A few of the posts to come might be a bit different to my normal ones. I want to drag myself back to the start of my career and see if I can figure out at what point I couldn’t envisage working in an office for ever. I certainly wasn’t a natural saver and the school/University system simply primed me to work with no thought for how long that might be.
Summer 2004 saw Mr Zombie roll out of university with a Masters in Engineering and not a fucking clue what he wants to do with himself.
After 4 years of studying engineering I knew that I wanted to do something else. Not because it hadn’t been enjoyable, simply because new is exciting. On top of that engineering felt quite specialised, and by the time you had selected the special part of an already specialised profession you were only left with a few cities and a handful of employers to work with. I wanted to keep my options open.
Many of my more driven peers jumped directly from University into a graduate programme, I’d focussed completely on studying and so hadn’t been proactive enough to interview whilst studying for my finals. The bar is always higher. As a result the summer following graduation was spent doing temporary jobs.
Looking back I worked hard and was paid a pittance. I could write pages and pages about my experiences temping, but I won’t. Jobs included;
- Removals – utterly back breaking, non-stop work. I remember enjoying it.
- Industrial sweeper at a factory – literally pushing a giant industrial hoover around a factory collecting metal shavings. By the time you’d finished a loop there were more shavings to collect and so off you went again. I settled into a nice rhythm and effectively got paid to listen to my
- Lipstick factory – manually pushing a plastic top onto an individual lipstick. That was it. Over and over, on repeat, same again please. Lasted half a day before I got blisters and couldn’t work. Woe is me. The evil old lady beasts working there laughed as my brother and I sloped off at lunch.
- PvC window frame fabrication – very, very structured. Each of us had a specialised task that we repeated over and over, a 45 minute lunch break and two 15 minute breaks either side at the same time every day. Groundhog day work at it’s best.
- Unloading shipping containers at the city’s port.
- Bar work – dealing with drunk people is the worst.
- IT Helpdesk – I’m always nice to these guys, it was pretty horrid getting an earful all day every day.
- Many more.
I found that I struggled to get a job that involved the use of computers because I had no “office experience” on my CV. Quite how people thought I got through an engineering degree without a computer still baffles me. My first exposure to the rigidness of the corporate body, processes and controls must be followed. Eventually I did find a better paid temporary job, doing data entry on a computer and everything.
It was easier, more relaxed and better paid than any of the other temporary jobs. The only downside was that it was nearly a full hours commute away, a train ride to another city. At the time I didn’t care, I was being paid more than ever. I worked my way up from data entry to part of a product support team.
This got me a bit of a payrise. Sadly the commute combined with heading out a few nights a week for drinks or a meal with my girlfriend left me skint at the end of each month.
The work was vaguely interesting and we were generally kept pretty busy. I also spent a lot of time on b3ta.
Looking back, my manager was excellent. She let the team get on with their own tasks, and as long as you got your shit done you were just left to it. She also avoided monthly performance catch ups like the plague. I didn’t realise just how excellent she was at the time, I just thought all managers were supportive and awesome and without ego.
All the while my job search continued. I settled on accountancy in the end and applied for as many graduate training programmes as possible. Accountancy appealed for two reasons. First: it’s a global profession, therefore not limiting where I could work. Second: it came with a study package, the idea of carrying on my studies, with paid days off work to study was very appealing.
It’s tough to cast my mind back through time to remember what I was thinking and how I was approaching the search for a career. More than a decade of time has pounded memories to be what, I suspect, is a smoothed out and relatively poor reflection of that past reality. I vaguely remember the job search, my only criteria being it had to be ‘professional’, whatever that meant. Truth was I ended up in my field like most others in the white collar world, it was one of the options easily open to me given my degree choice. Accountancy firms graduate recruitment goes along the lines of;
Did you do a vaguely technical or finance based degree? You’ll do, don’t worry we’ll have crushed your soul in three years but you’ll have invested so much time you won’t want to change career. Sign here please.
My interview technique was appalling and I rattled through the first few interviews as if doing everything in my power to fail. Stupid Mr Z, with your honesty. A bit of research and interview practice later left me with two job offers.
