But it still comes as a shock when a career comes to an involuntary end, when the skills developed over many years are no longer needed. The imperative for new career paths suddenly comes not from an evolving awareness of the need for mobility, but from a forcible end to your current job, and your income.
This situation is faced by thousands of people every working day, and since December has been experienced by 250 people in my company. We have a skilled, enthusiastic and capable workforce, but are the victim of technological changes. When a single optical fibre the size of a human hair, which costs less than 2p per metre, can carry all the simultaneous phone conversations that take place in the UK, a severe restriction is placed on the demand for telephone cable, and rationalisation and plant closures become inevitable.
So our major task over the next two months is to help people find jobs. To bring some coherence into an area where many agencies have involvement, we arranged a meeting to discuss how best we could support our employees. Representatives came from Employment Services, the Benefits Agency, the outplacement agency we have employed, the training and enterprise council, the local authority, a Small Business support agency as well as Barking College, our local further education provider. The meeting was very capably chaired by our local MP, Judith Church, who provided a focus and pace to the meeting that contributed much to the successful outcome.
By the close of the meeting there were a number of interesting and useful specific outputs, but getting everyone together had brought its own benefit. All were directly involved on a daily basis in providing people with skills and employment opportunities, and yet it was, I believe, the first time they had met in a common forum to discuss how a specific problem could be tackled. We all learned something new from each other.
I was also surprised by the degree of overlap in what each agency could provide. The TEC, Small Business Centre, Employment Services, and college all offered access to training provision - and since then our major employee trades union, the TGWU, has also offered to provide training. From the college (which, in a way that I hope is typical of the sector, offered the most innovative proposals of all) and from the TGWU the training would be generic, leading to recognised qualifications. From the other agencies the training would be job-specific, targeted at identified opportunities. We are still trying to pull all of this together, but it seems that rather than having employees who do not know where to get training, our problem will be finding time for employees to take up all the training offered.
Individual advice and counselling are areas of overlap where working together made sense. Now, if an employee books a one-to-one counselling session to discuss career opportunities, the counsellor may be either from Employment Services or from our outplacement agency; the two are working alongside each other, providing the same quality of advice to all employees. Where that advice involves further education, they refer them to the Barking college counsellor, who is also available on site.
All the agencies wanted a definition of the existing skills of our employees. It turns out that our existing records are of little use. We know in detail what specific machines people are trained to run, but for new careers it is generic skills that are important. We don't have records showing an individual's competence at the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and information technology, and in a world of frequent job changes it is this information that the individual, and the employer, needs to record. But it seemed clear from the people at the meeting that there is no agreement on the common template that is really necessary for this to be useful and transferable. Some work to be done?
I finished the meeting with a feeling of optimism. Not only because it was clear that there are real jobs available, and people who are committed to helping our people find them, but also because of the willingness of the different agencies to work together. We increasingly hear about the need for partnerships, and here - in a small way - was evidence that they do work.
And were we successful? Will we find our people new jobs? Ask me in three months' time.
Jim Scrimshaw is chair of the Association of Colleges