Monday, 5 March 2012

Fee earners

I've been working for a firm of solicitors for the last six and a half years. I'm amazed to realise that this is possibly the longest I've worked for one firm. Mind you, in that time I've had time off work to go on tour with various bands, up to a month or six weeks at a time, and I was also off sick having treatment for leukaemia for over a year. So it's not six years at all.

I'm now working part time in an admin role. It's a small office with just a handful of staff. Broadly speaking the staff can be divided into fee earners and support staff. Our business is selling advice. Buying a house, getting a divorce, making a will, sorting out a deceased loved one's estate all require specialist knowledge that the ordinary individual would not know or understand. We provide a service to the public where we act for people using our knowledge and training and years of experience.
We charge for this. Sometimes we can quote a price for the work based on our experience of how long/complicated the case may be. Other times we cannot, but as we charge by the hour we can tell teh client the hourly rate and give a rough estimate/ball park figure. The customer/client is free to accept or reject our estimate. He is free to instruct whoever he/she likes. That's how the market works.

Paying more does not guarantee a better job. I read somewhere that retailers find the the best selling item is the second cheapest. The cheapest can't be any good the customer thinks, so plumps for the second cheapest. Some items, namely luxury cars, are stuffed full of gadgets that are there purely to justify the outrageous price tag. Why can't I buy a car with wind up windows any more? Whay can't I buy a car without a radio? Or a heater? Thirty/forty years ago cars were very basic and consequently cheaper.

Where was I?
Our firm's fee earners are supported by the admin staff. Put bluntly, they earn the money while we cost money. My job is to enable the fee earners to earn money (and thereby pay my wages). Some costs are inevitable. Premises, heating, lighting. Our computer system is getting old but it works. Our accounts system is basic but it does the job. Our telephone system is about ten years old but it works. We don't spend money unwisely. Our clients very rarely comment about the decor. One woman did once, but soon shut up when I said that we'd have to increase our fees to decorate the building to her satisfaction. Clients keep returning. They don't have to. There are plenty of firms out there who could do a similar job, some can do it cheaper. But our clients keep coming back..why?

They get good service. We remember their names. I had a client come through the door to say their daughter wanted us to act in a house sale and purchase. When they mentioned the name I remembered their daughter's name and where she lived. They were surprised I could remember but we do. It's because we see our clients in person. We get to know them. Sometimes we're a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes we lose. One client was frustrated at the apparent lack of progress and took his file elsewhere. A few months later he called in to apologise. The new solicitor was having the same problems as we had. Perhaps his case was unwinnable?

Throughout all this I'm aware that I don't earn the fees. I can help make the environment better for the fee earner. I can be helpful and courteous towards the clients. I can spend the firms' money wisely.

Now we come to the bigger picture. The government doesn't earn the money that keeps the country solvent. Businesses do. Individuals do. Fee earners do. They pay the taxes that the government spends.
The excellent Tom Paine blog had this post a few months ago:

I urge you to read it, especially the comments

Friday, 24 February 2012

Belt up

Every now and then I'm speaking to someone or watching the TV and something triggers a memory. I honestly thought I'd written down every job I'd done, but no, there's more.
I worked in two different belt factories over the years. Both were temp jobs, lasting just a few days while the firm got a large order out. Both were in small factories employing just a few staff.
The first was in Corby. I had to fix the metal end to the leather belt, at the other end to the buckle. It involved placing the end of the belt into a machine that planed the leather to the correct thickness so that the metal end could be fixed. I think I used to tack it on, but it was a long time ago.
Another time I worked in a leather belt factory in a tiny village deep in rural Northamptonshire. This time I had to use a machine to stamp out the belt blanks from leather hides. It was more complicated than it seemed because you had to judge the distance between the cuts. To far apart and you'd waste leather, to close together and the belt sides wouldn't be perpendicular and would fail quality control. It was fun using the huge press that cut through the leather so cleanly. I shudder to think what might happen if one's finger was trapped. It was impossible because of the many safety gates and other features on the machine, and no, I didn't try...

Both the firms were producing quality leather belts for sale in UK shops. I think I recall seeing M&S and TopShop labels on the finished belts. Are these firms still in existence? Is it still possible for a small local business to produce a quality product to be sold on the High Street, or have they succumbed to the Chinese invasion?

I enjoyed my time working in a different environment. Most temp jobs are for a day or two, and you never go back. I haven't been to that village since then. There's a busy dual carriageway that takes the traffic from one motorway to another and the sound of traffic is hardly heard there now.

Saturday, 3 December 2011


No I hadn't heard of it either until I got the call to go work there a few years ago.

