08 Mar 2023

My career in housing and the importance of professionalism

As part of National Careers Week 2023 Jill Allcoat Cert CIH, regional manager for CIH caught up with Brendan Morrissey CIHCM, assistant director of customer and communities at Clanmil Housing Group.

You currently work as the assistant director of customer and communities at Clanmil Housing Group - can you tell me a bit more about how you came into the housing sector?

A safe, secure home is a basic human right, regardless of tenure type. I was always aware of the importance of equal, fair access to quality housing and options available to people. The social value of a good home was openly discussed at home when I was younger and some of the challenges of our history around access to housing were discussed in the name of progress.

As part of my GSCE and A level studies in Sociology we studied the social housing sector and this was my first introduction to the role of housing associations.

In the early 2000s (which seems like yesterday!) the time came to start thinking about my future and life after school. I had intended to study for the Housing Degree that was running at Ulster University in Derry at that time. This choice was discouraged at school and after several sessions with the careers advisor it was considered I should ‘broaden my horizons a bit’ and was encouraged to look at other options, including education and becoming a Primary School Teacher – a job I often think I would have excelled it, but wasn’t attracted to as strongly. As a compromise at the time I studied Social Policy which would give me more options for further study and access to different career paths. I wasn’t convinced, but at 17 years of age, I wasn’t informed and a career path into housing felt unheard of in the environment I was in.

As part of my degree I enjoyed a placement with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, within the research department. I thoroughly enjoyed this placement and got everything I could out of it, confirming to me that housing was certainly a career path that was calling me. Following my graduation and considering next steps I still had a niggling doubt and the voices around me regularly told me ‘You’d be a lovely wee primary school teacher’ (you have to say that in a Belfast accent to know what the sounded like!). I knew myself I would have, I love kids and I would have enjoyed it, I am sure. I applied to do my PGCE at St Marys College, Twickenham and was successful in gaining a place, which was nine months away. To fill that time I got myself a placement at a local primary school in Belfast and an administration role in the housing management team at Clanmil Housing Association. I told myself I am here for nine months then going off to London to be a teacher. I was quite content with my choices. That was 18 years ago. I had a varied role at Clanmil. Admin can be quite mundane, but this was varied and exciting. I learnt a lot in this role and by supporting the then quite small housing officer team I was soaking up the different experiences at lots of different levels. I asked the director of housing at the time A LOT of questions.

When the time came to leave the post and go to University to study teaching, I agonised over what to do. (I am reflector by nature and lots of reflecting was done). I gave up my place at St Marys and pursued a career as a housing officer. It was the best job I ever did. I loved it. It was tough at times but it was where my heart was and I was good at it. I enjoyed working with so many different people and always felt it was quite a privileged role to help people secure a home and if needed, provide support services. I have always had a soft spot for sheltered housing and the immense value of this type of accommodation to older people. I have met some fascinating people at such schemes.

Could you tell me about your job, including the responsibilities you have in your role and in your team, and a little about your employer?

I have only been in my current role for just over a month – so still a lot to learn. My current role is varied and covers Community Development, Money Advice services, Customer Service Centre and Older Peoples Services. Working with the wider team we are leading on the Customer Strategy & Older Peoples Strategy as well as focussing on customer satisfaction.

Within my team we have fantastic, skilled people who specialise in developing our service offer to ensure we are keeping our services relevant as well as getting the best outcome for the people availing of those services.

Clanmil has been operating since 1977, its origin being the Royal British Legion Housing Association. I have worked here for 18 years (nearly half of my life!).

We’re a social enterprise working across Northern Ireland, building, maintaining and managing homes where people are proud to live and raise their families. We have just over 5,800 homes and there are around 300 of us working to provide accommodation and support services to our customers in a wide range of homes - from family housing, older peoples housing, supporting housing as well as residential care homes for older people.

I know you’re relatively new to your role as assistant director and were previously in a lead role for housing for older people. What sort of things do you think are important to consider when taking a next step like that and what top tips would you give to someone looking to do the same?

I think there are so many options and opportunities for people to grow personally and professionally within the sector. It’s a fantastic thing to be a part of. I think it is important to learn your craft as you go. When I graduated with my postgrad diploma in Housing, I had lots of theoretical knowledge but had to develop myself as a housing practioner through many experiences and all of the ups and downs that came with that. This helped shape me as the person I am today and I continue to develop.

When progressing at any level I think it is human nature to doubt your own ability. It is important to have self-belief in the first instance - that doesn’t come naturally to me. It never has. It takes work.

I have never been short of people willing to offer support, help, guidance and share experiences, but sometimes you have to ask for that help and not be embarrassed to do so. I have sought out a professional network within the sector including mentors to help me on my journey and I try to do the same for others in return. I have also had mentors from outside of the sector and I have undertaken training and experience elsewhere to try and broaden my horizons, learn new skills and take them back to where I want to be. Getting outside of my comfort zone has helped me immensely. In 2020 I took part in a programme called the boardroom apprentice, a training programme to develop future trustees to support public and third sector boards. The programme opened with the words ‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable’ and that was a defining moment in my career to date and I believe I still carry the learning on a daily basis.

Why do you feel it is important to recognise housing as a profession?

Why not? We study as hard, learn as hard and work as hard as every other profession. We are qualified in what we do and it’s important to recognise that. Especially in multi-disciplinary settings that we can often find ourselves in. The people I come across work to professional standards, codes of conduct with professionalism and integrity. We do vital work trying to meet housing need as well as providing so many additional services if needed. We are accountable.

I understand that you have been involved in helping to develop a CIH accredited housing degree in Northern Ireland. Why is this important?

There are lots of great people working to make this a reality and I was really pleased to have some input. The previous housing degree that ran for many years at Ulster University was withdrawn a number of years ago and I think we are starting to feel that loss in the sector. Training and formal qualifications are important for learning and theoretical context, to prepare people for practice.

Accreditation is important to ensure people are trained and assessed for the roles they may take on as well as acknowledging their own learning and skill sets and continuing their professional development. But it also offers credibility and assurance to customers and other stakeholders, demonstrating that we meet high standards in terms of knowledge, compliance, skill set etc and collectively are able to deliver high quality services and be accountable for them.
An apprenticeship programme has also been launched in Northern Ireland, giving apprentices the opportunity to work as they learn to be come accredited and expose them to as many parts of the sector as possible to act as a platform for them to take their career forward. I am really excited about this as it is another avenue for entry into housing.

Finally what would you say to someone considering a career in housing, or who maybe reading this and has not yet thought of working in the housing sector?

To anyone considering housing, I would say follow your heart. You are considering it for a reason and it’s worth exploring. To anyone who hasn’t ever considered the sector I would certainly encourage them to learn more about the vast range of professional roles it offers. To both I would say connect with someone already in the sector and ask questions, seek some guidance to learn more. I think one of the wonderful things about this sector is the vast human library of information and people who are only too willing to share their experiences and knowledge to guide people along their own professional paths.