Paula Elliott met her husband in the army and got engaged while they were training together as Arabic linguists in their early 20s. However, it was not until 12 years later after both had made the transition to civilian life and Paula had started her own business that they were able to start a family.
Now she runs her own training business, helping women like her make career transitions or get back into the workplace.
Paula left Leeds at the age of 19 and joined the army to be an Arabic linguist working in army intelligence. It was the period between the two Gulf wars. The army trained her in reading and writing in Arabic and she started her training six months before her husband. That meant she was posted to Cyprus ahead of him after they got engaged. “That was tough,” she said, “six months in Cyprus without him.”
The two subsequently spent around six years in Cyprus before moving back to England. As part of Paula's resettlement she did some secretarial and personnel practice courses which gave her the skills she needed to make the transition to civilian life. “I felt the skills I had developed in the army could not be used in a commercial environment. We were leaving army quarters so we needed somewhere to live. I needed to get a job quickly,” she says. In fact she got a job before she was released from army service.
The couple bought a house in Dover where they had family and began looking for work. Paula was able to work immediately as a temp for a recruitment company which owned the Pitman training franchise in Dover. Her husband got a job working in the freight office at P & O and eventually became a police officer for the Port of Dover police.
Buying a franchise
Paula initially worked in recruitment, but was then transferred to Pitman Training, advising on and selling training to people who needed the skills and were trying to get back to work. Her boss was selling up and asked if she would like to buy. “I felt passionate about the business because I had been in the position of having to retrain and I knew about it. I was living proof that you can change your skills.I had the option to buy the franchise with someone else, but I wanted to be in charge. My boss let me pay him monthly over the next three years and I got a small loan. I could not have done it otherwise,” she says.
Her experience in recruitment meant she could match people, training and jobs up well and she knew what companies were looking for. Plus she had built up good relationships and trust.
At 33, she started thinking about beginning a family. “I had been so busy up till then establishing the business. We were well set up by then. I had a full-time and part-time member of staff when I became pregnant with my daughter Amber,” said Paula.
Even so, she worked right up to the day before Amber was born two weeks late and was back in the office two weeks later, albeit part time. Her husband was on shifts so could look after Amber and sometimes she took Amber into the office with her. “It was a bit of a struggle, but my staff are all very supportive,” she says. Several are also mums.
Five years ago, when Amber was 18 months old Paula's mother-in-law died. Her husband remarked on how much having his brother with him at that time had helped. The couple decided Amber needed a sibling. Just two weeks later Paula was pregnant with Amber's sister Amelia. Again she took hardly any maternity leave and was signing cheques in her hospital bed.
Amber is now at school and Amelia goes to nursery. Paula tries to keep work at work so when she is home she is with the family. She says she loves her work and finds it both challenging and rewarding.
Tax relief on childcare
One thing she says would help, however, is more childcare support for self-employed parents. “I think there should be some tax relief. Because I am self-employed and am not on the payroll I am not allowed to buy childcare vouchers. People who set up their own businesses are doing something for their family and the community. It's a bit annoying they can't get any benefit from it,” says Paula, who has written to her local MP about the tax relief issue.
Nevertheless, she says working for herself has worked well for her family since it allows her the flexibility to attend school and other events. “I would strongly recommend franchising,” she adds, although she is is hoping to turn her franchise into a limited company eventually. “It gives you the support of a larger network. Pitman have been brilliant for me and there is always someone to talk to.”
She says a lot of the people who come to Pitman don't know what they want to retrain in. Many are mums. “We need to establish the skills they have and what they need so they can tick employers' boxes. I know all too well what mums can do in terms of juggling and managing the family finances,” she states.