Returning to STEM
Returning to STEM

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Returning to STEM

3 Working for yourself

More and more people are working for themselves, either as freelancers or setting up their own businesses, and this can be an attractive option to get back into work after a career break. Self-employment can mean the chance to work more flexibly and control your own working hours, something that can be helpful if you want to combine working with looking after small children.

The opportunities for starting up in business have expanded rapidly with internet trading and marketing. Digital start-ups can attract funding, either from venture capitalists or via crowdsourcing, so there are more options for trying something out. If you have technology skills, then this might be an option, but there are also plenty of other STEM related business opportunities.

Many digital start-ups begin as micro-businesses that exploit the spare capacity in assets or under-utilised skills and use the reach of technology to find an audience or market. This is the underlying model of many recent online businesses such as AirBnB and Uber.

Robin Chase describes how this idea of excess capacity inspired her to set up Zipcar, a car sharing business, when she was still a stay-at-home mum:

Leveraging excess proved to be an important component of Zipcar’s success. Before Zipcar, people in Boston who needed a car had just two options. They could rent in twenty-four-hour bundles, or they could own their own car, paying an average of $8000 a year in depreciation and costs for insuring, parking, maintaining, and fueling it. Zipcar allowed people to book cars near them in less than twenty seconds and rent them for as little as thirty minutes … I knew that Zipcar would win on the economics if it allowed people to pay only for the amount of car they actually used. The ‘excess’ could then be purchased by other drivers. Instead of owning 100 per cent of a car and using it one per cent of the time, it was possible to align usage and cost much more closely. And instead of one thousand urban residents owning four hundred cars, with Zipcar these same one thousand active drivers are satisfied with just thirty cars.

(Chase, 2015)

While it is beyond the scope of this course to give any detailed training or advice on how to start up in business, we have brought together some suggestions and links to some excellent organisations and networks specifically targeted at helping new entrepreneurs. These are detailed in the Further reading section, which offers some further guidance and resources for those of you who may be considering self-employment as your way to return to STEM.

Consultancy in STEM

One of the options for self-employment for those with a STEM background is to become a self-employed consultant in your field. Professional institutions may be able to help with networking and support if this is the direction you wish to take.

In this video, Barbara talks about how she worked as a consultant in the engineering industry after her career break, and highlights some of the advantages and difficulties.

Download this video clip.Video player: return_to_stem_week4vid6_512x256.mp4
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There's been two periods in my life when I worked as a consultant. One was prior to the career break, when I was a consultant in a forensics engineering consultancy. And the second has been since the career break, where I've been engaged with an expert engineering company in Glasgow. Now I've worked occasionally for them. It's very interesting work. It's very rewarding work. And it's financially great, when you have it.
But it's not consistent from that point of view. And quite often the role of a consultant would involve travel, which they know I can't do. So it's been one of these things that I will probably go back to in the future a bit more, once my children finish school. But it's good. I enjoy it. I've met some very interesting people and have a nice network of contacts through the consultancy work that I've done for the expert engineering company.
My consultancy work has come about, because I followed up with one contact that I'd had from previous employment. And I emailed them, and sent them my current CV, and they shared that with colleagues. And then I was approached on a few occasions to do some work for the company that they are now with. So it really was by keeping up with my network of previous contacts from employment that that came about.
It can be flexible. It is very interesting work. It can be financially great, while you have it. But you have to offset that with the fact that it is patches of work. It's not consistent. It's not something you're going to necessarily have all the time. You can be taken on for a couple of months while there's a big project going on, but at the end of that couple of months you're not there anymore. So it's difficult to manage from that point of view. And I've actually found it easier with my academic jobs and doing some consultancy as part of that, rather than relying on it full-time for what I'm doing at the moment.
Well, my field of consultancy is based on my experience from materials engineering and materials research. So when I have worked in forensic engineering that has been materials failure. Health and safety, industrial accidents, any of those failures come under what I would look at. I've also, within the consultancy that I've been involved with at the moment, worked on nuclear power plant arbitrations. I've been going on specific aspects of that relating to mechanical engineering. And again, some specific things relating to process engineering, which should come into my area of knowledge base from my mechanical engineering background.
Initially, I would let people know my skills through my CV going to a consultancy. It's then on their website, and people who have specific things that they need looked at can see the area of expertise that is there, and then I'd be contacted if need be.
End transcript
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Having examined a range of flexible working practices you will now hear from employers about what they can offer.


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