For some of us, finding ourselves back at our old schools is the stuff of anxiety-inducing bad dreams; for Ellis Donaldson, returning to the classroom gave her a chance to spread the word about Trading Standards to a new generation – and to impress upon them what a rewarding career working in consumer protection and enforcement can be.
Earlier this year, Donaldson was approached by her alma mater, the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in Ealing, to give a presentation on her experiences, first as a Regulatory Compliance Officer Apprentice and then as a Trading Standards Officer at Ealing Borough Council. “I bumped into one of my old PE teachers and told her about what I’m doing now,” she says.
“The following Monday I got an email from the school careers advisor saying that they’d love me to come in and talk to the students. I was really honoured that they wanted me to come back.”
Since leaving school, Donaldson has been busy – and, as she points out, she has come a long way in just five years. “I started at the council at 17 as an apprentice. I then completed my level three in Business Administration before choosing to move into Trading Standards, as the team did something I was really interested in and wanted to learn more about.
“Trading Standards is not a profession that is particularly advertised or marketed in any sort of way. But when I first got to experience what the team do, I saw the importance of it, and how things like unsafe goods, unsafe cosmetics and illicit tobacco and alcohol have such an impact on our society.
“When I first joined the team, I was the youngest person in Ealing Trading Standards by 22 years, and I was also the only female at the time,” she adds.
When Kiran Seyan joined the team as its new Manager, Donaldson says, “I was really glad because it made such a difference; it’s nice to have a mixture of ages and a female boss – something I’d not had before.”
Learning on the job
Donaldson’s time as an apprentice gave her practical experience of Trading Standards work and an opportunity to learn from colleagues. “For my first two years in Trading Standards I was a technical assistant,” she says. “I would learn from my team, shadow the officers, assist them with their prosecutions in exhibiting evidence or sending it away for further analysis. Those sorts of things taught me the bread and butter of Trading Standards in terms of putting together a prosecution.
“I have got three successful prosecutions under my belt so far. One of them was for misdescribed scarves. My colleague and I bought a variety of scarves that claimed to be 100% cashmere. We sent them away for testing, and they came back as polyester, acrylic and nylon, all synthetic man-made materials. I submitted my prosecution, having put all the evidence together, and it resulted in a guilty verdict and quite a hefty fine. The work pays off in the end, and that is what makes it all worth it.”
So what sort of reception did Donaldson get from the pupils she spoke to? Were there any aspects of Trading Standards that particularly captured their attention? “Some thought that we are more of a regulatory service – they think we monitor hygiene and keep people safe in terms of health and safety. They didn’t really get what we do at all,” says Donaldson. “So it was good being able to actually explain what we do, and they were quite engaged during my presentation.
“They were keen to ask about who regulated companies like Amazon and eBay; they found that really interesting, and they wanted to know who holds these large companies accountable. I went on to explain what a Primary Authority relationship is, and they thought it was crazy that you can have a Primary Authority working essentially for a company. But I explained to them that this is all in order to gain compliance, and how compliance is a fundamental part of Trading Standards.
“When I showed them my warrant card, they were like, ‘Oh, so you’re a police officer? No way! That’s so cool!’ I said, ‘No, no, no. But I probably have similar powers of entry to a police officer.’ And I gave them the example of going into my local newsagents and being able to search the shop behind the till or in the stockroom. They were really engaged, they thought it was really interesting.”
Without wishing to over-generalise, it seems that many young people’s interests and priorities – around things like social justice and environmental causes – align quite well with a lot of Trading Standards work. I ask Donaldson whether that rings true in her experience. “I definitely would say that it does,” she observes.
“The younger generation, myself included, are very aware of global warming and the climate crisis. At Ealing our values include accountability, and we try and be very green as a council. We work with businesses to gain compliance with the solid fuel regulations and legislation that was recently changed with regards to pollutants.
“Another important topic is the Black Lives Matter movement; Ealing have started doing open surveys for residents to try and engage with them and find out what they need in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion. My mum is half-Pakistani, half-English, and so I’ve grown up in a very mixed-culture family. Seeing the equality and diversity that is being pushed throughout Ealing, and throughout London, I think is absolutely amazing. At last year’s Conference, I was very happy to see that Trading Standards is actually very diverse – perhaps not so much in age, but at least in terms of such a broad range of people from all walks of life.
