Wednesday, September 01, 2004

It's Just Temporary

Tomorrow I begin a few weeks of temping while I work on finding a “real” job. This is evoked bewilderment, shock, and even something vaguely resembling outrage from my fans and friends. “You’re going to temp? Is it at least a legal temp job?”

No, it isn’t. Just
temping. In a call center, specifically. For $8/hour.

I think it’s because I have a law degree that some people are so taken aback. Surely a
lawyer should be making $100-$200-$300 an hour, not working a clerical temp job, they think. Surely she can just wait for the right job.

And I think the disconnect is this: These children of the
upper-middle class are the ones who never had jobs. Tony internships, where they did low-paid or unpaid work at important “resume-building” companies and foundations. Extracurriculars out the wazoo. Club leadership positions. Sports. Charity work. Habitat for Humanity. Anything and everything to make that resume look good – everything but actual work.

It’s frighteningly common among my peers, and moreso among those younger than I. With all the “enrichment” activities students today are expected to undertake, they don’t have time to work. Moreover, with college an expected part of schooling for upper-middle-class America, parents know they’ll be footing the bill and
pre-plan for it. Smart kids who want to go to college, if they come from well-off families, don’t think to themselves, “If my dream is college, I’ll have to pay for that.” Instead, they hardly think about it at all. College after high school is the next step. It’s automatic, and requires no more preplanning – or funding - than high school.

“But couldn’t you find something better?” these folks ask, horrified that I’m going to be doing something that anyone with a
high school education could manage. They act like there’s something shameful in it, something wrong with answering phones. Even the temp agency placement specialist (fancy title!) was apologetic that he had to offer me something for which I was so “overqualified” and wished he had something better to offer me.

It’s hardly the first low-level job I’ve had. I’ve been a mother’s helper (that’s where you do the mother’s chores while mom spends time with her kids), a baby-sitter, a
nanny, a camp counselor; a part-time secretary, a retail clerk, a lab tech at a chemical analysis company, and a bank intern; a typist, transcriptionist, and data-coder; a reporter, lay-out tech, newsroom manager, editor, and columnist; a law clerk and legal intern; a teacher and a tutor; and whatever it’s called when you do waiter-type jobs at someone’s house when they throw a party. I turned 16 on a Sunday, passed my drivers’ test on a Monday, and my parents said, “Congratulations. Now, find a job by Friday or you won’t be driving.” So I did, and I’ve been working ever since. (In reality, I started mothers’ helper-ing for pay when I was about 9, but working “real” jobs since I was 16.) I had one summer off after I had mono, and one summer off while studying for the bar exam, but otherwise I have spent the last 10+ years either in school full time and working part time, or working full time. I have a hard time imagining not working.

So while searching for a professional position – a notoriously slow process, particularly when one is, as I am, new to a city and with few contacts – I am temping. It’s an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and – what most of my horrified detractors don’t seem to get - $8/hour for answering phones pays a lot better than
$0/hour for sitting at home on my butt. Clearly it doesn’t pay nearly as well as $100/hour for lawyering, or even the $40/hour I can make tutoring, but $8 is still more than $0 – a concept my college-educated friends are having such a hard time with I’m considering sending them to remedial math classes.

I think it’s because they’ve never worked for
minimum wage. They’ve never seen how that paltry $5/hour starts to add up, by the end of a summer job, to real money. (Well, real money to a high school or college student. It’s criminal to ask adults with families to work for minimum wage, especially when so few minimum wage jobs come with benefits.) Sure, $8/hour isn’t going to buy me the real-life equivalents Boardwalk and Park Place anytime soon, but a 40-hour week at $8/hour will make a month’s payment on my student loans, with enough left over for a movie – even after taxes. There’s no shame in that.

Really, I think it’s about
entitlement. Many of my peers feel their degrees entitle them to a good job, without a whole lot of work on their parts (in some cases, without even the job-hunting part). I, and the rest of us whose parents felt minimum-wage jobs were character-building, get giddy over nice round numbers per hour that are above minimum wage. I’ve worked enough jobs at enough places with enough different people to know that jobs (and good salaries) aren’t guaranteed. I know enough to know that simple jobs – even menial jobs – are never shameful if they’re done competently. Anyone too proud to work retail, or secretarial, or janitorial labor is suffering from some seriously misplaced pride – and, I expect, some seriously crappy work-product: How disturbing is it to take pride in some tasks you undertake for pay but not others? How can you expect to be a good accountant if you can’t take the responsibility to be a good lifeguard?

And well, it’s temporary. And I’m sure my prospective employers will be happier to hear that while job-hunting, I was also working, not sitting on my
couch watching Springer and waiting for the phone to ring.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

right on. if you're not in el jobbo perfecto at this exact moment, you work at el jobbo paychecko for now.

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