Q&A with Nic Paton

Complete Career Makeover book coverIn February 2010, Nic Paton offered Mumsnetters help and advice on making a career change to help promote his new book, The Complete Career Makeover.

Nic is an award-winning journalist who has been freelance for the past nine. He writes predominantly on business, employment, education, money and health, for titles such as The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday, The Independent and The Sunday Times, as well as a range of professional. trade and business-to-business publications and websites.

He works from home in Barnstaple, north Devon. He is the father of three girls aged 12, 10 and 7 and is also studying part-time for an MA at Exeter University.

Changing direction | Self-employment | Starting out | Self-audit | Killer idea |Motivation | Re-training | Going back to work

 

Changing direction

Q. ChristianaTheSeventh: I am currently a SAHM, but looking for a part-time job. I have a degree in philosophy and worked in the City for six years, before moving abroad and now back. I am a chartered financial analyst. My passion is food. I love reading about food, I love cooking for people, I love thinking about food. I am a really good cook... But how can I turn my passion into something useful, that I can do from home/ do part time? I need something that pays the childcare bills and also I can't work unsociable hours. Any ideas?

How do you 'start again' with a new career whilst affording childcare? If I were to go back to City work that would easily pay my bills, but not at an 'entry level' position in the food industry. I have a business idea that involves food but without any experience. I am not sure how I might approach banks for funding. Do you believe that passion for what one does leads to success? Or is that only in the most creative industries?

A. NicPaton: What's coming through clearly to me, first, is that going back into the City doesn't sound like what you want. Yes, the money may be good but it doesn't sound to me like the thought of returning to what you were doing before is exactly firing you up. So it may be you're right and what you need is a complete change of direction. It's great you've identified cooking/food as an option, as deciding what it is you want to do next – what I call in the book the "what do I want to be when I grow up" question – can be one of the hardest initial parts of changing career.

But I would sound a few notes of caution, some of which, in a way, you've identified yourself in your post. At the moment cooking is your hobby, that's all, it's not a job and definitely not yet a new career. You may well be able to turn it into that but you need to think it through carefully, logically and dispassionately. Do you enjoy it precisely because it's an escape, something that gets you away from the "day job" and, if so, will turning it into the day job mean it loses what you enjoy about it? It may well be that you end up loving every minute of it but you need to think about this before taking the plunge.

Second, there's a big difference between making a few pounds here and there from a hobby and doing it well enough, or substantially enough, to turn it into a living wage, if that's what you're going to need.

Third, if you're going to become a professional cook or caterer in some shape or form, perhaps as a business as you touch on, are you going need to get some proper qualifications first? Catering and hospitality are areas where it is possible to learn on the job and thrive without proper qualifications but are the skills you've got good enough to do more than just get you by? That then of course leads on to all sorts of further questions about what sort or level of qualification you might need, where and how to get it and how to carve out the time to do it.

Ultimately, only you can answer these but, if you haven't already done so, it might make sense to try and speak to some people who already do this – perhaps if you know anyone in a catering or events firm, someone who perhaps runs private catering courses or your local FE college about what sorts of qualifications people generally look for or expect.

You got your initial job in the City by getting qualified and getting experienced, this will be no different. Another factor, of course, you may need to consider is that catering/cooking can be highly unsociable in terms of hours, though if your aim is to do it as a business or self-employed it should in time (though probably not at the beginning) become more flexible. Then there may, too, be an issue of what sort of financial investment can you afford, whether course or college fees or perhaps in terms of proper, professional kitchen kit? So there's lots to consider.

However, there are also a number of positives that I think you can potentially latch on to. First, you've already from the sound of it got a good business idea, you probably have good contacts in the City (who might be able or happy to advise or even back your idea?) and, I should hope with your background, you have a good "business head" for all the financial, tax stuff and so on. It may be that some sort of business qualification will make you feel more confident about that side of it, but with your background it may not be necessary. Again, only you can judge that.

If you're starting out in business you're of course going to have to do a lot of market research, financial and business planning to make sure it's a credible, viable business idea. We hear a lot about banks failing to fund small businesses – and many do complain bitterly – but when it comes to approaching the banks, as long as your business plan is realistic (and in this climate even downplaying projections can be a good idea) and as clear and comprehensive as possible you're likely to get at least a good hearing. But you need to have done a lot of leg-work and research before you get to that point. The book covers things such as the sorts of questions/reality checks you need to ask yourself beforehand, market research, writing a business plan and approaching banks.

To me, ultimately, it sounds like – money and childcare notwithstanding (and what you can afford to spend or, just as importantly, afford to lose financially or in terms of time are factors you do need to consider carefully) – this is something you probably need to do simply because if you don't do it and opt for a return to the City instead you'll I suspect may regret it and spend years wondering "what if". But you may have to accept it's not likely to be a quick or easy answer, may well be a hard slog and may not make you pots of money initially.

On the other hand, get it right and you will be in control of the rest of your life. You may be working some unsociable hours (but kids get used to and accept that's how it is) and completely exhausted and stressed half the time and you may be more exposed financially but you'll be doing something you feel passionate about and, yes, passion does often lead to success. In fact to be successful in business, or indeed in changing career, positively requires you to be absolutely passionate about it, as well as stubborn and single-minded.

Q. snickersnack: Do you think that a successful career change can be driven by 'push' as well as by 'pull' factors? I have an interesting and well-paid job but find it hard to combine it with the demands of a young family, and am therefore considering a career change. However, because I do actually like my current job and don't have a burning passion for anything else, I find it hard to know what my next step should be. I've always assumed that career changes work best when you have a clear idea of what you want (rather than what you don't want) but would be interested to hear your views.

A. NicPaton: Yes, a career change definitely can be driven by push – just ask all the people over the past 18 months who have lost their jobs and found career change 'pushed' upon them. In an ideal world, of course, we'd always have our next steps carefully plotted out before we took them, but things generally don't work like that. It's probably a minority of us who know exactly what it is we want to do with ourselves throughout our lives and for most of us career progression tends to be much more chance-led and haphazard, a question of taking opportunities as they arise rather than having some big game-plan to work to.

My worry with what you say, however, is whether what you need is really a change of career at all? You call your job "interesting and well-paid" and confess to enjoying it so I would really be very cautious about giving that up and for some unknown and as yet unthought-through "other".

The one thing that became really clear to me while writing the book and speaking to lots of career changers is how hard it is to do. Changing direction and starting again is not something to be done lightly. And, unfortunately, without some clear idea of what you want your ultimate destination to be, the risk is you spend a lot of time and effort getting somewhere only marginally better or, worse, worse (as it were).

So what it sounds to me like you need to be doing is evaluating your job rather than your career. OK, the hours aren't working for you, so what are the options? Is there the option of doing the same job more flexibly – job-sharing, flexi-time etc etc – or will it simply consign you to a career slow-track hell (and will that matter)?

Could you do the same sort of work in a different way, perhaps through freelancing or contracting? If your industry uses freelancers it can be an option that can give you more flexibility and control around when, how and where you work but, of course, is also more precarious financially. I'm freelance myself and it can be a great life and a great way to make a living but it's not for everyone and can take some getting used to – again there's a chapter on making this transition in the book.

Alternatively, are there specific elements of your work that you enjoy more than others – and which are perhaps less intensive in terms of office hours – that you could gradually shift over to, though again you may need to consider the longer term career ramifications of this? As I suspect pretty much everyone on this site knows only too well, there's no easy answers when it comes to juggling home and work demands. But what I would caution against is slogging your way into a new career for negative reasons. You've got to really, really want it. So, in a rather long-winded way, I'd argue that yes career change can be driven by push but I think it needs to have some pull in it too.

Q. TopoftheMorning: I can't seem to think through how to move on to a new / better / different career. ie knowing where to start in terms of identifying a likely career that would be: enjoyable, doable and flexible.

