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  • Simon Sakala

What I Did When I Couldn't Get A Job in London.

In September 1994 soon after our wedding, my life left for London to pursue her Masters Degree at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London. I had joined John Burrow and Partners, now Zulu Burrow Development Consultants, in Lusaka, Zambia

Andrew Smith Consulting Engineers, London 1994-5

, after graduating from the University of Zambia in 1993, so I had been working for about a year by that time. After six months of my wife’s being in London, I left my job with the blessings of the then Managing Director Mr. Graham Finch , a British, who gave me letter of recommendation with very generous words to take with me to help me get a job while in London. He also told me to contact him when I was ready to return to Zambia and assured me I would find my job waiting. I was going to be away for a year. Another British workmate, Mike Smith, lent me some money, interest free, to help me with the trip and asked me to return it in installments by depositing it into his savings account in a U.K. bank in London. Getting a visa was very difficult but I was absolutely determined to go. I finally got the visa before the British Embassy closed at around noon and my flight was at 2:00 pm that same day. A workmate surrendered her car and another workmate volunteered to drive me to the airport. While on the way, I realized I had left my passport in the flat I was living in. We drove back, picked it and eventually arrived at the airport just before the gate to the Aeroflot plane closed. I hadn’t even bought the ticket. “We are waiting for you Mr. Sakala”, was the greeting from the man at the check in counter. I bought the ticket right there and then, went in and they closed the get behind me. The journey was smooth and I didn’t have any problems of any sort when I arrived. I went to London with the goal of getting a job to give me some useful experience. So a few days after I arrived, I started searching in the phone directory for structural engineering firms of all sorts. I got the physical addresses and actually visited them to apply for work. I got turned down again and again. Some of the companies I visited where big names in the industry like Ove Arup. After being rejected many times, I decided I should just get any kind of work just to keep me busy and help me earn some money. So I tried applying for all sorts of jobs including working in stores and cleaning the streets among other things. The closest I got to success was being invited for an interview at the local government office only to be told that the post of cleaning the London streets that I had applied for had suddenly been cancelled. I was obviously disappointed. I kept searching and trying nevertheless. One day I suddenly out of the blue met someone I was with at the University of Zambia in the first year and had left under a scholarship to go and study in the U.K. We talked on the sidewalk about London and other things and he categorically told me “getting a professional job isn’t easy here.” “ You’re better off settling for being a laborer so that you can raise some money and maybe sponsor yourself to college.” I couldn’t agree more with him since I had had the experience of failing to get any job. It so happed one day when I was going to shop for some groceries that I noticed a sign saying “Andrew Smith Consulting Structural Engineers” just behind the bus stop shelter. I decided to pass by on my way back home, since it was a walking distance of about five minutes from the flat my wife and I were living in with other foreign students from all over the world. (One of the students was a Dutch architect married to a Japanese who I got in touch with again after many years here in Japan where he ran an architectural firm in Tokyo at that time) On my way back, I decided to ring the bell at Andrew Smith’s and ask if they had any job for a stranded Zambian who was waiting for his wife to finish school. I quickly thought that if I said that in the intercom, the voice from the inside would just tell me to go away because “there are no jobs here.” So I had to quickly think of another way of getting him to ask me to “come in.” I quickly thought of saying “I would like to make an inquiry at Andrew Smith Consulting Engineers,” upon realizing that it was a shared office with David Gisbson Architects at 131 Upper Street in Islington, north of London. The voice said, “ok come in,” and I heard the lock get unlocked. When I went up to the second or third floor (memory failing me) I was met by a fifty something tall, very friendly English man. He was obviously surprised when he saw me. I explained my mission and he said he was just a small firm comprising him and another engineer who came in part time. He also said he didn’t have much work I could do. I told him I was ready to work for him without pay so i could get some experience. He told me his work was mainly restoration work on old timber framed, stone and iron buildings, including houses bridges and barns. I said that sounded very interesting and I would love to work with him if he let me do it. And he did! The very surprising fact was that I had nothing other than my shopping in my hands. He didn’t ask for my C.V. (resume) but rather he just believed what I told him. I hadn’t even shown him the letter of recommendation from Mr. Finch. After about an hour of very friendly discussion in a small meeting room which I still vividly remember, I had a paid job and was actually working. My first job, at about 4 pm that day, was to paste pictures of buildings that he was working on that he had taken in a scrap book, very much like first grade arts and crafts lesson. At the end of the day, around 6:00 pm, he asked me if I could accompany him to east London for a design team meeting at an old church he was working on. I said I was very delighted to get the invitation. He asked if I could find my way there by train since he was going to cycle to the site and I said I would. The following day, we met at the site with the architect, the contractor and the client and he introduced me as “my assistant, Simon.” To cut the long story short, I worked with Andrew from May to December and after my wife completed her studies and returning to Zambia, I had to go back to work with him on various projects for four months from August to December. Andrew was an absolutely amazing boss. He trained me not only in the craft of restoration engineering but also in how to take personal responsibility for work. Before I knew it, I was doing projects from beginning to finish without him touching it. All he was doing was check and approve, even when I expected him to change things. In fact that summer, he went away on holiday for a whole month and left the office and projects in my hands and gave me a phone number to call him if I needed to.. I didn’t have to. And and the end of working with Andrew, our parting was very emotional. “ I found someone I could completely trust,” he told me. I couldn’t hold back my tears. The greatest lesson I learned was that rejection was a stepping stone to the ideal I was looking for. “No” means “try the next one.” The only way I could avoid rejection was to stop trying. And obviously, if I stopped trying, the chance of ever getting anything or anywhere was going to reduce to zero. The other lesson I learned was that it was and still is important for me to be clear about what I actually want and to be creative as well as flexible in my pursuit. For instance I had to find away to overcome all barriers in order to get my self in front of someone who actually helped me. And when I got in front of the person, I had to convincingly sell my skills and to remove all risk on his part by offering to serve him at no cost. Therefore, if you’re looking for a way to move forward you need to constantly build your skills base first and then look for people who need your skills and would be willing to pay you for them. I have had chats with a lot of young people recently who say that can’t do anything because they cannot get a job and have no capital to start a business. I always say that it’s probably not capital that they need. But rather there is something they want to do for which they need capital. I always suggest that they try to think about other ways of doing what they want to do even before they secure any capital. One way could be to do what I did. That is, offer their skills for free to someone who is doing what they want to do and use the opportunity to learn the craft. Business can be a very elusive undertaking. It looks several times easier that it actually is and the only way to know how much it takes is by participating in an existing one under an experienced mentor. Statistically, 99% of startups fail and no one wants to put money into something that is more likely to fail than it is to succeed. Therefore, presently find a way of engaging in activities that will build your profile. There’s a lot more to say but I’ll leave that for another time.

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