It's funny how something on the TV triggers a memory. I was watching a programme today that involved making reproduction antique furniture and the craftsman was painting then using a rag to apply some dark gunk to a pice of furniture. Something clicked and I thought "Briwax. He's using Briwax".

I honestly thought I'd written something about every job I'd ever done and here was another one. I did a couple of spells working for a firm that made a specialist wax polish for wooden furniture. I can't remember much about the first spell. It was in Kettering in their old factory which was sited in a residential area of the town, and had been there for years and years.
When Kettering expanded from the 1880s onwards it was because of the coming of the railway. They'd always made boots and shoes in Kettering. What held them back was the poor roads, making it time consuming and expensive to export. In Northampton it was just possible to use the river to get to the sea. That was before the canals linked everywhere to everywhere else, cutting the cost of transporting raw materials and finished product to the market place.
The coming of the railways and the huge stride in technology brought the price down even further. When the streets of terraced houses were built there was a brick built outhouse at the bottom of each garden and a lot of the shoe making was carried out there. Somewhere along every street there was a large building- a shoe factory where the locals would all work. Most people walked or cycled. Work was no more than a couple of hundred yards away and there was a shop on every corner. While Northampton became the centre for shoe making, Kettering was famous for boots, including army boots. Boots that were exported to every corner of the empire.

In the midst of all this Victorian street layout a chemical company set up to make this wax polish and carried on quietly for many years. Eventually the rise of the health and safety brigade, plus the inconvenience of bringing lorries into residential areas began to tell, and the firm moved to an industrial estate in Corby, which was where I was sent to work about a dozen or so years ago.

I was involved in the packing end of the production line, although I did work in other areas. The various ingredients were mixed and heated until they formed a liquid. I would then load the belt with empty tins and the liquid wax was poured into them. The tins then travelled along the belt, through a cooling tunnel and then to where I was standing ready to put the lids on and clean any splashes from the outside.
I was having some building work done at home and the firm kindly let me have a dented tin for free. My studio now has some nicely waxed dado rails and architraving.

I'm not sure what the complete list of ingredients were, I seem to remember one of them was toluene. My "O" level chemistry taught me that that was potentially very flammable, so it was no surprise to read in the paper a few years later that there had been a huge fire and explosion at this factory and that it had smashed every window across a huge area, leaving a nice hole in the ground where I once spent a happy week temping.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Charity bags

I've just been reading back through the posts and realised I hadn't written about the time I worked for a clothing charity. You know the sort- they put a bag through your letterbox and ask you to fill it with your unwanted clothing and leave it out a couple of days later.

I worked for this firm a couple of times. The first time was when they were still based in Kettering and I was asked by my temp agency if I'd do a few shifts shunting the vans as they returned to the depot. The drivers would return to the depot and park the van in a side street. I'd collect the key, drive the van around the block to the loading bay, put the van on the weighbridge while full, then back it up to the unloading bay where a team would unload it. Once it was emptied I'd drive it back to the weighbridge to be weighed, then fuel it and park it in a compound. Repeat until all the vans were empty of goods, full of diesel and parked.
It wasn't too strenuous although it was sometimes stressful getting thirty vans into a tiny compound. It was just possible if you turned all the wing mirrors in and squeezed through the tiniest gap between the vans. Sometimes I was sure I'd miscalculated and wouldn't get the final van away and the gates locked, but somehow I managed to park them all. Once the vans were parked I could go (and still be paid for the full shift) so there was always an incentive to work quickly.

I was offered a job driving a van but turned it down. There were better jobs going at the tims, but a few months later I was offered the work again. By now the firm had moved to Wellingborough and I had to drive there and get there by 6 in the morning, pick up the van and assistant (who sat in the passenger seat all day without exchanging a single word in conversation, listening to Radio 1 at full blast- o joy!)and then drive to the town where we'd be working.

I'm not sure how many vans there were. I guess there were at least thirty. The firm had a contract with a large charitable organisation, and the bags we distributed all had the charity's name printed on it. We'd drive to a town, buy an A-Z street map in order to keep tabs on where we'd been and where we had to return to, and then we'd start work.

Our brief was to distribute 1000 bags to homes in the morning, have a break, then drive around the streets where we'd left bags two days beforehand, pick up any bags that had been left out, and then drive back to the depot. Simple? Er, no.

Some towns were easy to work, especially those with street after street of terraced houses. In some towns there were over a hundred houses in a street, and you'd soon polish off a thousand bags. But once you'd covered those streets you'd move into the more up-market estates where the houses were set back from the road, and there were fences between the gardens. These streets took much longer. Once you'd done those houses, then you'd move on to the detached houses with the long drives, then to the villages surrounding the town....

