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Sophie Milliken

Sophie Milliken

Finding A Job In The ‘New Normal’

Sophie shares her insights and what drove her to pursue a career in graduate recruitment.

I don’t think anyone sets out to have a career in graduate recruitment if I’m honest. I didn’t even really know that it existed as a career until I sort of fell into it, and then I fell in love with it. The community of people who work in graduate recruitment is really fun, and I love working with universities and with students. I’d say graduate recruitment is the fun side of recruitment!
It’s also really rewarding to see the results we can produce — we run large scale assessment centre simulations for universities to put their students through, and to hear feedback from students about how the simulations raise their confidence and help them to get a job is so rewarding.

It’s quite an uncertain time for graduates who are job hunting at the moment, so what would be your top 3 tips for making an application stand out?

First thing is to actually apply. I think what’s going to happen right now is that there will be some students or graduates that think there’s no point, and actually, that’s not true. You need to be in the mindset of actually giving things a go in the first place, otherwise, you’ve got no chance.

The second thing would be that if you were looking at going into an industry which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, like aviation for example, then it’s important to recognise that now probably isn’t the best time to apply for that industry. Consider temporarily finding work in another industry which will equip you with useful transferable skills that you can later bring back to your dream industry when everything has settled down a bit more. It’s about being patient and identifying what skills are transferable and relevant.

My third tip would have to be related to networking. There are still jobs, and the graduate market tends to bounce back quite quickly, firstly because graduates are seen as good value, but also because what employers have realised in previous recessions is that if they freeze their graduate recruitment or cut it back too much, then it causes shortages a few years down the line. So my advice would be to sign up for all the graduate job websites that you can so that you get alerts for roles that you’re interested in, try and speak to people that work at companies you want to work for, follow them on LinkedIn, and be proactive in finding out what opportunities are available. Then, when you find a suitable role, go back to my first tip, and apply for it!

Your new book is called “The Ambition Accelerator”, and it’s about women and the job market. Do you think it’s been harder for you to get where you are because you’re a woman?

Yes, in some ways. When I was younger, I never perceived there to be any differences. I didn’t realise that sometimes women didn’t get paid as much as men, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought that I would have different career opportunities to a man. The point where it became clear to me was when I had my daughter. At that point, I realised it’s more about women who have children, rather than just women.

In certain industries, women have been known to have a tougher time, not just mothers, as the culture can be quite challenging, but overall I actually think it’s more of a mother penalty, at least I only really noticed it when I became a mother. You’re expected to be a brilliant partner, a fantastic mother and at the same time be amazing at work. A lot of women go back part-time or take time out, and then they struggle to stay where they were in terms of male peers or females that haven’t got kids. So I think that’s the challenge, unfortunately.

Initially, the book was just going to be the back story of my TEDx Talk, but over lockdown, I realised there was a brilliant opportunity to speak to other women while they had less going on in their lives. I interviewed 12 amazing women who I probably wouldn’t have had access to had things been normal, so I’m glad to have had that opportunity. So really, the book has gone from being this little idea about doing a back story to the TEDx Talk, to now covering all sorts of topics and challenges that women will experience and face in the career market.

I’ve got a topic on work-life balance, stuff about the importance of choosing a good person to be your romantic partner (if you choose to have one), all sorts of important topics about women in the workplace. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the book Lean In, said that the biggest career choice a woman will ever make is who her partner is. I read that when I was going through my divorce, and I thought, that’s actually really wise, because if you have someone that lifts you up and encourages you, then that will help you in your career, whereas if they tell you that you can’t do something, or if they try to distract you from your work, then they’ll have a negative effect on your career.

At the end of each chapter of the book I’ve got action points to take away with you and act on, and then I’ve got tips from the women that I’ve interviewed. I did most of the interviews by Zoom, so I’ve now got the video footage too, which I’m going to release as a podcast at the same time as the book comes out, which will be at the end of November.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

The greatest challenge I have had wasn’t a typical business challenge, but I would have to say childcare. It shouldn’t be a business challenge, but actually, because I’m a single mother, it is. I set up the business in September 2013 with a business partner, and 6 months later, I was getting divorced, and my daughter had just turned 2. It was a nightmare. I was juggling a new business and caring for a toddler. Money was tight because I’d just set up a business. So I’m trying to balance being a good mum, growing a business, sorting out problems with keeping my house as I was newly self-employed and going through a divorce all at once. It was really hard.

In terms of how I dealt with it, when I have tough times in my personal life, it encourages me to go harder into work. Work distracts me. If I’m working hard to grow a business that I’ll get some tangible return from, I can see the point of doing it. I was very honest with myself; I recognised that the next couple of years would be rubbish and that I wouldn’t be able to afford to do anything. It was rubbish, but I knew it was temporary. You have to have that belief in yourself that things will get better, because if you don’t, then things won’t get better. For 2 years things were really awful, and then they got better, they’re really good now. Despite everything that was going on, I never took a day off.

Off the back of that, what’s been the highest point of your career?

Last year was amazing! It was the dream business year. I sold the business to what is now CareerPass, which meant I could pay off my debts, and I got an amazing house, which is really big for me because it’s security for me and my daughter. On top of that, we won literally every business award we got entered for last year, which was so cool because nobody sees all the years of work that have gone into getting the award, but it represents so much hard graft. I also published my first book, which got loads of coverage within our industry press, and it was a bestseller in October! The business did triple what we did in the previous year, and we went into this year feeling really pumped, and then the pandemic interfered, but actually, we’re doing well this year too so I can’t complain.

What do you want to be known for?

I would like to see employability embedded in every degree in every university in the UK, because I feel like that levels the playing field for people who haven’t had as many opportunities as others. I’d also like to be known for having supported women in their careers, which is something I’d like to get a lot more involved within years to come.