A Life Less Ordinary.
PA to VA - via 999.
I'm either mad or having a midlife crisis. Why else would I have given up a perfectly decent job, with a reasonable pension, ten minutes walk from my house, to take a significant pay cut and go to work shifts in the Ambulance 999 control centre?
My Mum thought I'd lost the plot. My life was a bit like living in EastEnders though, where everyone lives, works and socialises in Albert Square. I’d go to work in the morning, treading a familiar triangular path to the office sometimes the supermarket for a bit of variety and home again. It was all fine, but there had to be more to life.
The next twenty five years stretched out before me. I really didn’t want to say that I’d spent thirty plus years of my life sitting in the same office doing the same job, year after year (it was a college so everything was very cyclical). With no prospect of promotion or progression the only option was to get out.
I’d been contemplating the idea of starting my own VA business for a couple of years, but it was just an idea and I did nothing about it. I mean, who wants a full time admin job and then comes home in the evening to do more admin? I quite like admin but not that much. Clearly I hadn’t thought it through properly.
But I also had this burning desire to work at the Ambulance service with a view to becoming a Paramedic and once I’d passed my training I could run my part time VA business in my time off. It’s good to have a goal right?!
I laid the foundations for my VA business. I built a website and got a professional email address. I had some business cards and flyers printed and got a business phone. Excellent I thought – now I’m a proper VA! I genuinely believed that once my website was live people would start contacting me. I’d be found out by my day job employer and be exposed as a deserter. (In my parallel universe they’d beg me to stay, offer me a huge pay rise, (they wouldn't it was a sixth form college) which I’d refuse because although I was flattered they wanted me to stay - I needed to spread my wings).
Nothing happened. There was a deafening silence on all fronts. Mmm - maybe this needed a bit more action – some better SEO, a bit of networking – everyone says that’s the key.
But there was still the Ambulance service. I started searching for vacancies. The London Ambulance Service were looking for apprentice paramedics but the interviews were being held in Dublin, I know right, and there was a significant chance that you would be posted anywhere in London, not the part that was closest to you. Not entirely practical for someone living just outside the southern part of the M25. Imagine if I’d been posted in Mill Hill and then had to commute back to mid Surrey on Southern Rail after a 12 hour night shift. A rethink was in order. Eventually I saw an advert for 999 call centre handlers based nearer to me. You can become a paramedic (or an Emergency Care Support Worker) via this route. I went to the information day and it all seemed doable if not a little daunting, mainly due to the prospect of the MMI or multiple mini interview; which involved doing four different timed tasks as well as a group exercise and a panel interview. The training course itself would be full time with pass or fail assessments at the end. But it felt worthy and I wanted to do it.
I’d been in my current job for eleven years and lovely and convenient as it was the time had come for a change. So I gave two months notice (technically I only needed to give one), wrote my leaving speech and watched back to back episodes of Ambulance to put myself in the right frame of mind. My last day came, it was all a bit surreal, I gave my speech, people laughed at my jokes clapped at the end, and I said my goodbyes.
I had three weeks off before I was due to start. That was great, but my husband had invited friends from NZ to stay over Christmas. They were due the day after I left and they would leave the day before I started my new job.
There are four of us, five of them including two teenage boys. We only have one bathroom, so nine in a terrace house was going to be a bit cosy, possibly a little awkward and maybe a bit smelly. Four teenagers in the house – would our fridge be big enough? Where would everyone sleep? Did we have enough bed linen, plates, cutlery, chairs, loo roll…?
“Don’t worry,” my Aussie mate said, “Kiwi’s are great house guests”.
And she was right – they were great house guests. Despite the massive pile of extra shoes in the hallway you really wouldn’t have known they were there. It was very quiet when they’d gone and the house seemed massive.
My first day came on an uninspiring January morning. I met a diverse and truly lovely bunch of people on my training course and we all gelled immediately. We were a motley crew: A pub landlady, a funeral director, a prison officer, the obligatory TA guy and a retired police officer amongst others. It was hard work. I hadn’t sat any exams since my finals at Uni nearly thirty years ago. But I worked hard, did my homework, and got through the first round of assessments. I passed the second lot. Then we were in the control room taking live calls (my very first live call was a man who’d had a stroke). It was scary if you thought about it, so you didn’t dwell. The computer system guided you through and your mentor was on hand to help out with any difficult moments. But as the weeks went by I slowly came to realise that this wasn’t the ‘forever’ job I’d hoped it would be. I was really disappointed. My husband kept saying to give it a bit longer – so I kept giving it a bit longer but I was utterly out of my comfort zone. I know it wasn’t just me feeling uncomfortable. Everyone feels this way when they start. But I felt like a real impostor - I don’t know what it was, maybe I’d worked at the same place for too long previously, or it was too much of a change for my poor middle aged brain to cope with.