Unfortunately the person who allocated the work would tell you that you had say, three weeks to cover the town of Hereford, except that there aren't that many houses, and you'd be scratching around after two weeks. You were expected to return to the depot each night with a full van, and some areas were easy, but others were very hard. I remember being told to distribute 1000 bags a day to Ross on Wye and all the surrounding area. I drove to the area, bought an A-Z and found that there weren't more than a few thousand houses in the whole of the county! There were more sheep than houses to be honest.

Urban areas were good, but the yield from rural areas was always very poor. Why was that?

I expect that people who live in rural areas shop more often. They probably buy more clothes and therefore fill their wardrobes more quickly. Every few months a charity bag drops through the letterbox and the householder sees a way of easing the clothes storage problem, while making them feel they are doing their bit for chariddeee.

My experience would bear this theory out. I was sent to Walton on Thames to cover for a sick colleague, and by the end of the afternoon it was hard to get any more bags in the van, it was so loaded. It really was rich pickings compared to deepest rural Herefordshire.

What else did I learn? I loved the different archtectural styles in the old building wherever I travelled, but I'm sad to say that the new builds were all depressingly similar. I'd walk down a street on an estate near Colchester and realise that I could be anywhere. All the houses looked the same. In a lot of cases they were decorated the same, with the same front doors in the same colours. I really could be anywhere. And that's a shame.

In the end I had to pack it in. The money wasn't bad for temping through an agency, but the firm wanted me to work for them direct, and to be paid according to the tonnage I collected. I'd seen enough to realise that the area they offered me (half of Essex outside the M25) would never yield as much as the area within the M25 , so I declined. I was also fed up with the 13 hour days. I was leaving home at 5.30 in the morning, leaving the depot at 6.00, driving for anything up to 120 miles before starting the rounds, walking for three of four hours, then driving around picking up bags and then driving back to the depot, arriving back sometime after 5.30 most nights.
By this time the work arrangements had changed so the drivers were now responsible for weighing and unloading their own vans and then parking them. They were also responsible for fueling them and washing them, and I'd not get home until after 7 at night. That's lot of hours and a lot of miles for minimum wage.

I did a couple of days driving to charity shops collecting bags of unsold clothing. That may come as a surprise to you, but charity shops rely on new stocks coming in every day or week, and they don't keep stock for more than a few weeks at most. If it's unsold after that time, it's bagged up and sent back to the depot.

I recall one journey where I had to drive to Brighton and collect some bags. I arrived at about 9.30 and found the shop. Once I'd loaded up I then drove across country to Tunbridge Wells, then on to Whitstable. My last pickup was supposed to be Minster, but I chose the wrong one and ended up driving around Sheerness instead of further east near Canterbury. By this time it was late afternoon and I still had to drive back. I got back at about 9 o'clock, fifteen hours after i'd set off.

One of my colleagues would drive from Wellingborough to Penzance, then to Falmouth and Plymouth and back- almost every day! He'd be on the road for 15 or sixteen hours a day. There's no way I could do that week in week out. Of course there's nothing to stop a van driver driving these hours- there's no tachograph and so no driver's hours regulations.

Looking back I must admit I enjoyed my time on the charity collections. Although there are many shady operators, the firm I worked for did a good job and performed a useful role in keeping people's wardrobes just empty enough to fit a few new clothes in. The clothes we collected were sold on to Eastern Europe and Africa, providing needy people with good cheap clothes and making a few pounds for the charity in the process.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Did I tell you about when I used to

Did I tell you about when I used to work as a washer upper in a hotel restaurant kitchen? I've had so many different jobs over the years it's hard to remember which ones I've described. So forgive me if I repeat myself.

When you work as a temp there's a dead period over Christmas that lasts up to four weeks. All the factories would shut down and if there was no work, there was no pay. In 1997 or 1998 (I can't remember now)it was fast approaching Christmas and the job prospects looked bleak. A family friend worked in a local hotel and through her I managed to land a job as a lowly kitchen porter on minimum wage.

I remember my first day there. It was obvious that no-one had been taking the cleaning seriously for months. They did just enough to get by, and that wasn't good enough for me. The front of house plates and cutlery were ok (but the cutlery should have been polished to remove the water marks. The kitchen utensils were a different matter. They needed a good scrub, but all they were doing was to put them through the dishwasher. It took a few weeks but I eventually got rid of all the accumulated grease and stains from the pots, pans and platters. We then looked at the deep fat fryer. It was obvious that it may have had the oil changed but no-one had dismantled it for years. There was so much grease and sludge it was hard to tell what it was...

