Archive for July, 2009

No Shortcuts: Assessing My Skills

Wellington, New Zealand

Sign at Wellington City & Sea Museum

Sign at Wellington City & Sea Museum

Not counting that brief stint in graduate school in Buenos Aires, my academic career ended over four years ago. Yet curiously, I spent Tuesday evening in the library preparing for an exam.  As vexing as this was, of all the activities and professions that I have tried in my short but random life, the only one that I ever truly mastered was school.  Even though I was out of practice (and decidedly uninterested in staging a comeback), I assumed that studying was as unforgettable as riding a bike.

However, despite my previous level of expertise in the subject, I found myself seated at a desk, with water bottle, snacks, and computer placed before me, entirely uncertain of how to proceed.  I used to be so good at this, I moaned to myself in utter despair, before remembering that delaying the inevitable is a healthy part of any exercise program, like retying your shoe laces or uploading music to your iPod before running.

Since procrastination is a natural part of the education process, I gave myself permission to compose a list of bad similes and metaphors, which is at least more productive than reading my friends’ away messages on AOL Instant Messenger.   Eventually, like a homosexual Belgian man resigned to marrying his best girlfriend for a Green Card, I acquiesced in confronting the task at hand: cramming for a Microsoft Excel and Word skills test.

After four months in Wellington, I am relocating to Auckland.  Everyone I met while living in Wellington gave it rave reviews (which isn’t surprising, considering the population sampled), and everyone seemed to be having more fun than me (which is to say, having any fun at all).  Wellington is undeniably a delightful town, with its beautiful harbor, pervasive café culture, manageable size, interesting architecture, thriving arts scene, and lively nightlife.  In fact, that’s why I stayed as long as I did: I kept waiting to be let in on the secret.  Ultimately, the way I feel about Wellington is similar to how I feel about George Clooney: while objectively I can appreciate their appeal, neither of them do it for me.

There was also the issue of the “young person’s trifecta”, a concept recently introduced to me by a good friend.  She postulates that all young people strive to attain three things: a pleasant living situation, meaningful relationships, and a satisfying job.  In Wellington, I was struggling with all of them, but the final category was by far the most challenging, demoralizing, and influential on my quality of life.

Unbeknownst to me, I had not been hired part-time at the bookstore; I had been hired on a casual basis.  In other words, I was their scheduling bitch: they could put me on or take me off the roster as they saw fit.  Coincidentally, they happened to need me a lot on the weekends, which meant that I was only working when I didn’t want to.  Promotions were certainly amusing (especially for the people lucky enough to witness me walking down Lambton Quay dressed like a one dollar coin) and profitable, but also highly unreliable.  With no fixed schedule or guaranteed number of hours, I was unable to take a second part-time job or budget.  My social life suffered and I was hemorrhaging savings.  Worst of all, I was unable to explore or experience my new city and country.

My free time then became dedicated to finding full-time work, itself a full-time job.  At first, I applied only to roles that sounded at least somewhat interesting, but as my desperation increased, I sent my CV to every employer with an email address.  Most didn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of my application.  In fact, just yesterday, I received an email from the human resources department of a major publishing company thanking me for “taking the time and effort to apply” and informing me, “although your skills and experience are impressive, we have selected another candidate.”  I took the time to apply over two months ago, but it was nice of them to formally communicate their decision, in case I had been hoping all this time that no news was good news.  Even though I didn’t take the rejection personally, it did nothing to improve my condition.   Under these circumstances, I would have been unhappy in Disney World.

Upon reflection, my approach to life in New Zealand has been misguided.  I came here with one lofty objective – to find a job whose principal task was writing – but I was unrealistic about how long and how many steps it would take to achieve my goal (and perhaps about how unqualified and inexperienced I am).  If you’re going to reach for the moon, it helps to have a solid base to stand on.  I was too anxious and impatient to start at the beginning; I was naïve about the way global events would impact my personal life; and I was arrogant, believing that I would be the one to defy the odds.  I realize that I need to modify my expectations, priorities, and timeline, and begin again.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get a fresh start in a place where I have history.

Apparently, if you have a dream, you also need to have a plan for making it a reality, which is why I’m considering enrolling in a Master of Creative Writing program next year. Since I no longer feel the urgency to write professionally, my ambition for the remainder of my Kiwi experience is simply to enjoy myself, and to see as much of this incredible country as I can.   This means establishing financial solvency and job stability, so that stimulating, productive, and entertaining extra-curricular activities can become part of my regularly scheduled programming.

This time around, I’m going to be as aggressive, proactive, and flexible as possible. If you’re on a working-holiday visa, your employment opportunities are limited, especially if you’re in a country that respects and adheres to immigration laws. Restaurant, retail, and hospitality jobs are typically available. However, for many, the best option is temporary office work (which often leads to an extended contract or even a permanent position), and the best tactic is to sign up with a recruitment agency.

Before leaving for Auckland, my flatmate generously offered to forward my details on to his contact at one of New Zealand’s bigger and better staffing agencies.  An HR consultant phoned to invite me in for an interview and skills assessment.   Bearing in mind that the market is so tight Kiwis with 20 years of experience are fighting for the same short-term secretarial roles as gap-year travelers, I told the consultant that I was open to all possibilities.  This was a mistake.  Agencies will not consider you for or place you into a role without first evaluating your aptitude for such a position.  The more open you are, the more tests they give you.

In my case, this included tests on data entry, customer service, typing, sheep herding, apple picking, and goat milking.  I couldn’t believe that I had to go through all this just to have a chance at answering phones and making coffee. Suddenly, I empathize with people attempting to adopt a child. When I asked the consultant how long I could expect the assessment to take, he politely suggested that I pack a lunch.  He was also kind enough to recommend, in a lowered voice, that I memorize the drop-down menus of Microsoft Word and Excel, as shortcuts (and mistakes) are not allowed.

I know as much about Excel as I do about fixing hot water cylinders; and while I use Word daily, I could not tell you the precise path for placing blinking Christmas lights around text (Format -> Font -> Animation -> Las Vegas Lights).  Determined to prove myself a strong candidate, I made flashcards like I was prepping for the GREs, except that acing the GREs promises entrance into a top university, while acing a systems test promises entrance into the mail room of a major company.

Once I completed the epic testing, the consultant called me into an office to review the results.  “How’d it go?” he asked, as if he were asking me where I was on the night of June 24.  I found this question strange, as he already knew the answer.
“Well,” I began to humor him, “it took some time to get used to the test.  Also, I have a different version of the programs at home.  But overall, it was fine.”
“You’re in the 99th percentile of all candidates we’ve tested in the past three months.”
“Oh.  Then I’ll stop explaining myself.”

The following day, a consultant from the Auckland office phoned to discuss my details.  The optimism and confidence of the previous afternoon were soon shattered, when she revealed that Auckland had been hit harder in the recession than Wellington and was taking longer to recover.  I may be valedictorian of the staffing agency, but I appear to be destined for data entry.  Spending forty hours a week performing the same mindless activity is to me what getting stuck in an elevator with a clown is to a claustrophobic person.

My immediate reaction was to panic, and cry, but when I calmed down, it occurred to me that the agency was helping me to take the first step that I should have taken four months ago.  Boring but temporary entry-level positions can lead to more dynamic roles, friendly co-workers, rent, a sense of purpose, a routine, after-work drinks, an office romance, and free pens and notepads, all things that are necessary for my happiness and missing from my life.  So, while I may be disappointed over leaving Wellington and uneasy about moving to Auckland, if nothing else, I can feel good about the fact that I type 71 words per minute with 100% accuracy.


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