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Monday, 11 August 2008

Working Nine to Five

My wife works from home. In January she decided that she’d had more than enough of working for the cultural sector of this great city of ours. She could put up with the singular lack of managerial nous in her organisation, and the near zero pay rises. But combined with the soul crushing commute from Walthamstow to South West London – she had had enough.

Since February she and a friend have been running a business from home. The contrast couldn’t be any greater. When she was a wage slave she would arrive home at about 7 -7:30 pm, grey faced, tense, exhausted and often angry. The journey home on packed, stiflingly hot trains – often severely delayed was the hellish end to an often unsatisfying day in the office. Now, the tension has dropped away, colour has returned to her cheeks and the house reverberates to her laughter.

It’s not easy working for yourself; and maybe beginning at the start of the most serious economic downturn this country has seen for years was a real gamble. But the difference being in control of more of your day is well worth it. For her especially being able to determine what she does and how she works during the day has made a huge difference. And the years have dropped off her. As she said to me this morning – she’s the woman I married 14 years ago.

Much of the local large employment sites in Walthamstow have gone. The few jobs there are are in retail and catering – usually low skilled with low pay. The local council employs a significant number but the majority of us work outside the borough – in the City and the surrounding areas or Whitehall and the West End. For many of us the day begins with that uncomfortable tube journey and ends in tension, and frustration.

The Council recognises this and seeks in its long term plans to encourage and “re-invigorate” substantial local businesses. But the reality is somewhat different. Large businesses have moved out or folded, business parks stand half empty or filled with distribution or service businesses. Empty industrial sites are sold off for housing development. There is little in the way of cutting edge technologies moving into the area. This is not surprising given the poor educational and skill levels in the borough. Something which the council also seeks to address.

Small firms can help but in many cases they are creative, media based requiring specific skills and training. Other small businesses exist in the trades, but with people feeling the pinch work is becoming harder to come by and the opportunities for growth and employing more people are limited.

It’s not possible, or desirable, to return to the days of large factories employing hundreds of people from the surrounding local area, mopping up the pools of unskilled labour. Although a strong local employment base – be it engineering, science or the creative industries can have a transforming effect on an area. Schools compete to provide their pupils with the skills to serve the industries, other businesses compete to supply services and quality shops and services come into the area to benefit from the wealth generated.

But it’s a chicken and egg problem. Do you/can you attract those high value businesses to Walthamstow and as a result drive up school performances or do you get the schools producing the students with the skills and abilities that are demanded by those businesses?

I should like to see some risk taking. For example, the Council taking the lead in attracting a small but significant high value business into the area and linking that business with a local school whose syllabus was tilted towards that business’s speciality. Also, space and resources for small satellite firms to be established to service the business. At least this is a possibility which might be explored.

Who knows, Waltham Forest might revive its pioneering days in the film and motor industries. And my wife could find herself supplying beading work for a local haute couture fashion house to rival Paris and Rome.

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