The first offer was for one of the ‘Big 4‘ accountancy firms, based in London, working for their tax department. The second for a smaller firm and at one of their regional offices, not *gasp* their head office in London, as an auditor.
The first offered higher pay, a more prestigious employer and no doubt better opportunities for promotions and money-making down the line. Problem was I had been overwhelmed by the simultaneous sense of smugness and desperation at Mega-Corp. Everyone seemed blinded by pride that they didn’t notice the thick tension infiltrating every inch of the office. Employees seemed to care too much about their work, if that makes sense, it stank of falseness. Most of the employees came across as smug pricks.
Being a nice chap I called up the Big 4 firm to say “Thanks, but I don’t think I’m enough of a bellend to work here”. The HR drone thanked me for letting them know and asked, for their records you see, who I was going to work for instead. I imagine their pen hovering over a checklist with three options, the other firms making up the Big 4. I told them it was a smaller firm, in a regional office. Getting a lecture about the mistake I was making cemented in my mind that the correct choice had been made.
I’m proud to this day of young Mr Z making that call. I would have perished, or worse changed, working for one of the Big 4 in their London office.
Whilst all this was going on my girlfriend and I moved in together. Now, if I am proud of the above decision I have to say I’m pretty fucking disappointed in the next one.
We moved in together and rented a brand new flat in the city centre…the centre of a different city to the one I’d just accepted a job in. The flat had two bedrooms, we only ever used one, and two bathrooms, we only ever used one. Absolutely foronic.
At the time it seemed like the right thing to do. I’d got accepted to train as a chartered accountant so why not splash out on a nice flat? Even if it meant being broke each month.
It took me near on a year to sort out a proper job, and anything I did manage to save went into the deposit on my rented flat or new suits for the accountancy job.
Start of Period NetWorth : -£1,500
End of Period NetWorth : -£1,150
That’s right, I started at less than nothing and ended up pretty much in the same place. The difference is just down to the collateral on the rented flat. I still had an overdraft with the bank, still on graduate terms with 0% interest, but a net borrowing position, nonetheless.
So it took me nearly a year to get a proper job out of university and I did a four year course rather than a three year course. That’s two more years than many graduates before I started earning properly.
We could go a step further, I would have been better off all together skipping University and starting my studies as an accountant direct from school at eighteen. Engineering exams ended up much harder than the Chartered Accountancy exams, so I’m sure I would have got through the accountancy exams as a young whipper-snapper. That would have been a six year head start. And if I’d been clever and saved 50% of my income during that time, a pretty solid start on the track to financial independence.
By the way, I’m not against education for educations sake, in fact the opposite. I think we have moved too much towards further education being valued by which course nets you the biggest wage, rather than education being about personal growth. But that’s something for another day.
I don’t remember being worried about money at all, despite feeling constantly broke. My logic went along the lines of soon I will have a professional job on a training contract, I will pass all my exams and in a few years be on a nice wage. In my very blinkered view there was nothing to worry about and so spending continued to be approximately 100% of my take home.
My approaches to finances was abysmal. I didn’t take Business Studies or Economics at school and pretty much focused on Maths and Science. Old Ma Z and Pa Z didn’t provide much in the way of financial education, other than a stern warning to stay away from credit cards. Advice offered in the same way you might tell a child to stay away from the creepy guy in the toilets.
The only time I’d heard the word mortgage was whilst crushing my family at Monopoly, and even then I didn’t really know what it was. In truth my financial knowledge was limited to a personal bank account and could just about stretch to an overdraft.
My knowledge of equities bordered along thinking of them as some occult past time that required hours of dedicated research, a murky world where you lost everything or made millions. Pensions, as far I was concerned, was simply something that happened at the end of your career. I didn’t know how or why, and I certainly had no intention of learning.
Point being my financial knowledge and approach to finances in general was a bit shit. And on top of that I took a couple of years extra to get a proper job. The grand salary of my trainee accountant role? £15,000. The takehome was less than £1k a month. That degree sure didn’t look so gold plated anymore.
Things can surely only go up from here.