is rewarding in itself.  So in conclusion, it’s a way to help other people, improve your CV and employability, and help you feel valued and productive in your down-time or between roles.