Specialist Careers

Written by: Ben Gray

Often professionals in specialist careers who have come from a non housing background can bring new vigour to the sector. Trina Wallace investigates how easy it is to transfer skills developed in other working environments to housing jobs 

The housing sector offers a range of jobs you might never have thought of. From IT officers to graphic designers; street wardens to finance managers; housing organisations offer a wide scope of career choice. 

“Housing organisations are businesses like any other business, they need an infrastructure in place,” says Brian Savin, recruitment consultant at the Housing Corporation. “They need IT services, a finance department and a Human Resources (HR) department.  

“People who have a customer service background should be able to adapt their skills to work in the sector because housing organisations are mostly there to provide a service and to listen to customers.” 

Moving around

Having a specialist background often allows professionals to move from organisation to organisation and from sector to sector. Kay Taylor, HR manager at Housing Hartlepool, which employs 312 staff, manages 7,000 homes and specialises in providing homes for older people, started her career in the retail sector.  

She worked in various supervisory jobs before having the opportunity to train as a personnel manager. Whilst studying for a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification, Taylor worked for a housing organisation for three years and then took up a position in HR with the Police. In 2004, she started working for Housing Hartlepool where she heads up a team of five people. 

“I had practical experience of HR in a different sector completely when I first came into housing,” says Taylor. “The good thing about HR skills is that they are transferable. Housing organisations need to gear themselves up to attract more and more people with transferable skills into the sector.” 

Building on transferable skills

However, working in housing in a specialist role will require additional skills on top of ones gained in other jobs. Karen Lynch works as a helpdesk and PC support manager at Metropolitan Housing Partnership, which employs 1,600, manages 26,000 homes in London, the Midlands and East Anglia and specialises in supporting asylum seekers. She says her role requires strong people skills and the ability to remain calm under pressure. 

“You need techie skills but it's more about being customer focused,” says Lynch, 35. 

“The pressures of working in housing are very real because we are accountable for meeting the needs of our residents and service users as well as a variety of other business partners and key stakeholders. 

“Sometimes staff, who are working to tight deadlines or working with very vulnerable people, can get stressed and forget we're all on the same side. You just need to put yourself in their shoes, take a deep breath and get on with it.” 

Frustrations of public sector work

Having experience of working in a similar role in a different sector can help specialist housing workers maintain a sense of perspective. Neal Harper, 46, is a group ICT operations manager at the Hyde Group, which employs more than 800 people, manages 30,000 properties and specialises in providing supported housing. He says working in IT in the housing sector requires a lot of patience because professionals have to deal with the “frustrations” of public sector work, like lack of funding.  

However, Harper, who has 29 years' experience of working in IT, says having had many jobs in the private sector helps him cope with this. 

“I used to work for a major American software company and became disillusioned with how these types of organisations operate,” he says. “Working in many roles in the private sector meant I had been exposed to different stressful professional environments. It has given me the ability to remain calm in my current role when I'm asked to deliver 50 projects with only enough resources for 25!” 

Showing commitment

Often, experience in another sector and a willingness to learn will be enough to help people from specialist careers transfer into a different role when they move into housing.  

Judith Ritchie, housing course leader at the University of the West of England, says she taught a student who had given up a high-powered job in marketing to pursue a housing career. “She did the full-time housing studies degree and got a first,” says Ritchie. “Her first job in housing was assistant director of a housing association because she had the experience and had shown her commitment to moving sector.” 

Similarly, Richard Helder, director of social housing at Hays recruitment agency, says he placed a client, who had 10 years' experience working at the Ministry of Defence, in a housing association job as a tenant liaison worker. “He was perfect for the role because his background was in anti-social behaviour,” says Gelder.  

Communications work 

Even if specialist professionals move into the same role in housing that they had in a different sector, they may find that the working ethos is very different. Clare Noonan, 27, works as a communications officer in the public relations department of Metropolitan Housing Partnership. Noonan, who has a degree in media and cultural studies, admits PR can be a shallow profession elsewhere. 

“PR can be a maligned industry, so I enjoy being able to promote something I really believe in and to work for an organisation with values I can really support,” she says.  

After working in various marketing roles at the National Blood Service, Noonan decided to move into housing because she was looking for a new challenge and the opportunity to take on more responsibility. She says a good social housing public relations specialist needs to be enthusiastic and able to convey to a journalist how interesting and important their organisation's work is to society.  

“I had no direct social housing experience, but transferable skills gained from working for a non-profit organisation before were really important in getting my job,” she says. “It also helped that I had previous experience in marketing, as well as PR, because this has helped me to fit into a communications team with a wide remit.” 

Professionals with business acumen

As housing organisations continue to develop, they will need more people working in specialist roles, who have gained experience in other sectors, to help them grow.  

Cath Boswell, senior lecturer in housing studies at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff, says that in the future the sector will be looking for a range of professionals with “business acumen”. “Housing organisaitons will eventually be run more like businesses so it will help if their employees have experience of working in different environments,” she says.  

“It's an exciting time to move into a housing career and if you're dynamic you'll do well. But if you want a comfy little job that isn't going to change, it might not be for you.”  

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