There is a whole melting pot of reasons why I decided to call it a day. I am sad that it didn’t work out because I genuinely wanted to help people; I wanted to be that calm reassuring voice on the phone when your world had fallen apart. On the one hand I’m glad that I tried it otherwise I’d probably still be sat in my little office wondering, but on the other I have the utmost respect for those people on my course who stuck it out and have made the grade. A tiny part of me wishes I’d had the balls to stick it out, but you just know when something’s not right.
I was voluntarily unemployed for the first time since I left Uni in 1992!! It wouldn’t have been quite so monumental had my husband not also chucked in his job of eighteen years in computer programming to pursue his interests in aviation. So there we both were, sitting in the home office at our computers making lame jokes about being on the dole. Fortunately for us we’re sensible with money, so there wasn’t going to be an issue for a few months. But what kind of message were we portraying to the children?
I applied online for a multitude of jobs to help make ends meet until my VA thing got going. Despite living in the digital age you’d be surprised by the number of organisations that don’t even acknowledge receipt of your application. I’ve possibly twenty outstanding applications just hanging about out there in the ether... I’ve come to the conclusion that jobs are made up by online agencies with the sole purpose of obtaining your details for marketing purposes.
One establishment I’d applied to directly not through an agency didn’t respond. After five weeks I enquired whether there was any news. The next day I received a 'thank you but no thank you' via email. The following day they changed their minds and called me inviting me for interview. But I’d decided I was definitely going to give the VA thing my best shot. Who needed another full time admin job whilst trying to set up an admin job on the side? Not me.
I applied for a freelance one day a week position with a wedding planner. She sounded a bit disorganised and I thought this would be a good starter. But when she phoned me at 7.45 on a Friday evening to discuss my experience I realised what I was probably letting myself in for. After another couple of latish evening phone calls she emailed to say she would let me know at the end of the selection process. She’s either still deciding or has neglected to let me know whether she made her selection.
I had an interview with a lovely couple who run a charity. I was invited to their large gated house set in a couple of acres of gardens (a mutual acquaintance informed me that this was a very rare occurrence – they normally meet prospective employees in coffee shops). However it transpired they weren’t really looking for an admin person, they wanted someone on the pastoral side of things and with respect they didn’t think I had the right experience. Fair enough – I don’t.
I almost applied for a job as PA to a ‘Rock Legend’. I’ve no idea who it was, but as I’m married to a former indie goth rock star myself I thought I’d got a pretty good idea about what I’d be letting myself in for. As interesting as it sounded it wasn’t being a VA though and I never applied. (As for the rock star husband I’m going to write a book about him one day.)
I applied online for virtual assistant opportunities that I saw advertised through online job agencies, for a ‘radio personality’, a translation company and a university. I never had an acknowledgement from the radio people. I applied twice to the translation company. On the second application a couple of months later I specifically asked that if they read the application please could I have an acknowledgement. Nothing. I applied to a university requiring a VA with experience of working in the education sector. Again, no acknowledgement. I applied for some part time admin posts and yep you guessed it...
Just in case you might be thinking I’m unemployable I did get call backs from the job agencies but not for jobs I’d applied for!!
By now I’d started attending networking events. I was nervous at the first one. It’s a bit like going to a party on your own in your office clothes and randomly attaching yourself to a group of strangers and small talking for England. The first time someone asked what I did and I said “I’m a Virtual Assistant” I thought they’d know I was lying. I mean, I am a VA but at that point I had no clients - so technically was I a VA?
I had no idea that networking was such a thing. It’s happening everywhere! I’ve been to some great networking and some not so great. The people I’ve met have been very welcoming and forthcoming with their advice. I genuinely feel that they want to see you succeed and that in the fullness of time I will reap what I sow.
I’ve got a couple of part time jobs to pay the bills and am doing a few bits and bobs for people as a VA. I’ve got a few slightly more meaty things in the pipeline which I hope will come to fruition and I now feel more focused about what I can offer and the direction I’d like to be going in.
It is difficult when you’re starting out – knowing what to do for the best, how much social media do you really need to do, is your SEO up to scratch, should you use Google Ads, should you write a business plan (no one’s read mine), do I need a business coach or a marketing person? Maybe I should just get a proper job.
But I'm enjoying it. I’m grateful for the part time jobs which mean I have the time and the drive to push my VA business forwards. I’ve really enjoyed connecting with other VA’s in my local area and online. They are a lovely bunch of (predominantly) ladies who are genuinely supportive and encouraging of each other. Linkedin isn't the mystery it first appeared to be and ultimately I think will turn out to be really useful.
No one has scoffed that I’m not busy to capacity already. “It takes at least a year to get known” most of them have said, which I find encouraging. Mixing with people who've been in the same boat spurs me on too. The fact that I'm not up and running before I can walk is teaching me to be patient and is giving me the chance to get all my systems properly in place and forge relationships with people.
I’m looking forward to the journey ahead.