David Tyoember, a besuited chemistry undergrad, stands outside a London Tube station with a placard looking for a job. It’s not the first time it’s been done, but it still takes gumption.
Robert Toffel, a veteran investor was exiting the station, took a photo and David’s CV, and with his permission shared it on Linkedin. His story went viral. David has since been inundated with job offers, and today following press interest is on Sky News. The future looks bright.
Last year 22-year-old Mohamed Elbarkey, also suited, graduated with 2:1 in Aerospace Engineering from Southampton University. He was outside Canary Wharf with a sign. His message contoured to the struggle he’d endured: “Came as a refugee, just graduated from UCL in Rocket science”. What’s not to love about this story?
Last year too Reggie Nelson, (below) fascinated by the lifestyle and the homes of people he saw as successful decided to knock on every single door and ask what they did to make it. It paid off.
In all three cases success was a derring-do away. How far would you go and what would you do to get that job? The three mentioned here and undoubtedly there are more found themselves trapped by the imperfections within conventional job hunting, and perhaps even more frustrated by what they could do to find a job in the competitive market.
Then they got creative and it worked. Why? You could seek a myriad reasons. Whilst the three examples don’t by any means exemplify the spectrum of extents to which a young person would go to find a job, it says something about character, confidence and resilience, but that doesn’t seem enough.
During a visit to a publisher in central London, seven Masters students are entertained by an editor of a well-known woman’s magazine. She, the editor, expresses an admiration for creativity. As we wrap up and leave one of the student asks me: “David, I’ve brought my CV with me, should I give it to her?” Earlier that week I had told the students how in pursuit of a job I would carry a CV in my breast pocket and dole them out, even, at night clubs where I knew lots of TV people went. The student did, and after her work experience was kept on.
Industry conventionalises the accepted method and approach when it comes to job searches through HR. However, it remains an imperfect system. HR, faced with stacks of applicants, has specific criteria to glean. A well-polished and presented CV is a requisite, but there are nuances that shape decisions. A lack of connections to the potential job, or your surnamealone, as BBC discovered, puts candidates from ethnic backgrounds at a disadvantage.
BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan asked the question in an insightful BBC documentary “How to break into the Elites: Why are working class kids passed over for top jobs?” Lack of networks, contacts, confidence, their mannerism, dress sense and the dynamics of an unwritten game said one of Rajan’s interviewees. A sort of finishing school is required.
When a student of mine found herself being invited to an industry dinner at a media festival, I couldn’t have been more happy for her. Take lots of CVs and cards. You’re about to face a captive audience for two hours. At Bafta, a young black woman struck up the courage to ask the star documentary maker Neil Crombie, who produces Grayson Perry, how she could get her doc on TV. “Great,” I said to her afterwards when Crombie publicily offered to put her in touch with Channel 4. “But also ask if he can email or ring through the introduction and if he wouldn’t mind a meet up to mentor you”.
Job searching can be soul-destroying, but Tyoember shows that if “you dare, you increase the odds of winning”, which made me reflect on my journey back in 1988 and which continued into the ’90s. I studied Applied Chemistry, like Tyoember, but for neither love or money afterwards could I find a job. I had one interview for a chemical company and I was wearing an ill-fitted suit. That did not go well.
I desperately wanted to work in media. A clever decision, truly not, but that’s where my heart was. The rejection letters poured in. I had enough to plaster two walls, which I did. Sometimes the replies were kind, others pointed to flaws that they made you feel were the size of golfball boils on your face. I quietly knew I could work on a couple of things. “You know you have an African accent, and your intonation…” someone told me, which essentially meant ‘If you’re planning a broadcast career in the UK, forget it’. I tried out for the African service and got rejected.
There comes a point when you have nothing — absolutely no more — to lose. Your dignity has itself been shot but you cling to it as the facade of your being. One thing I was always aware of; I liked people. I was personable and could hold a conversation when I needed.
Then I did two things that changed my fortune. Firstly, I wrote a courteous but firm letter to the BBC requesting to know why I was always overlooked. They, after several weeks, responded and called me for an interview. Except it wasn’t an ordinary interview. Several BBC executives would interview me, as they were being observed to find out what I was doing wrong or whether they were missing something.
Some months later, I was called to an interview for a job I applied for. The post was as a researcher on Newsnight — the BBC’s flagship news programme. I got the job. I talked about my letter and BBC experience. The immense joy of that however was tempered by it being a contract and months later I was out of a job and couldn’t find another one. It’s wrenching when you’re in that despairing state.
I don’t think I’d ever contemplated standing outside a station, or knocking on doors, but I had an idea. Where was the biggest and most challenging story in the world at that moment? Amongst a small number you could include was South Africa (SA). How far would I go to get a job? Would I go to South Africa? I didn’t know anyone there and couldn’t afford the fare.
Then, I found someone in the newspapers and wrote to him. He wrote back. My friends warned me about fraternising with Afrikaners (whose politicians drove apartheid). It was as if all Afrikaners were the same, which was ridiculous, but I had nothing more to lose. A recession in 1991 was beginning to bite in Britain. I then wrote a letter to British Airways explaining what I wanted to do. They wrote back. One of its senior UK marketers met me in a pub in Brixton, South London. We had a pint and he gave me guilt-free tickets to go to SA. When I got to the country, South Africa airways matched British Airways’ hospitality with unlimited travel around the country.
I would come back to the UK for some months and then return for almost two years. On the ground, broadcasters who would not even reply to my letters were now asking me to produce some broadcasts. In 1994, on Mandela’s inauguration, I wrapped up one of my last reports.
I had survived some tricky moments, become a bit more wise and learned more about a place and people I’d only previously read about from afar. But I also learned lessons about myself. This proved to be a turning point. Challenges would surface again and again but the experience of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem ‘Come to the edge’ had empowered me.
I’ll be adding David’s story to my lectures when I talk to students about job searches: How far would you go to get that job? What would you give? No one owes you. It’s not personal. Finesse the CV. And you can’t win it if you’re not in it. People will chuckle, some might smile, some may even bellyache laugh, but it’s about you and what you want. Few things come easy. No one gets there without sacrifice. You can be the best in the world but you need to come into the light from behind the bushel. Give and you’ll get back.
And if that all sounds too far fetched then there’s always the value of a sense of humour. Up for an interview with a large exporter, my friend Sandra summoned the courage, despite loads of rejections, to apply for the Comms job. Her favourite suit and heels were readied.
Upon entering the interview room, with the chief executive, personnel and operations manager seated, she momentarily baulked. Her confidence gave way and so did her step. Her three-inch heels became entangled in the carpet, snapped and she was sent flying across the room — splayed out inelegantly in front of the panel. She recalls she stayed on the floor for a beat, stood up calmly, looked back at her heels and then at the panel and dryly said: “Well I’ve made a right old heel of that, haven’t I ?”
The panel were in tears of laughter and admiration. She got the job.
Be yourself and never forget the gifts you have, even when times are hard.