Friday, 1 February 2013

01/02/13 - Work Experience

Work experience – does it really matter?
Well, obviously the answer is ‘yes, it’s essential’. Or ‘no, it’s a bloody waste of time.’ Definitely one of those two. Yeah.

When I was sixteen, my school announced that we were all off to do a week’s work experience, and we could either use their resources to be allocated a place at some local company, or we could sort out our own placements, pending school approval. I opted to work for a Walthamstow-based firm that sold transfer paper, heat presses, printing supplies and things of that nature, explaining to the school that this would give me a solid grounding in a relatively recession-proof industry, and that the opportunity to observe London as a working, functioning organism from a work-based (rather than tourism-based) perspective would offer valuable insights into the wider world outside of Herne Bay. What I didn’t tell them was that it was my uncle’s company, so I’d basically be treating the thing as a bit of a jolly. I like my uncle, he’s a laugh. It seemed like a fun idea.
So, with the arrangements made, I packed a bag and caught a train up to the excitingly-named E17 post-code (hey, it was the nineties, East Seventeen were still famous then).
What did I learn that week? Lots of things, really. I learnt that my uncle has a cabbie-like knowledge of central London, as we spent rather a lot of time driving from place to place in his Renault Extra. I learnt that if you run your own business, you can also moonlight doing other jobs as you go about your day-to-day work; say, if you used to work for Canon copiers, you can make quite a lot of money fixing people’s photocopiers, then convince them to buy a load of paper and other equipment. ‘You’ll save on delivery costs,’ you can say, ‘because I’m already here. The gear’s outside in the van.’
I learnt that you can fit two grand in £20-notes in the dashtop cubbyhole of a Renault Extra, it’s exactly the right size. I learnt that if you run your own business that’s largely telephone-based – this being 1998, before everyone cottoned on to email – then you don’t actually need to be in the office that much; if you’re watching Trainspotting over breakfast and get really into the film, you can just hang out on the sofa and finish the movie whilst occasionally fielding calls on your portable Motorola telephone (leaning out of the window of the flat to get a better signal). I was introduced to the timeless London delicacy that is pie ‘n’ mash. I learnt that a ‘business lunch’ needn’t always mean lunch – it can be several pints of London Pride and then a taxi home.
I didn’t learn a whole lot about paper or photocopiers or salesmanship – or work, now I come to think of it – but I still reckon that week spent Delboy-ing around London was far more valuable than it would have been to sharpen pencils in some faceless hick town back office like most of my peers did.

There was one kid in my year who spent that work experience week at some sort of medical research facility or veterinary lab, or something – his job for the week was basically to masturbate pigs so that the lab had plenty of semen samples to experiment with. We mocked him mercilessly for this, but he went on to study something sciencey-brainboxy at Oxford, so who’s laughing now?

So, yes, work experience is either fundamentally pointless or incredibly useful, depending on your perspective. And now that the economy’s in the toilet and decent paid work is increasingly hard to come by, perhaps the notion of giving up your time for free in exchange for a little life experience is more logical than ever. With this in mind, here are a few areas of the world of work that are reasonably recession-proof and well worth steering your kids/friends/self towards:

The lure of fresh coffee seems like something that will never wane. No matter how hard up people are and how much their household budgets are squeezed, there’s only a very small percentage of the nation, it seems, who possess the part of the brain that points out that regularly paying five quid for a pint of coffee is a bit fucking stupid. I guess it helps coffee bean farmers in far-flung places, and captains of supertankers, and has various other knock-on effects, as well as keeping everyone’s colons well cleansed. So why not train as a barista? There’s a seemingly endless demand for decent coffee, so you’ll always find work. Plus, it sounds a bit like ‘barrister’, so your mum won’t be ashamed to bring it up at dinner parties.

Tax accountant
OK, it’s an ambitious one, this. But worth sticking with if you have the tenacity. Have you seen ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’? It’s not about tax accountants, but the principle is similar – Will Smith’s character puts his whole life on the line in order to work as an unpaid entry-level bod in the financial sector. The film has a happy ending. So could your life.
As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘the only things certain in life are death and taxes’. And you’re not legally allowed to kill people (unless you join the army, and even then there’s all sorts of red tape to wade through), so you could do worse than working with taxes. They’re not going anywhere.

Tyre fitter
How many cars are there in the world? Fucking loads, that’s how many. Mechanics will always have full diaries, because cars are so horribly complex that there’s a near-infinite number of things that can unexpectedly break – and most people can’t be arsed to (or don’t know how to) fix them.
There are some things that people will, in times of austerity, teach themselves to do in order to save money; changing your oil is a piece of piss, for example. But changing your own tyres is quite tricky and requires specific machinery – it’s pretty unlikely that many members of the public will attempt that at home.
Get an internship at your local tyre fitters and get that scent of fresh rubber in your nostrils.

Ice cream seller
Owning an ice cream van is a pretty seasonal thing, but for a few weeks of the year you’ll be the most popular person in the world. All you need is a sunny day and enough diesel to get you to the nearest park, people will be queuing up to throw money at you. And in London, posh folk don’t seem to think that £3.50 is an unreasonable price for a ninety-nine, for some reason.
Concerned about the seasonality of it? You could always remodel yourself as a burger-flipper in the winter and park yourself outside nightclubs.
Do some research before you make a commitment, though. Vans aren’t very big. Vans full of ice cream machinery are pretty tight on space. You may struggle to find an ice cream seller that’s willing to take you on as an apprentice, due to the fact that you’ll be standing really, really close to each other all the time. (Ice cream men are like bank tellers – friendly enough if they’ve got a glass wall to hide behind; rather more gazelle-like face-to-face.) But if you do, you can presumably enjoy as many Zooms and Screwballs as you can eat – perks of the job, see?

People die. And for all the logic and sensibleness of opting for cremation, there will always be people who want to see out eternity under six solid feet of mud and earthworms. It’s that whole ‘death and taxes’ thing again, the demand for personnel in the mortality industry is perennially strong.
Now, the interpersonal side of death is pretty awkward and sad – arranging funerals, helping grieving families to choose flowers and hymns, driving hearses, all of that business is fraught with tearful emotion and gloomy glumness. But if you’re the dude digging the holes, you don’t need to talk to anyone – it’s just you, your spade, and your own timetable. In addition to the inherent nobility of contributing to the final passage of the soul, you also get to adopt a freakish persona, should you choose to do so. You can grow your hair out all straggly, wear a long black leather coat, smoke liquorice rollies and tell tall tales about what goes on in the graveyard after dark. What other job allows this kind of freedom…?

So there you go – five things to bear in mind when that ‘little chat’ with HR happens.

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