In terms of my own background, having spent the past 14 years working in management roles in a fairly specialist industry (but which does not require professional accreditation/ qualifications), I would love to find something different, more vocational, active or even intellectual. There are lots of things I like doing casually but nothing I could identify as an amazing talent that I know I could develop. I am, in short, a generalist. Lots of common sense, articulate, able to write well (if not dazzlingly), educated and good at communicating. But I have no professional qualifications, just a good general degree.

I think some of the struggle about identifying a new career comes because not only might there be training involved but there is then also either very low-level entry (so money becomes an issue when you're a single parent with children to support alone) or because sometimes an ideal-seeming career is several steps away - eg, get more qualifications, get job in related industry to get experience, then try to move into preferred sector. Any advice you can offer on just how to get started would be wonderful, thank you.

A. NicPaton: The key I think is to try not to get swamped by the "why nots" and focus (and I'm not sure this really works spelt out online but there we go) on the "why not?" instead! You're also right that a lot of the scariness about career changing is the seeming immensity of it all – you're going to have to start back at career year dot, on no money or give up what you've achieved to spend years slogging to get back to the sort of level you were in something else, and so on. And, yes, no one said career changing was going to be easy.

What came through to me from all the people I spoke to for the book was how determined and focused you need to be to dig your heels in, come to a stop and step out in a new direction. It can be done but those around you, your family and friends are all going to have to "buy into" it and help you along the way as best they can.

But a few hopefully more optimistic notes if I may as well. First, however much you may feel you have to step back and start again, you do need to recognise you're not going to be stepping back all the way and starting back from where you were when you left school or college. Just the fact you've held down a relatively high-powered job, turned up on time, dressed the part, managed people and so on all count for something. It's true you may be starting with much more of a blank sheet but there is now a floor below which your experience or CV or whatever cannot go. Also, being a generalist and having lots of solid, general skills will always be something valued by employers.

What you need to be deciding is how you are going to channel all those valuable skills and experience you have, what is it that is going to make look you forward to going to work in the morning (OK that might be starting to become a bit like a coffee advert but I think you know what I mean). So think about working environments, ways of working, how you'd like to work as much as specific careers and then start on working out how to fill in the gaps or get there. Hope that helps.

Q. notnowdarling: I'm just after a bit of feedback on an idea I've got for a career change (and would welcome feedback from others, too). Thinking about coaching, specialising in women returning to work. Am currently training as a coach, and applying it within the organisation I work in, but wondering what the market would be like for doing this part time. Ladies, would you pay for this kind of coaching (obviously it was good)?

A. NicPaton: You're asking exactly the right question: is there a market for this? So in a way there's not a huge amount for me to add. It might, too, be worth asking people whether their employer would pay for this, whether your employer would pay for it on a freelance basis, what sort of work they would be more likely to pay for and to try and get a sense of the sorts of rates people around you charge for this sort of work so that you're not under-selling or over-selling yourself. Also, what other side-lines might it lead into that you could start to develop as a secondary income, just in case and, as I've said elsewhere, is there a particular niche or USP that you might be able to offer potential clients?

Q. TheHouseofMirth: I'm currently a SAHM and would be looking to return to some form of paid work in about three years when DS2 starts school. I drifted into my previous job (worked my way up through the same company from leaving university until I had my first son) doing an admin/marketing role. I don't miss it at all! I guess I've got three years to train to do something I'd like to, trouble is I've got no idea what. I'm 40 and still don't know what I want to do when I grow up!

I'm (finally) starting to be at bit more self-aware and now realise I'm really good at finding stuff out (apart from how to find a new career), I have lots of ideas but rarely see them through and having enjoyed the relative freedom of being a SAHM for five years I think I'd enjoy working for myself. Ideally, I'd like to do something where I can earn a high hourly rate but only work 15-20 hours a week.

How do I work out what I'd enjoy/be good at? There seems like a bewildering array of books around but are any of them any good? Money is very scarce but I'd happily save up and pay to get some professional advice if I thought it would actually provide concrete help...

