Friday, January 28, 2011

Ideas Worth Spreading

I was watching TVNZ 7 which currently has a few video's from a TEDx conference held in Auckland. For those of you how don't know of TEDx, they're independently (Independent of what I'm not entirely sure. Probably from corporate interests) run conferences with the theme "ideas worth spreading". I've come across these talks every so often. They're ALWAYS interesting. I don't think I've ever been bored by one.

One of my favourites was one on maths in the classroom. The speaker asked the question:- what do we lose through route learning? The most obvious thing that jumps out to me about this is multiplication. I didn't learn my times tables. I saw households where they'd "practise" their times tables in the morning before school and even after school.

The answer was obvious. Enthusiasm. We lose enthusiasm. How many of us get to high school and find a class room full of people who enjoy maths? It's like brussels sprouts right? Except, if you cook brussel sprouts right (not too much and a little bit of butter with with toasted almonds and fried onions), they don't taste so bad. Maths is much the same way. And we're now at a stage where the calculation becomes less important. It matters to understand what is happening i.e. 3*5 is a short hand way of saying 3+3+3+3+3. It's less important to know that 3*5 is 15 if it results in a lack of enthusiasm for the subject.

Anyway, while watching this  talk on TVNZ7 (while on the face of it it's about New Zealand's more global role creatively but to me came across more about the advantages of smaller and nimble entities) I got to thinking about what I would talk about if given the opportunity.

Two ideas jumped out at me:
1. How we think about unemployment
2. Community projects in a global context

I was sitting at the bus stop the other day when a guy drinking from a Coke bottle. I say from a Coke bottle as the guy drinking from it freely admitted that it was mixed with something. He started talking about being unemployed. I suggested that perhaps he should try volunteer work. He looked like he could do with a win.

I've spoken about this before. We seem to have gotten things all wrong.

We've given ALL of the power to the employer. It's much more important that we're happy with the job than it is that the employers are happy with us. One will inherently follow the other. In otherwords, despite what WINZ or anyone else says, you should be perfectly comfortable to turn down a job if you have misgivings.

We don't look at how happy we're going to be at a job. We look at the money we'll be receiving and whether we'd be able to do the job. While I was working at EDS and found myself with no time whatsoever, despite being paid well, I wasn't happy. The most visited site at EDS was TradeMe. Not just me. This is EDS New Zealand wide. You've got buildings of stressed people, who are paid well, but don't have a lot of time who look for "retail therapy". I didn't actually have time to go out shopping for what I needed. I had to look online to get these things delivered to me.

WINZ, I believe, is a destructive force. While they help a lot of people keep their houses and get fed, when it comes to job placement or their courses, they don't have any notion whatsoever of appropriate placement or what skills someone needs in order to get placement.

I've drawn these conclusions from two main sources - what I see around myself and a friend who was forced to go on two of these courses and placed in various jobs.

This friend of mine was put into a fish freezer works. He'd gone through most of an arts degree and yet the only placement WINZ seemed to be able to put him into was somewhere where any notion of creativity was to be quickly killed off.

He's a well educated person. We talk for hours on various subjects on a weekly basis. He's not stupid. He described the first course as being condescending right down to the person leading the course being much like a kindergarten teacher. During the 2nd course, we were flatting together and weren't getting along so well (though we're still very good friends) so I didn't hear too much about it.

But what I think WINZ is REALLY bad at, is encouraging people. You have a body of people who have a range of skills - because let's face it, no body is never any good at only one thing - who are suffering this incredibly depressing time of their lives. Seeking out work is discouraging. Everyone seems to use employment agencies which have a really bad habit of trying to cubbyhole you.

"You've worked in prostitution? Sweet, we'll have you working in MacDonalds in no time." Nevermind the fact that the person may have been miserable as a prostitute.

Instead, what if WINZ showed an interest in what you're doing? What if they were to encourage volunteering instead? Something along the lines of:

"You've done art and you're currently volunteering your time to help people find their creativity. What if you were were able to work with troubled youths? You'd be doing something for the community and it's something you appear to enjoy."

Sure, they may be on the benefit for a little longer. However, the people they're helping are exploring the options. They're doing what they want to be doing rather than just trying to feed their family.

This has implications elsewhere. In terms of education, someone had said to me that if you teach those higher goals, being happy for example, the rest will follow. For example, I found that I was enthused and excited in electronics. This gave me an enthusiasm for maths so I was always going to learn it. English was something I wasn't enthusiastic about until a girl (and here I am having a conversation with myself and in the process transmitting the conversation to the world in written form).