“When it comes to engaging with the community, we need to appreciate cultural differences. With things like skin lightening creams, or chewing tobacco, or all of those types of things that are so ingrained in a culture, it becomes difficult if you go out and say, you can’t sell this, or you can’t do this. It’s more about education. Once people are informed, they are then able to say, ‘Oh, no, you were right, we shouldn’t have this or we shouldn’t do this.’”
Spreading the word
If the values of Trading Standards align with those of so many young people, it seems surprising that the profession can struggle to attract new recruits. Donaldson believes the main barrier to entry is that many people simply are not aware of what the profession is actually for. “Honestly, I think not enough people know what we do,” she says. “That was the main point when I went to the school; none of them really understood our work. They got parts of it, but because we enforce over 250 pieces of legislation and cover such a wide variety of things, people don’t quite grasp what it is we do.
“We need to engage more with young people, speak to students at college, go into schools and get out there and advertise ourselves.
“I was very lucky to land myself in this team, but it was all by coincidence that I joined Regulatory Services and fell in love with Trading Standards; for other young people that want to go into Trading Standards there isn’t really a direct route though. If authorities are recruiting, they just want qualified officers.
“If authorities want fresh blood in their organisation they need to advertise apprenticeships and they need to be willing to teach the young people. I’m so lucky that I had such amazing officers to shadow; I was learning from the best.
“Just by getting the word out, people will be interested; the issue isn’t that no one wants to do the job, the issue is that not enough people know about and understand it.”
Being able to identify with the pupils she spoke to helped her make a more convincing case, Donaldson believes. “I would have found it helpful when I was in school to have a former student share their journey with us, to hear what can be accomplished without taking the conventional route of going to university, and learning about a profession that none of us knew existed. I think that was probably the main takeaway for the students at the end of the day: that university is not their only option. And apprenticeships are an excellent way to get yourself into working life and earning.”
Donaldson is not the only one to sing the praise of apprenticeship schemes; National Trading Standards Chair Lord Michael Bichard previously ran the Department for Education, which supported apprenticeships through initiatives such as the Learning and Skills Council. “I think apprenticeships are a really important route,” says Bichard.
“We need to emphasise the fact that this is a way into a really good career and a really interesting job.
“I went into local government because I couldn’t afford to pay for my articles as a trainee lawyer. I landed on my feet because I realised pretty quickly that working in local communities is absolutely fascinating. We’ve got to try and communicate that to younger people when they’re looking for a career, and then give them a route in which doesn’t involve them spending a hell of a lot of time at university. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a university chancellor – but not everyone wants to go that way.”
Tricks of the trade
When she visited her old school, Donaldson spoke to two groups of pupils, one from Year 12 and one from Year 10. “The year 12s had a much better basic level of understanding, whereas the year 10s would come back to me and ask, ‘What does compliance mean?’,” she says.
“When I first started, I would have been asking all of these questions, but in the blink of an eye five years have passed, and I am now a Trading Standards Officer. So I had to cover the basics for them – what our powers are, the types of enforcement that we do, what partner agencies we work with, and the work we do with sniffer dogs and the police.”
Finally, I ask Donaldson whether she has any advice for others in Trading Standards who might want to do something similar, either at their own old school or any other place of learning? “Writing my presentation from scratch I realised how complicated Trading Standards can be,” she says. “So keep it simple – don’t overload them with legislation or jargon. With any job, a lot of jargon comes with it, but if you start throwing it at people, they stop listening.
“I also tried to make it as interactive as possible – I brought in examples of counterfeit goods; and the more high-class the brands are, the more interested the students are going to be – Beats headphones, Apple accessories, designer bags, designer belts…
“One of the most engaging parts is including interesting cases,” she adds. “I told them about my prosecutions, I spoke about my achievements from when I was an apprentice. I think it’s important to talk about your journey and what makes you the Trading Standards Officer you are.”