A. NicPaton: Can I get that hourly rate and working week too, please?! Seriously, you've actually already made two of the key decisions: that you want to work for yourself and part time. So that's two big steps out of the way. In many respects a self-audit is little different from "what I'd enjoy/be good at" and "what do I want to be when I grow up", so that's exactly what you need to be asking yourself – if necessary just jot it down on a piece of paper, then do it again focusing it down and then again and so on.

You could of course use a careers coach, which can be good in that they will be able to take a cold, dispassionate look at you, your skills, what fires you up and so on, as well as do some practical work over your CV, retraining issues, applications and so on. But yes, they do cost money – which can, of course, be money well spent - but is something to consider. Also it's worth looking to check that they are accredited with the Association of Career Firms - a good port of call (and they may too be able to point you in the right direction of who is in your local area).

But, to be honest, do you really need someone to tell you this stuff? And, yes, a few self-help books might, well, help (and no prizes for guessing which one I'd recommend). But it also depends what you want, there are a lot of books that go the touchy-feely motivational, "inner strength" route, others that will be more practical and others again will be very detailed and specific, such as, say, on the nuts and bolts of running a limited company and so on.

There is also a lot of information available online with, and I suppose I would say this, The Guardian's careers website http://careers.guardian.co.uk/ offering some good general resources as well as a lot of graduate recruitment sites such as Prospects. Finally whatever business or self-employment idea you have doesn't have to be the next Virgin or Amstrad, it just has to be something you'd like to do and which people are prepared to pay for. So think initially about the sorts of ways you'd like to work rather than specific careers, whether from home, outside, over the internet, making or supplying stuff and so on, then think about hobbies or interests or things you could imagine yourself doing (however apparently unattainable) and what you (and therefore others) might be prepared to buy from someone like you.

Q. GrendelsMum: Thanks for coming on here after we made such a horrible mess of your Amazon "people who look at this book also look at this" ratings. I tried to help your wife fix it by looking at intellectual stuff, honest!

My question's pretty much the same as lots of other people on here. I'm mid-30s, and am categorically fed up with the job I currently do (project and change management in the public sector ) and would like to retrain as a gardener / garden designer / garden advisor. Ultimately, I see myself running a garden design consultancy, but after a few years of training and experience in the sector.

Do you have any tips yourself, or recommendations on books for how to build up your own consultancy, what clients would look for, etc? I'm thinking that if I start preparing now, I'll be ready to take off with my consultancy by the time I hit 40!

A. NicPaton: To be honest, you've pretty much answered this yourself, I'd say! You've identified very clearly what you want to be, so your first question probably needs to be what sort of qualifications do people who run garden design consultancies tend to have? I'm assuming Royal Horticultural Society or something like that, but it may be that there's some variation there so it'd be worth simply speaking to people already in the industry – and the RHS is probably as good a place to start as any – about what's expected, what clients will assume you'll already have in place before you make the leap etc.

Then, too, are there courses that include, as many should, a business element/self-employment within them, so you can start to get a feel for the financial, marketing, promotional side of things and so on? Are there, as well, any consultancies that might be happy to mentor you, either alongside or as part of a course?

Much as with going freelance, are there people or organisations – right now – that, if you had the right qualifications and infrastructure in place, you reckon you could go to and speak to about getting work? It might be friends or neighbours, organisations you have worked with in the past or just places you admire or identify with.

Are there, too, any public sector firms that you know who have maybe been clients or that you simply know of? And what sort of work might you do or what might be your particular niche that will help you to stand out from the crowd? It might not make any difference at this point to the reality of picking up contracts but it's starting to get into that restless, opportunistic, entrepreneurial mindset that you're likely to need to cultivate (if you pardon the pun).

As well, it'll probably be worth having a think about: what you can afford to invest yourself in setting up a consultancy; what assets you might be able to offer as collateral to a bank (and if it's the house are you really prepared to take that risk); what sort of loan you'd be able to service (and that really – as we've seen over the past 18 months or so – is the much more important question than what size of loan can I get); and what, if it came to it, you'd be prepared to lose?

