Tuesday 22 November 2016

From behind the tin cup

Whoop whoop polemic warning. Where to start? there are a number of threads. When we were young and in college my sister's BF was enterprising enough to secure a summer job as a chamber maid in a Swedish hotel. Her reasoning must have been similar to mine when I went off to the Netherlands to grub my stake to go to graduate school in America. For me, without obvious skills, a place with a respectable minimum wage was better than home with no minimum wage at all at all. I spent 5 months working all the hours that were available and forcing the family to eat leaves to save enough money to pay a semester's fees. The English Chambermaid was working for the hotel because Summer was their busiest season and they needed extra staff who would fade away with the tourists at the end of September.  It worked well for both parties, it was a contract.  The hotel was under no illusions that cleaning hair clots from wash-hand basins and changing the sheets was a fulfilling and life-long career. They paid well enough to persuade an educated young woman to drudge for a higher purpose, like paying the rent and/or buying her round in college.

Fast forward a generation, Dau.I's BF was interviewing for a chamber-maid position in a fancy Dublin hotel and was asked if she was applying for work elsewhere. This was a few years ago when the recession was still biting, so she replied "Of course. I know that work is scarce, it takes time to set up an interview and I need to secure a job somewhere and soon."  "I'm sorry", replied the HR goon, "that's the end of the interview; we only hire people who are committed to this company and its ethos and work practice".  wtf? This is a company that expects total lifetime commitment from its employees but is still only prepared to pay the minimum wage and will weep crocodile tears when it has to let swathes of staff go at the next squeeze or restructuring. That strikes me as less a contract than the practice of a bully.

While we're on the hotel trade, I'll share an observation of a palomino who is an accomplished jazz musician. This woman makes a modest living doing gigs around the country and has worked and will work in numerous venues in Dublin and down the country. She finds that working in some hotels, like the Hibernian in Kilkenny [R looking continentally sophisticated on the one night in the year when it's comfortable to sit outside in the dark], is fun because the staff are happy, so service is better. But for her, sensitive soul that she is, it's more important that the vibe is better; then she plays better and everyone is happier. Other places are a penance, everyone is glum, the floor manager is barky and the toilets aren't clean.  I bet that's the sort of place Dau.I's BF was rejected from.

Last year, I had a tuthree smart, interesting and interested students working on my watch for their final year research projects. I had a bunch of sleepers as well, so the contrast was noticeable.  One of these lads came to me at the beginning of the year with the germ of an idea that he was interested in pursuing and, with a directional nudge or two from me, rattled through a chunk of independent and original research developing a protocol that has the potential to shave weeks of time and thousands of €€€s from the budget of certain key biotechnology projects. Ace! He's currently looking for work and in the course of an e-mail setting out a game plan for the task wrote "see what's going on and see if anything interests me and more importantly if they have any interest in me."  I'm afraid my shoulders slumped a little when I read this.  If we'd been in the same room I would have seized him by the lapels and given him a damned good shake shouting with each jolt "you . . . are . . . the . . . smartest . . . boy . . . in  . . . the . . . room: of course they will have an interest in you. They will be lucky to get someone who is so creative, determined and almost fatally modest". If you think of yourself as a beggar looking for change, employers will take you at your own estimation and consider you worthless.

My BF in graduate school was one of several people I've met who made me realise that I have a second-rate intellect;  not a sixth rate one, I know I'm not stupid but I know enough to recognise minds manifestly sharper, quicker and more committed than mine [my ambition genes were shot off in the war]. I graduated before her and went back to Europe and a modest career in science whose details are remorselessly getting filled in on The Blob. She took a long time to follow me out the door with her PhD [insecure supervisor, poor mentoring, poor health, bad luck]. She then started to apply for jobs and spent a few years being flown back and forth across the country for interview in places like Bismark, ND; UC Davis; FSU Tallahassee; New York NY. She never got the job and became convinced that a) the advertisement was required HR facade for a known internal candidate b) she was the token female interviewee to fulfill HR's equality requirements.  Eventually she stopped applying and went into avenues of science that weren't tenure-track. But along the way she got a lot of experience in interviews.

She got tired of being required to shill for herself to persuade a committee of slightly bored academics and the ferrety creature from HR (all complacent in the fact that their knees were firmly under the table of secure salary) that she really wanted to work in the Ecology School of Bogsville State. So she started turning the process on its head by announcing that this was the second interview she'd had that month, she was anxious to get her research going and could they please explain to her why she should come to Bogsville. This new approach didn't land her any job offers but it forced everyone in the room to re-evaluate what they stood for and what they had achieved. Throwing away the beggar's tin cup levelled the interview process so that there was a possibility of a mutually beneficial contract which would be good for science, good for the students, good for everybody's self-respect.  If you're deeply attached to the goddam cup, why not rap it sharply with a pencil so make sure the interview board is paying attention to the key points of your argument.

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