And then there's the fact that searching for a job is about sending out 3 pages of text that say nothing about you really to multiple places - which for the most part, don't have the courtesy of telling you that you haven't been sucessful in your applciation. It's discouraging. It's depressing. It's disheartening. And we seem to be encouraged to display that same lack of character during an interview. You dress up in your Sunday finest. You speak when spoken to. You perhaps ask a superficial question or two. You listen to a litany of how X company is a great place to work at and how they changed ownership in 1993 or whatever.

This same lack of character is the same lack of character that you're taught at school when being taught CV writing or exactly the same lack of character that WINZ displays or the same lack of character that employment agencies encourage. What makes you different from that other non-character dipslaying applicant? Is your character going to be compatible with the workplace?

So, we're back to the overly big CV. The 3 pages are your index which the employer may then look at to get more detail. The rest is a chance to show some character. I'm not entirely convinced that this would work. For the most part, the employer only ever gets to see a small subset of CVs after the employment agency has dropped a whole bunch. Employment agencies don't find the right person for the job. They find a person to fill a position.

So this rant about unemployment, how it's viewed, what's going wrong etc. needs work. But there's definitely a lot of content.

In terms of community projects, one of my biggest criticisms of them is that they can be horribly inward looking. Take the Tamaki Transformation Programme. While I'm horribly enthusiastic about it, I find myself looking at it with quite often the same trepidation with which I view the Maori party. While I really want to respect Pita Sharples, it annoys me that he's always talking about what's good for the Maori people rather than asking "does this benefit the people of New Zealand?". The two aren't mutually exclsuive.

One of the biggest benefits of the Manaiakalani project (which is under the broader umbrella of the Tamaki Transformation Programme) is that it allows students to see themselves in a more global context. They have to consider their audience when writing in their blogs for example. When filming themselves, they have to consider appearance and diction.

But how far can this be stretched? Are they completely reliant on the community? And if those skills don't exist within the Tamaki region, what happens? The Manaiakalani project sought volunteers. But then, how much can you rely on volunteers? Given that it's nor part of our culture to volunteer - eg. we don't have internships and while we're unemployed we're busy sending out CV's, there's a good chance that those people will leave. And who can blame them?

Creating a sustainable relationship with people outside of the community may have benefits within the community. If for example, I was sit down with people within the community to teach them about the systems their kids are using on their laptops, the benefit would be an education you just can't buy.

Ask any Linux person, and their education on Linux came off the internet and talking to other Linux people. Sure, there are certifications out there. Not all of them are offered in New Zealand. And when they are they're attached to horribly expensive three day courses designed to teach you nothing more than how to gain the certification or are just the exam itself. That's the closest you get.

What if the Tamaki region became a Linux powerhouse? The same as New Zealand having a reputation for baristas and bar staff in England. Should those benefits be ignored if it means hiring from outside of the Tamaki region? Should those benefits not be seen as a loss?

This is what I think has gone wrong at that "other school" I've been using for contrast. While they're hiring from inside their community, they come across to me as having limited perspective. They ignore their "cluster". They have communication issues within the school. No one seems to see themselves outside of the context of the school. None of the staff seem all that willing to try out other schools because of "what they've heard" and as a result, the students aren't taught to see outside of the community. Their pride and joy is a group of ex-students who formed a drama group which essentially makes fun of their culture.

And again, while it's great that they've made a success of themselves, they have limited scope. Their humour, in most cases, isn't shared with those unfamiliar with the culture. As far as I know, the members of this group don't do drama outside of this context.

If this school were to hire from outside of their community, their kids would be gaining a different perspective. This perspective could potentially lead to kids who see themselves in a wider context. The possibilities become more than just sports, drama or working in a factory (because that's what Mum and Dad do while the former two are huge ambitions encouraged by the school).

The point is, community projects need to see themselves in a wider context. It's all very well to support the community and people within the community but this needs to be weighed up against the costs. Is the cost a lack of perspective? Is it something more tangible such as education opportunities?

And hey, if we were to merge these two things - unemployed? Then go and volunteer on a community project. Bring an outside perspective. But most importantly, this is a relationship. You need to look at what you're able to bring to the table and whether this is something such a project needs. This sounds like great training for ultimately chosing a job that suits you to me.

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