As an aside, a couple of posts earlier on asked about franchises and franchising. There are quite a number of gardening-based franchises out there, again www.whichfranchise.com has a good section on these. But do please bear in mind the same cautionary notes I sounded earlier on about franchising being an unregulated industry.

Q. worcestersauce: I love writing - and not my rather dull, responsible job at the local council! But with my youngest child due to start school in a few months, I will finally have some time to try and change direction. Writing is something which I've always been complimented on, and which comes naturally to me. In my current job I write reports, but find this extremely dull and would love to put my skill to something more creative and exciting. I have some ideas, which I'd be really grateful for your feedback on.

I've wondered about feature writing or copy writing - focusing on my interests (food, clothes, home interiors, family life, motherhood, life events etc). I have experience at structuring articles, press releases and so, and am good at getting my message across. I've thought about sending in draft articles to magazines? As for copy writing - I'm really unsure how to approach this line of work?

The other idea is editing, which again I haven't a clue how I would approach. I recently did a creative writing night class as a first step to my 'master plan' - any tips on how to take things further would be really useful.

A. NicPaton: As you've probably gathered from the previous posts, I'm a freelance writer/journalist so, apart from the extra competition, I'd heartily recommend the life if you can make it work! Having done a creative writing course is good – I'd love to do one myself one day – but probably not something to stress while trying to sell proper journalism, whatever the wider public perception of journalists may be!

As to how to break into it, short answer is I'm afraid there is no easy way. Now, to be honest, is not a good time to be breaking into journalism in any shape or form – budgets are still being seriously squeezed by the recession (short-term) and the internet (long-term), meaning there is less commissioning, more writing being done by in-house teams and editors are more inclined to rely on their (probably small) trusted circle of specialists.

The other possible worry I'd have is that all the areas you mention are hugely difficult to break into even by journalism's standards, as everyone thinks they can do it when in fact writing good, interesting, quirky copy on food, clothes, interiors, family life, motherhood and life events that hasn't already been done hundreds of times before is fiendishly difficult.

Having said that, if you persevere, take none of it personally and develop a thick skin it can be made to work! On a practical note, I would recommend never to send in a speculative article. I've never yet come across an editor who would admit to taking an article in that way. Editors normally have a very clear idea of what they want on a page and will commission to a brief, so the very best case scenario is that you will get a kindly editor who has taken the time to read your article coming back and saying can you completely rewrite it for them in way x, y, or z! I never put finger to keyboard until I have been commissioned; I write to order.

Which brings us neatly to the feature pitch! What you need to be doing is working out a) what your target publications are, the sorts of features they write, the tone and colour of them etc and b) who you need to be approaching for your particular area or section on the paper. Either it'll list the section editors in the magazine or you can always ring up the switchboard and ask who edits that particular section.

Then, perhaps on the day it comes out (as that is when they are likely to be the least busy), call them up and ask, very briefly, do they accept feature pitches and, if so, how do they like to get them? Normally, they'll want you to email something over, though it does make sense to have it written down in front of you in the rare instance that they want you to explain it to them then and there. So in no more than a couple of paragraphs within the body of the email (not as an attachment they have to faff about opening), ping them the idea across using somewhere in your header the words "as discussed" so they're more likely to open it. If you're lucky.

Copy editing and copy-writing are also very viable freelance careers but, again, there are lots of people out there already that do it (or say they can) and also lots of courses, some better than others and some costing an arm and a leg. So it makes sense to do some serious researching about it and working out whether you need a qualification after your name or not. Much as with freelance writing, having a niche or specialist area that you cover can be a good move, perhaps putting jargony business brochures or flyers into proper English or something like that. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders might be worth checking out for more detailed information.

Having now given away all my own commercial secrets, I hope that helps!

Q. littleblondies: I was online looking for homeworking opportunities and I tried Mumsnet for the first time and saw this Talk board 'Q&A with Nic Paton'. It's 10pm, about the only chance I get! I've two preschool kids and have not returned to my NHS career after my second baby as I don't want to work full time and NHS part-time wages do not cover childcare in my area for two kids. I looked at lots of different options but we decided for me to stay at home for now. This is great but not sustainable forever, so I need to think about what I would like to do.

