A job in debt? You owe it to yourself

Helping distressed people sort out the state of their finances can be rewarding
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The Independent Online

Personal debt is at record levels, and with a recession seemingly on the horizon, things can only get worse. That means there's a growing need for free and impartial money advice. Recent government funding aimed at tackling financial illiteracy has resulted in more job opportunities in this sector.

David May began working at National Debtline two years ago after being made redundant from a customer-service role with a mobile-phone company. "About a decade ago, I was in serious debt myself," he says. "I had experienced it, so I felt it was something I could help people with."

He spends the day dealing with telephone calls and emails from people whose finances are in a parlous state. "Most have problems with credit-card debt, loans and overdrafts, and some also have mortgage, rent or council-tax arrears. We help them to work out the priorities and then devise a plan to resolve the situation," he explains.

With 100 staff in a large, open-plan office, the working environment may look like a call centre, but it's not driven by targets. "We're encouraged to focus on giving quality advice, so we will spend an hour on a call if necessary," he says. The lines are open from 9am to 9pm on weekdays and on Saturday mornings, so most advisers work on a rolling shift pattern.

"You get a huge sense of satisfaction resolving a call," he says. "You can have somebody call up crying because they don't know where to turn and within half an hour they're more positive and feel there's light at the end of the tunnel."

But it can be stressful at times. At first, May found it awful when clients burst into tears. You have to learn to remain cool and not get too emotionally involved, he says. "We have close links with other organisations, so if we feel the client is very distressed, we can refer them to, say, the Samaritans."

A money adviser must be comfortable with figures, a good listener and able to empathise with clients. You also need to convey quite technical information, such as legal details, in a way that clients can easily understand.

"We have people from a range of backgrounds," says May. "Some have worked for debt-collection agencies or as bailiffs; others are ex-solicitors or teachers."

Alex Watts's first career was in catering, but after taking a legal-executive course and undertaking a stint of volunteering with the Citizens Advice Bureau, she landed her current job as a housing and debt caseworker at the CAB's Wolverhampton office. Watts works with clients face to face, helping them decide on the best repayment options and fill out legal paperwork such as bankruptcy petitions. "People sometimes believe that debt collectors can just break into their houses and take their things, and some debt collectors encourage people to believe that they can be sent to prison for debt. You can reassure them that there is a way out of it," she says.

A typical day involves a morning in court, where she may speak on the client's behalf, put their case to the judge and liaise with creditors. She spends the afternoon on appointments and keeping up with administration. For her, face-to-face work is particularly rewarding, as you get to follow a case over a few months to its resolution. "It's good to see the weight lifted from them," she says. "The service we're providing changes people's lives. I've never had that in any other job I've done."

Take that to the bank

You don't need specific qualifications to become a money adviser, as employers provide training. However, a finance or law background can be useful.

The best way to get started is by volunteering for an organisation such as the Citizens Advice Bureau ( www.citizensadvice.org.uk).

Money advisers can work for a variety of organisations, such as charities, local-authority advice centres, housing associations or on university campuses.

For general information, visit the "Our work" section of the Money Advice Trust website ( www.moneyadvicetrust.org).

Experienced advisers with management responsibilities or more specialised knowledge can earn from £25,000 to £30,000.

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