No job is a waste of your time: the skills you learn along the way

In the 17(!) years I have been working I have had many, many jobs. For the purposes of this post, I will list them.

  • Avon lady
  • Weavers Café Saturday girl
  • Debenhams Sales Advisor
  • Debenhams Supervisor
  • WH Smith Sales Assistant
  • Libra/ Jenners Sales Assistant
  • Waitrose shelf stacker
  • University of Dundee jobs
    • IT Receptionist
    • IT Clerical Assistant
    • IT Communication and Information Assistant
    • Innovation Portal Marketing Assistant
    • Dundee Clinical Academic Track Administrative Co-ordinator
    • IT Communication & Information Officer
  • Time Lifestyle Boutique Founder & Director
  • Discovery Credit Union Marketing & Communication Officer
  • The Circle Facilities & Services Development Manager

Alongside the first half of this list, I accumulated qualifications: Standard Grades, Highers, Advanced Highers and an Honours Degree in Biological Sciences.

Let me start with the conclusion, that each of those experiences has shaped who I am today. I have experience, skills and knowledge that I use every day that I started accumulating a very long time ago.

Lesson: Qualifications do not always have a direct correlation with your job title

Many of the jobs I have had do not correspond with the level and type of qualifications I have. I spent a long time in retail and forged a career in marketing and communications without a single formal retail or marketing qualification. I have attended many training courses and benefited from the coaching of managers along the way.

Lesson: What makes sense when you’re 15, makes none at 22 and beyond

How does a degree in biological sciences fit in? Well, I liked science at school and was pretty good at getting an A grade in exams. I also enjoyed art and English but those subjects were never encouraged as areas you would actually pursue to get a ‘real job’. People who know me now will see more enthusiasm for the arts and English in me. It turns out that I wouldn’t pursue biological sciences either. I did enjoy my degree and the honours year in microbiology was fascinating for getting into the detail of the subject but it became clear I liked writing about science more than I enjoyed being in the lab and getting on with the experiments. In fact, labs tended to be rushed, claustrophobic and full of signs telling you what to do or what not to do and the ‘point’ of the experiment is something that came later in your own time when you had to make some kind of sense of the previous whirlwind of a three-hour lab.

Lesson: You get more out of a degree than directly applicable knowledge to your life-long career

First of all, it is highly unlikely that you will be in the same job, or even the same industry for the rest of your working career for those entering the workplace this millennium. The pace of change in business is fast. Industries will come and go a decade at a time. SMEs will provide more jobs than large corporations and these companies will grow, adapt, shrink and re-position many times over if they are to endure. Sometimes they won’t endure as I well know. Innovation is not sentimental and it is not forgiving.

So put aside any specific microbiology knowledge I once had. It’s useful for understanding the latest pandemic scare stories on the news. Sometimes it impresses my husband when we are watching ‘House’. Otherwise, I consider that university gave me the following.

  • Life-long friends from a diverse range of backgrounds I would never have otherwise come across. I cannot bear to think about not being placed in the flat next door to Becky Hearne. Becky attended a girl’s independent school in Oxfordshire which was quite different from my own education at Menzieshill High School in Dundee. Not better, not worse, but different. We would become best friends that would experience love, heartache, weddings, good jobs, bad jobs, parties, travelling, chores we never knew existed, illness, success, failure, culture and a madness for chai lattes. It’s at that point I realised that background determines nothing and where you are going is so much more exciting.
  • A quiet confidence that comes from leaving home, moving to a new city at 18 and figuring out the world on your own terms. Being able to walk into a room by yourself, when you know no-one else there and make small talk with a stranger is, I think, one of the greatest life skills. You don’t have to enjoy it, but you can take advantage of more opportunities if you can do it. Once you can do things by yourself, you have very little to fear.
  • The generic academic skills of writing, analysis, research, close reading, presenting, using software and working in teams are already well-documented elsewhere. Strategies to get the course book from the library, know which book will be most popular for the next essay, hedge your bets on which exam questions to practice and nudge team members not pulling their weight in a project are arguably just as important in a competitive workplace.
  • An introduction to that mirage we know as a work-life balance. Finding a compromise between study, part-time work, health and a social life is something that began for me the night I realised I couldn’t work, go to the cinema, finish a report and get an early night all at once.

These skills may well come along your journey in life without going to university but I would say that I had a crash course before I turned 22.

Sometimes I feel like I am accused of not living up to the promise of my formal education. No one has ever said it directly to me but I feel it. But that just feels so small, so narrow, so limiting. Education is not about putting yourself into a funnel. It’s about opening your eyes to how wide the opportunities in life can be and how you need every one of those skills you have gained along the way to grasp those and use them to make a good life for yourself; and to make a difference in the lives of others who have not been so fortunate.

Lesson: You will absolutely use what you learned in every job you have had in your current role

One of my geekier characteristics is my love of a puzzle book – it’s the scientist part of me. Especially when on holiday. Someone I met this week said they had never used algebra since the left school and they knew it was a waste of time learning it. Now I don’t think it will be much comfort to my former maths teacher, possibly the last man still teaching solely with a blackboard and chalk, but I used algebra to figure what a pen, tie clip, hipflask and wallet would cost in my coffee time teaser. You just never know when you will you need that skill.

I recently started a new job. In the month since I started working at The Circle, as the first and only member of staff, I have used skills and knowledge that were well cemented into the bottom of my brain. The Circle is a brand-new social enterprise. Working in a start-up is a bit like bring an octopus on wheels. You are thinking about everything from the three-year financials to urinal blocks. I knew the former existed but had no idea about the latter! It’s a good way to make financials seem appealing, though!

In the last few weeks I have been thinking about the Weavers Café while sorting out industrial tea and coffee supplies at the cash and carry; I have thought about my job at the medical school and managing £5m of Wellcome Trust grants while researching funders; and I have even thought about the challenge of getting the perfect number and positioning of wireless access points at the University library to get universal WiFi coverage. You CAN have too many WAPs, I reminded a supplier!

The business and marketing skills from the last few years are obviously more tangible but the speed at which we could get going with online forms, mailing lists, social media and networking I think will be helpful. Being able to travel at fairly short notice, meet people of various positions of seniority and greet every person that comes into the building and figure out what they need could easily have come from my time as an Avon lady, marketing assistant or selling newspapers at Waverley station.

So, what is this all about

While I have been settling in over the last few weeks, a few things have been whizzing about my head. Exam results season. Dundee’s Fairness Commission. Employability training. A Social Values Charter. I have also witnessed the Along Came Kirsty Young Champions project in operation in the office where I am working. I have thought about some of those young people and what their challenges are. We talk a lot about growing confidence with these young people. It’s something all the young people and to some extent, their student mentors talk about. Even talking on the phone in the workplace can be daunting for someone who has never done it.

I have struggled with confidence. It’s sometimes seen as a bad word – especially for women. But it’s arrogance that is a folly. Confidence is a great thing. It’s confidence that lets you take your talents and use them to make a difference in the world. Everyone has talents and a contribution to make. If you don’t believe me, get in touch, I’ve been there! It’s your duty to grow your confidence for yourself and for the others that benefit as a result. Especially children. I think, especially girls. So my point is this. Don’t let anyone tell you that what role you are doing is not important, is not valid and is a waste of your time. It’s part of you and your journey. Do it well, do it with confidence and you will be in a better position than those who never even bothered to try.

(Featured image: Becky and I cleaning lipstick from our living room carpet in second year after a Hallowe’en party. Life skills!)


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