Friday, February 04, 2011

Afraid of the light

Max Afraid. Kodakotype by Pants from 'Mary & Max'

It was Plato, I believe, who said something along the lines of it's easy to sympathise with a child who is afraid of the dark, but the real tragedy is when adults are afraid of the light. Actually he said 'men' as I recall, but the Ancient Greeks had a nasty habit of ignoring women in their intellectual musings - not so different from modern Australia, actually. I'm afraid of a growing number of things, but light isn't one of them. If only there could be more of it. Sigh.

I am not currently an economically productive person by official standards. Quite a lot of that is my fault, admittedly – but not all. I would happily work in my old vocation of peripatetic (or very pathetic, if you prefer) manager of local government projects but no one here will have me. I hadn’t factored in the enormous cultural gulf in operational methodologies that exists between the Australian and British experiences when I set my sails a couple of years ago. Whereas most inner-London councils are stocked with people who write poetry and played in punk bands in their respective reckless youths, in Australia they’re all MBAs with a fetish for pinstripe.

It's true that doing a crazy art course for a year did nothing for my credibility, but after I'd survived that, I tried hard for six months, and then progressively less hard, until I petered into a state of thinking, well ... the right opportunity will find me ... it always does ... if I need it ... zzzzzzz

I went for a two-day-a-week job here in Larrikin’s End a while back. I read the stated salary as net rather than pro rata, and even then was shocked. I would never have applied if I'd realised the whole weekly wage was only marginally more than my previous hourly rate.

Having been shortlisted, I found myself facing an interview panel consisting of four people in identical button-down shirts featuring a nautically themed corporate logo. Two were men and two women - and you could hardly tell them apart, but not in a coolly reassuring, androgynous seventies way. It was more like Max Headroom had reproduced inappropriately. I thought I’d stumbled into Shell Oil by mistake - after the nuclear accident.

The interview lasted over an hour and involved scenario questions so convoluted, I wondered if I might go home with a commemorative mug for my trouble. It was the final question that flummoxed me though. I was asked to list the functions of a local authority. No one’s ever asked me anything like that before. Game over. I’m crap at interviews anyway and I’ve always managed to avoid them in the past. I came from an era when people just hired their friends. You know what you’re getting that way. This all tightened up in the mid-nineties so I switched to working contract.

I once secured a job where I was responsible for an operational budget of over 20 million fine English pounds on a project worth ten times that by dropping in for an informal twenty-minute ‘chat’ with the director, whom I didn’t actually know. Fortunately, he could read and applied this particular skill to the perusal of the curriculum vitae I had helpfully supplied earlier. This told him all he needed to know about my ability to do the job. Meeting me was just a formality to satisfy himself that I (i) existed (ii) was not obviously a psychopath.

I finally gave up on getting a decent job when I went for a position and was told that the departing post holder had a PhD in ‘community engagement'. See, to me, that's like saying you've got a doctorate in 'forming whole sentences' or 'not being a total cunt'. There's nothing that complicated about conversing with the general public. You just have to know what you’re talking about, be honest and not act weird. When the public sector comes on all corporate and academic, well, it’s no place for the likes of me.

So, I’m officially non-productive. That’s not to say I don’t do anything. As you know, I can usually be discovered industriously converting thoughts into by-product with complete ambivalence to the existence of the external economy. The internal economy, however, is a phenomenon I can’t ignore. For the last couple of years, I have had to rely on the state to supplement my subsistence with a partial unemployment payment. I don't have any bad feelings about that. Being an old socialist, I do not regard the word 'entitlement' with anything but affection.

The state clearly doesn’t expect much of me since it hardly ever bothers to contact me. It's an odd position to take, given that it gave me an astoundingly good education for free. I have a ‘workplace consultant’ whose last job was as a hairdresser. She works for a quasi-private sector organisation that claims to be not-for-profit but is ever expanding, so obviously does turn over 'a profit'.

There are three of these businesses in Larrikin’s End (pop. 6,000), contracted to provide ‘unemployment services’. This means they maintain a suite of offices and a staff of up to six ‘consultants’ each. You never see anyone in any of these offices. Their banks of computers remain unpeopled, as do their training rooms. I can do a quick calculation in my head and I would guess that around $1.5 million is being spent annually on maintaining these offices that, as far as I can see, only duplicate a service that already exists. Access to free internet and all the local papers are available at the public library.

I have given up trying to explain to the hairdresser what the ‘public sector’ is. She thinks there are only two types of job – trades or retail. I see her once a month and she tells me about her boyfriend and what new white goods she plans to buy. If she has any expertise in the general area of human resources, she's keeping that particular light firmly concealed under the deepest bushel it's possible to imagine.

The government agency that dispenses my fortnightly alms is called Centrelink. It sounds like a type of leisure park and actually looks a bit like an indoor bowls venue, except with desks and without balls. The people at Centrelink phone about every three months to find out if ‘my circumstances have changed’. I feel a bit like a Dickens character, sitting out my days in contemplation of my expectations. Like Pip's, 'my circumstances' lumber on without fear of fortunate change.

Today I received one of these rare phone calls. I had to verify the various elements of ‘my circumstances’ that are of particular interest to Centrelink. After confirming my name, age, address and that I had not done any paid work in the last three months, I was asked to confirm my educational attainment details. I relay this conversation, to the best of my recall,

She : You have stated that you have a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Me : Correct.

She : Is this qualification current or does it need to be upgraded for employment purposes?

Me : It’s a Bachelor of Arts. It doesn’t qualify me for anything.

She : Do you need to upgrade to enable you to get a job?

Me : (thinking this is a bit like the American in Paris who just asks the same question in English but much slower and louder, expecting to get a different result). It’s a certification of a general education, not a qualification.

She : But, I just need to know if it’s a current qualification.

Me : (thinking it’s very bad to argue with stupid people who control your purse strings but equally bad to indulge stupidity, temper my response with a highly ameliorative tone). Well, it hasn’t been revoked by the university if that’s what you’re asking. (Honestly, we are at a loss).

She : So, I’ll put yes, the qualification is current.

Me : Yes, I think that would be a good idea.

So, my question would be, just how low is the bar now? I’ve got a ‘workplace consultant’ who doesn’t understand the term ‘public sector’ and a Centrelink operative who doesn’t understand the concept of a ‘tertiary education’. Having had time to reflect, I’m guessing the basis of the question is to determine the number of people who require ‘upskilling’ to render them ‘job-ready’ but what’s with the robot act? Surely, someone working for Centrelink at client level has a basic enough education to recognise a simple contradiction. Aren’t we all supposed to be schooled for deductive reasoning? Did she not get that the statement I made negated her question, indeed trumped her question?

Not that I'm guessing she had a PhD in 'community engagement' but, if we're so into 'qualifications', how about a Certificate of Proficiency in Listening or a Diploma in Practical Reasoning?

I've never been afraid of the dark before, but hey, I'm getting there ...