I worked my way up through the charity and healthcare sector, mainly specialising in information analysis and database admin and management reports. I did this for 11 years and I also have admin experience to supervisor level. Some of my work was very rewarding, having a direct effect on patient care or improving work for colleagues. Other bits were stifling and a bit demeaning. I need something that fits around my family.

I love photography (I assisted and worked in portrait studios when I was younger) I love the idea of buying and selling secondhand china, retro stuff, 'upcycling' old furniture... But I also think I need a regular money earner, so maybe retrain in proof reading or perhaps teaching assistant or child counsellor. I'm in such a muddle! I'll read your book but thought this could be a good opportunity to get some advice.

A. NicPaton: It's really the same answer as all the way through this thread. When it comes to thinking about your future direction, start off by thinking about what it is you enjoy doing and how you enjoy working rather than specific jobs. You've outlined an incredibly diverse range of possibilities here, which makes me think you probably need to be narrowing down your thinking.

So, keep it basic – do you see yourself working for yourself or employed by someone else, working with adults or with children, buying and selling or sat at home all day proof-reading? These are all very different careers that you suggest and so you need to be thinking about what sort of person you are and what sort of person you want to be before you start narrowing it down to specific careers.

Once you've done that then, by all means, start thinking about the likely skills or qualifications you are going to need, what you've already got and what the practicalities are going to be of making that transition. You also mention you still love some of the NHS work you did, so is there any way that you could keep on just doing that, whether on a freelance, part-time or locum basis?

On photography, it's much like the cookery posts earlier on this thread, in that there's a big difference between having a hobby and turning it into something that it going to make you a regular wage, and you may need to get some professional qualifications in that area before you become accepted as a "professional" by paying customers.

You also perhaps need to be thinking about what or whether these careers are something you want to be doing as the children grow and get older and more independent,and whether you are thinking about roles such as a TA or child counsellor as temporary stop-gaps or more permanent changes and whether, therefore, you really want to commit to such a change on that basis.

Finally on the "upcycling" issue, take a long hard look on whether it's a viable business proposition. Do others do it, if so how, are there many around you, what sort of local or national market is there for this sort of business, what sort of margins does it look like they're making (assuming you probably have a fairly good idea of what something like it would cost you as the seller) and what sort of overheads are there likely to be? Would you need somewhere to store stuff if it became a proper business? How would you accept payment? How would you market it? How would you get the goods to the customer? And so on. It's a great idea but don't fall too much in love with it until you're sure it's got cold, business potential. I hope that helps and good luck.
 

Self-employment

Q. ApuskiDusky: Quick background - I will shortly be starting maternity leave, and fully expect that by the time I am due to return, I will either have been made redundant or offered a job I don't really want. So I am planning ahead with alternatives, the most attractive of which is self-employment as a consultant. My field has a lot of sole practitioners and small consultancies (I buy them in in my current role).

I think I am very well placed with regards to my skills and experience, but two things are making me think twice about this - the quality of my network (I know 'sellers' rather than 'buyers') and my natural tendency to be shy about business development and sales. Any suggestions on how someone can develop the skills, confidence and thick skin to develop contacts and bring in work?

A. NicPaton: As mentioned, I'm freelance. I'm technically a limited company – on my accountant's suggestion – but in reality pretty much a sole practitioner so I knew where you're coming from on this. If you can make it work for you and your industry accepts that business model (which it looks like it does), freelancing or being a self-employed consultant can be a great way to go.

If you're serious about it, the first practical thing I'd do, to be honest, is shamelessly pick the brains of one of the "sellers" you trust (very important if you don't want it becoming public knowledge at this point) about what the life is really like, how they got started, how it works for them, how viable it is financially (without embarrassing them) and so on. It'll help if you're unlikely to be treading on their toes competitively if or when you make the leap but often I find people don't really mind talking about these things.

But you also need to think about if self-employment is a life you're cut out for. As you've clearly recognised, when you're self-employed it's all down to you – the self-promotion, business promotion, marketing, securing sales, invoice chasing etc. The fact it's you against the world can be exhilarating or terrifying, and either way make take some getting used to. How would you feel if the diary suddenly went empty for a week or two, would you mind no longer having paid holidays, doing your own with tax returns or working on your own or in a strange office where you don't know anyone for days on end? You do probably need a bit of self-confidence, probably more self-belief actually.

And yes, things like chasing contracts, being professional when talking about money and not under-selling (or under-pricing) yourself can be daunting at first. But they are skills that can all come with time. The important thing you need to think about is will you enjoy that sort of life, and I say "life" because freelancing, contracting, self-employment, whatever you want to call it, is as much an attitude to life as a way of working.

Practical tips for getting started? Apart from the brain-picking mentioned above, sit down and think about everyone you have worked with and whether you might be able to work for them. You might be surprised how many people you come up with it, not that they're all come off probably but it'll give you an idea of the sort of market you might be able to tap into. Most contractors/freelancers in my experience start off working for people and places they already know and widen it out from there.

"Spend some time building up a financial buffer, ideally at least three months because there will probably be a gap of at least this length before you actually see any money coming through."

Also, very important (as I didn't do this) spend some time building up a financial buffer, ideally at least three months because there will probably be a gap of at least this length before you actually see any money coming through. Also, from your list above, perhaps consider making some tentative, informal approaches to people. If you can get some promises of work – particularly some regular work – before you've even taken the plunge it will obviously be much less daunting than having to start completely cold.

Q. SweetGrapes: I am an graduate engineer. I worked in a steel plant for four years, then moved into IT and worked as a Java programmer for six years, the last two as a project manager. I have been out of work for five years now and am wondering what to do next. I haven't really seen any part-time IT work around. The only options that I can see are office type work part time or a full-on IT career. Ideally, I would like to have something a bit more techy and a bit less hours - something between the two. Does this even exist? Few and far between?

A. NicPaton: Obvious question that struck me from your post is what about the option of freelance/contract work? It's a fairly common and well-accepted business model in IT so could it work for you? If so, you'd be much more at liberty (well, theoretically) to work the hours you want and do the sorts of techy stuff that interest you. Of course, as covered in earlier posts, it's not a life or way of working that suits everyone but might be worth investigating? An organisation such as the PCG (formerly the Professional Contractors Group), which represents freelance contractors and has a large IT contingent within its membership, might well be worth sounding out for some more specific industry advice.

Q. snigger: I'm currently a low-level civil servant (where we live, it's practically the only job that doesn't involve fries). I have a knack for cooking and baking, and after a couple of forays for friends and family, am considering stepping up as a self-employed...erm...cake baker? I'm very precise and have so far taught myself from books with reference to wedding cakes, and this is something I'd like to explore, but I'm hesitant with regards to training, setting up on a 'proper' (ie legal, health & safety/HMRC-approved) basis, and just generally how to proceed.

I am getting a fair word-of-mouth reputation, and have catered dinner parties for a colleague six times in their own home, and that too is something I wonder about expanding, but how?

A. NicPaton: There's probably no getting around it that if you want to do cake baking or even catering parties professionally and properly you're going to need to get the legal, health and safety and qualifications issues all straight, as much as for your own professional indemnity and financial well-being as that of your potential customers.

There's no magic bullet to making a transition like this, you've got to get the skills (and the right pieces of paper if need be), put the right infrastructure, equipment, premises etc in place and go into it in the same professional way that anyone else would, because "anyone else" is going to be the people you are competing against.

You've obviously got a flair for this and the fact you are getting a good word-of-mouth reputation is fantastic, though the whole dynamic of cooking for colleagues I would suggest is very different from cooking for paying customers. Making a success of any business requires maximising every and any competitive advantage you have and going into it as an amateur is just asking to make lif