One of the drawbacks of working in a kitchen is that you work a split shift. I would get to work for about 8.00 (someone else had cooked the breakfasts). I took all the deliveries in and put them away (taking care to rotate the milk so that the old stock was used first- something i'm not sure was followed before I got there) Then I'd clean up the breakfast things and completely clear the backlog of washing up. By then it was time for the lunchtime serving. There are periods of intense activity followed by times when the restauant is empty. That's when you need to get ahead. I would peel sprouts. A 28lb net of sprouts takes about an hour to peel and cut a cross in the base.
I'd have a couple of hours off, which is not really enough time to do anything and then it was back for the evening shift.We'd have a full restaurant plus a Christmas party in the ballroom.
When there's a party of 150 all wanting a Christmas dinner at the same time, you need to get ahead. For a couple of hours it's crazy, then it's a mad rush to clear up and get home before it's too late, and then it's back the next morning to do it all again.
I think I got six weeks work in all, then it was back to the agencies. I managed to get the kitchen and all the equipment shiny as new before I left. I wonder how long it stayed that way?
The first jobs they found me were as a kitchen porter at the local college, then as a-
kitchen porter in a local factory.
Eventually some driving work came through and my spell in the catering corps came to an end.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Job mobility

It was Norman Tebbit who encouraged the unemployed in the 1980s to get on their bikes to find work. In the 1960/70/80s it was not uncommon to move around the country as part of your career path. I moved my family 150 miles from Northamptonshire to Somerset when I changed jobs, and then moved them back again three years later. It was the accepted thing back then. In the retail sector, Marks and Spencer made a point of relocating their managers every three or four years, and often from one end of the country to the other. It was how one gained the necessary experience.

So much has changed since then. I would be very reluctant to uproot my family just for a job, when there is no longer such a thing as a job for life; or when loyalty to a particular firm is no longer held in esteem by the employer or considered a good career move by the employee. So what has changed?

Salaries for a start. Back in the mid 80s I was earning about £9k as a shop manager. I bought a house in a town close to where I worked for just over £23k.
Today I'd be lucky to earn 20k (if that), while the same house will now fetch over £130k. My wife was able to stay at home with our children until she found an evening job waitressing. It was (just)possible to manage on one salary.
A man with a young family just can't make that kind of move anymore, without also finding a job for his partner.
Then there is the regional differences in house prices. Kettering is historically one of the cheaper parts of Northamptonshire. A similar size house as ours in say, Northampton would cost £50k more to buy. The further south, the more expensive. This means that I could not afford to relocate any closer to London or the South East, so that means that I have to stay put. If I lived in Stoke (one of the poorest places in the country) there would be now way that we could afford to move to a more expensive area when wages have not kept pace with property prices.
I'd love to live in Cornwall, but house prices are more than double what they are where we live, and salries are much lower.
People are no longer as mobile as they were because of the imbalance between salaries and house prices.
And I fear it will get much worse.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Temping today

No I'm not about to go back to temping.. It's just that I've had a couple of conversations recently that tell me I wouldn't be able to get a job even if I wanted to.

One of our clients is Polish. She works at a fruit & veg processing plant owned by a large retail chain. I recall working there a dozen or so years ago before it was bought by the current owners. At that time most of the staff were Portuguese and were bussed in from Peterborough every day. I mentioned this to my Polish friend and she confirmed that there were still a lot of Portuguese there, along with (I think) Somalis and the inevitable Polish. But no British staff.

I mentioned working at Gilson's Bakery. She had friends there. It was almost all Polish staffed now.

A few weeks ago I met a friend who used to run my Agency. He's now working in Wellingborough. Most of his workers when he was in Kettering were Polish. Once the workforce reaches a critical point where the majority speak Polish, it's not long before everyone must speak it in order to work there.

So I will have to consider learning Polish if I want to work in our local food production factories.

My Agency manager friend was very gloomy about the future. Apparently the EU have introduced a new law that takes effect next October, where temporary staff must be paid the same as permanent staff, with the same rights and benefits. The Law of Unintended Consequences will mean that temporary work agencies will close up, as firms will not hire short term staff at an extra 25% (at least)above what they pay for permanent staff. Another Unintended Consequence may well be that that all staff will become temporary (as in Spain).
The exact wording of the Regulations have still to be decided, but one thing is certain. It will be harder to employ temporary staff, and therefore, harder to find temporary work.