Thursday, 20 August 2015

What was working life like as an arts graduate

This morning I read a Slate story about a woman who was the inspiration for a female character in a "classic nerd" movie made in the 80s titled Real Genius. Reading the story made me think about how it had been as an arts graduate leaving university in the mid-80s to go to work in Australia and finding that the lessons learned in academia sometimes put you at odds with people in the workforce.

I aimed after graduation to work with a book publisher but when I applied they said I had no sales experience so I took a job selling chemicals door to door for three months, then reapplied at the publishers, and was successful the second time. But the wide territory I covered in the publisher's car took its toll and about 18 months after starting I resigned and went into the public service. I started out at a local office helping people in the community who mostly had financial difficulties but the organisation transferred me to head office. I opened cheques and developed a spreadsheet on a PC to help track performance at local offices. I forget most of what I did.

The public service was an eye-opener for me. There was one woman working in the unit where I was located, and she did data entry. A younger man was in charge of the computer system, and he did the daily backups of data for the organisation. They worked for a guy who struck me as a time server and this guy was often in the office of the big boss, who looked after something important at a state level. Everyone treated the woman as if she were inferior. The young man who did the data backups was a pompous ass who thought very highly of himself. The guy above him was probably a fixer. I never really worked out who did what because I left to join the police at a slightly higher pay rate.

I had high hopes for the police, who employed me as a kind of data analyst entering information into a massive computer system used by law enforcement. I reported to a woman. I also wrote reports on criminals. We analysts sat in the main office along with the translators and lawyers, and the cops worked on the other side of a wall that had two access doors, in their own world. The cops thought I was a bit of a joke. At one point another analyst tried to have me disciplined "for attitude problems" but I refused to be so treated. The cops were raucous and deeply ironic, unhappy people and I left after a year. One night at a party given by one of the translators I had a breakdown and they threw me out of the house in the early hours of the morning because I was swearing at people.

Because of the breakdown and the bad attitude of the cops - people who I could not stand working with, they were so deeply damaged - I moved to the Department of Education at a higher pay grade and started doing desktop publishing, a new field at the time. The unit I worked at was located in Leichhardt Public School and I produced documents on an Apple Mac. My boss, a woman, was very kind to me.

I moved to a high-tech company where my father had worked, not long after this. My job was to produce user manuals for the software the company produced in Australia. Eventually the software would become a global product offering as PCs replaced the larger, more expensive computers the company had always used for automation systems. I enjoyed working with computers and making documents, and I was good at the work. I handled the production of dozens of sets of documents, for different flavours of the software the company produced for different platforms and markets.

The big break came when I moved to Japan to do desktop publishing at a small, English-language publishing unit attached to a high-tech manufacturing company. The company had been for 70 years allied with the US company my father and I had worked for in Australia. I got to write application reports: stories based on successful applications of the company's technologies. I loved the work. We made magazines, brochures, annual reports, product manuals, and newsletters. It was the best job I had ever had and I worked very hard. When my manager, an American from Illinois, left the company however things started to change and eventually I was moved out of the PR section into sales support. Unfortunately, the stress associated with being taken away from what I loved doing combined with other problems to cause me to have a major breakdown and I came back to Australia. I boarded the Qantas flight in Tokyo in a wheelchair and I had three seats in a row to lie on.

Back in Australia I was still recovering from the trauma of the illness and my treatment by the Japanese company. Losing my job was a big blow for me. I bought a backpack and every week would catch the train to the University of Sydney where I had library borrowing rights. I filled the backpack on each visit and took the books home and read them. I did this for 18 months until I got work as a technical writer with the same institution.

By now writing had become what I did. As soon as I had contractual security I moved out of the share house I had been living in and bought a flat nearer to Sydney on a loan from a finance company that has since gone out of business. I enrolled to study journalism at the university, and graduated in 2008. In early 2009 my position with the university was made redundant and I went freelance as a journalist, writing stories for a range of publications. Then not long after this I relocated to Queensland to look after my elderly mother.

No comments: