After listening to J from Millenial Boss and the brilliant FIRE Drill Podcast talking about her career on the equally brilliant Choose FI podcast, I started thinking how my own career (and life for that matter) hasn’t been a steady incline either – less like a ladder and more like a jungle gym!
August 2004 – July 2006, Ages 17 – 19, Pay band – minimum wage
I completed my A Levels at sixth form college just before my 18th birthday with the intention of studying Economics at university and becoming an investment banker. Up to that point I wanted to move far away from my small home town in northern England and eventually live and work in London. That didn’t work out at all! During the last few months of sixth form I started having doubts about moving away from my family, my friends and the reasonably good life I’d already started to build. Six weeks into university life I realised I’d made the wrong choice. Not only did I miss home terribly, I didn’t have a great deal in common with the other students and the education the university were providing didn’t seem value for money – I was mostly read at from books I was perfectly capable of reading myself!
And so I came home, heartbroken because I felt like I’d failed, like I’d let my family down and like I was lost. I went back to the part time job I had worked at during sixth form at a local jewellers and then had a series of entry level positions in different industries – financial advisory, banking, fashion retail. During this time, I also discovered The Open University which provides degree courses by distance learning and I commenced my first course with them. At The Open University you can select your initial courses without having a final degree subject in mind and so I used this opportunity to try a small range of subjects in an attempt to find my passion. By this time, I had moved out of my parent’s house into a small flat of my own qualifying me for financial aid with The Open University so those first few courses were free. I stayed only a few months at each of these jobs until I found something I actually enjoyed working in the public sector for local government.
Interestingly for all the upset it caused, leaving university was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. If I had stayed and got a job in the City, I would likely have been a victim of the recession and who knows what financial trouble I would have had with student loans and unrealistic mortgages. I also would never have got on to the housing ladder at the age of 19.
July 2006 – April 2011 (Ages 19 – 24) Payband – £11k – £26k
I began my local government career in internal audit and really enjoyed the analytical nature of the role but there wasn’t much scope for progression so after just over a year I moved to a role monitoring economic development projects that had been awarded grants. Eventually, I was given my own project to manage with a colleague and a significant pay rise more than doubling my salary in less than 5 years. During this time I continued with my courses at The Open University and settled on a degree in Business Studies. The economic development projects that I was working on were time limited and with no further funding coming from central government I was made redundant.
I could see the writing on the wall 4-5 months before I was actually made redundant as it was clear that the chances of obtaining additional funding from central government would be slim. This was a very difficult time as I still had a year of study to complete before I would have my degree and be able to apply for graduate schemes. There were few opportunities within my small home town and the surrounding area and so I had to look further afield. In the end, I applied for close to 40 jobs in that 4-5 months and eventually secured a job for a big accountancy firm (top 10) in a big city 50 miles from home.
April 2011 – March 2013, Ages 24 – 26, Payband £16k – £20k
The job was actually an industrial placement usually awarded to students in their 3rd year of a 4 year degree but the company understood my situation and were willing to take me on this basis and move me to their graduate scheme once I had finalised my degree. This meant taking a significant pay cut (£10k!) as well as a longer commute but I was willing to bet on me. I knew that once I got my degree this company would pay for my graduate training in accountancy and this would open many doors.
During this time I was awarded a first class degree in Business Studies, which felt like deserved recognition for studying whilst working full time for 6 years. But the studying didn’t stop there! I was straight into training to become a Chartered Accountant (ACA) although in some ways this was easier because my employer released me to go to accounting college for weeks at a time.
However, when I was in the office, the hours were long and so was the commute. Leaving the house early, getting in late and then getting my books out to study was really tough. I tried moving to the city and shared a flat with a colleague for a year coming home every weekend but I hated being away from my home, my family and my boyfriend of the time so it was very difficult.
Before I’d actually completed my ACA qualification, a friend mentioned a job being advertised back in my home town looking for a part qualified accountant to work for a multi academy trust (basically a group of schools funded direct from central government as a single limited company). I applied without a lot of confidence but I made it through a full day of tests and interviews and was offered the job later that afternoon. I was over the moon to be able to come back home and with a pay rise too! I was making slightly more than when I was made redundant from local government just 2 years later.
March 2013 – today, Ages 26 – 31, Pay band £28k – 51k
My initial role was as Financial Administrator but that soon expanded to leading the operational back office aspects of the multi academy trust. As the trust grew so did my role and when it was agreed to merge my role with a governance role I negotiated my salary increase from £2k to £5k. I was also supported to complete my ACA qualification and although I couldn’t be released for days or weeks to go to college I was happy to go back to distance learning with some weekend tutorials to get me through the final exams all passed first time. Once qualified, I had been expecting from earlier discussions with my employer an additional pay increase but this never materialised.
However, just as I was becoming frustrated with the ever increasing workload, another multi academy trust in the area advertised for a Business Manager looking for a qualified accountant and with a significant pay rise (more than £10k). Another full day of tests and interviews and I had secured the job. And in this one I intend to stay. The workload is challenging but manageable, the people have high standards but are kind and flexible and there is a focus on professional development even if that means good staff will move on to better things. The pay is good for the area (we have a relatively low cost of living) and I’ve just started a leadership course lasting 12 months where I’ll be released from work to attend the regular training sessions.
I have nearly doubled my salary again in the last 5 years. I could continue to climb this jungle gym but my priories have changed. This job provides flexibility now (taking unpaid leave) and in the future (part time and/or term time only working) and I’m more interested in building side hustles so that when I’m ready to leave full time employment I have something ready to pour my energy into.
I am capable – I have spent almost 10 years of my life working full time whilst studying part time. It took a lot of time to adjust to all my free time when I’d finished studying and I think that has made me lazy! Going back over my career history has reminded me what I am capable of and J’s story also motivates me – we have plenty of time if we don’t waste it on mindless activities like TV and social media.
You always have options – I’ve seen many colleagues at risk of redundancy over the years and many seem content to wait and worry. But you always have options if you look for them. As soon as I knew redundancy would be likely I started researching all the jobs I could do with the skills and qualifications I had. Accountancy wasn’t my passion at the time but it is definitely the right fit for me, I love it and that brings me on to….
Have an open mind – I have learned so much since becoming part of the FIRE community and my mind has definitely been opened especially on side hustles. I always thought a second job was for people who were low earners to start with but I am now completely on board with using my time as efficiently as possible and that means earning additional income where possible. This could also mean spending more time focusing on your main job but I like the variety that a side hustle brings to my life.
Live within your means at the time – As my salary increased I was definitely a victim of lifestyle inflation and after taking a pay cut following my redundancy this got me in some financial trouble as I used a loan and credit cards to supplement my low income. I have now made my way out of that mindset but it’s taken a long time to get out of debt.
What path has your career taken? Has it been more of a ladder or jungle gym? Please let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear your stories!