In a pinstripe suit, silk tie and polished shoes, David Rowe has all the trappings of a successful London city worker, except for one stark difference — he is wearing a sandwich board that says “JOB WANTED.”
As he walked down Fleet Street, home to legal firms and investment banks, the 24-year-old history graduate showed the human face behind the “lay-offs” and “recession” headlines.
“The first 20 paces are the hardest, you feel very conspicuous, but you just steel yourself to get on with it,” he said, starting a slow trudge toward the Law Courts before turning toward St Paul’s Cathedral.
In previous economic downturns it was manufacturing and heavy industry that were worst hit. Now in Britain, and much of the West, white collar jobs have been culled in the financial crisis — marketing directors on six figure salaries, IT specialists with 20 years experience.
That makes it especially hard for young men and women like Rowe trying to start professional careers. For many the corporate ladder has been pulled away.
They are left with the prospect of low paid unskilled work, if they can find it, and large debts.
“I have debts of about 20,000 pounds ($32,400), and that’s not excessive compared with how much some students owe when they graduate,” Rowe told Reuters as he took a break from his one-man advertising campaign.
“My dad bet me I wouldn’t do this (walking with a sandwich board), that I wouldn’t have the guts.”
Rowe was facing a tough market even before the downturn. Britain has seen explosive growth in the number of university and college students, but there has not necessarily been a comparable rise in graduate-level jobs.
Twenty years ago about 17 percent of 18-30 year-olds were in tertiary education against a figure of 43 percent in 2008, according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. The Higher Education Statistics Agency said about 220,000 graduates joined the job market in the 2007-2008 period.
Add that mix to an economy in trouble and it makes uncomfortable reading for people like Rowe.
Latest figures from High Fliers Research Ltd, an independent market research company, found graduate vacancies at one hundred leading employers in 2009 had been cut by 28 percent against 2008 and more than 5,500 vacancies canceled or left unfilled.
Rowe is one jobseeker who is not downhearted. Just hours after he started wearing the sandwich board that offered his services free for a month with the option to then “hire or fire me” he struck lucky.
Gavin Walker of international recruitment firm Parkhouse Bell liked Rowe’s initiative and decided to interview him.
“I liked the fact he had thought out of the box. I was impressed by that. I was even more impressed after the interview. He’s very employable, so much so I offered him a job to work with me.”
Rowe, who has amassed a growing collection of business cards, says he will think carefully about the job offer.
“I told myself I’d do the sandwich board for five days and I will follow through on that.”
Editing by Louise Ireland