Sunday, October 16, 2011

Something from nothing.

I read a column in a certain Sunday newspaper today based on the premise that 50 years on, we still talk about Marilyn Monroe too much. "Isn't it time we let her go?" There followed 650 words or so of talking about Marilyn Monroe. I don't think I need to say much about the article itself, the point is obvious.

I've noticed that I read newspapers much less than I used to. In days of old, half of Saturday and Sunday would be taken up sitting at the kitchen table, drinking litres of tea and reading the multi-sectioned weekend papers. I was more of a comment and analysis junkie myself but I did venture into the "colour sections" - dated phrase notwithstanding. Whether I'd gained anything from it by the end of the day is debatable.

Now I find myself looking at the "gateway" columns that come at the front of the magazines before the more substantial cover stories, and thinking "what the hell are these people writing about?"

The fact is they write about nothing and do it rather well, in an entertaining and amusing manner. They eke out a minor event or passing thought into a weekly column and we lap it up. Good for them. They're skilled at their craft and give us something to read over the toast and marmalade on a Sunday morning. However, I think it's fair to say that a good half of the content of these magazines ranks somewhere between the inconsequential or vacuous and that which positively encourages people to care about meaningless lifestyle choices such as their choice of coffee grinder.

The irony of me writing a blog or column about this will not be lost on you, I'm sure. The difference between this blog and their columns is that I have a theme - a feeling of dislocation that will hopefully pass eventually. What they do so well is write about whatever pops into their head this week. My challenge as a budding writer is what to write about when my current material dries up.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cut and run?

There are times when I feel it would be a lot simpler to cut my losses, call time on this venture and return to Taiwan. I've made an effort, applied for jobs and been to interviews. It hasn't been without value. I know a lot more about interviews, the UK jobs market and schools environment than I did and even feel what I've learned would be useful in Taiwan. I've reacquainted myself with my country and put my affairs in order. But given the lack of tangible progress towards a career, why not declare the obstacles insurmountable and hop on a plane. I could earn a comfortable living, have a good social life and feel at ease in my environment.

Sadly, this is not realistic. For one thing, there's the cost. It took a lot of money to ship our possessions over here. People sometimes ask me if I'll be visiting Rosey before she comes over in January! If I had a thousand pounds to throw around and could take time off before even starting any prospective job, maybe. As it is, it is neither realistic to return to Taiwan or to visit my wife.

That is not to say it will never happen. "See you next year" is a common refrain when expats declare they are leaving Taiwan for good and I've seen a good many of them return, sometimes with their tail between their legs, others openly admitting that they simply prefer life in Taiwan. For me, for us, I can't leave the UK until I have a basis to come back at a future date rather than returning to do this all over again. And there's no point in returning to Taiwan without experience that means life there is not just more of the same. Not to mention the matter of Rosey gaining UK work experience and moving down the road towards eventual UK citizenship. With those under our belts, we'll be a little more free.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Promises, promises.

Strictly speaking, I'm disabled. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I am. This entitles me to a disabled person's railcard, which is nice, particularly for the person holding my hand, who also gets a third off their fare. I can't drive, so it seems fair enough.

The other thing it entitles me to do is to check the disabled box on job application forms. Where employers use the Two Ticks "positive about disabled people" symbol this means they have made five commitments regarding employing those with disabilities. They are certainly well meaning, aimed at increasing access to employment for disabled people, general awareness of disability issues at work and communication about these within organisations. However, to be meaningful, they must be in some sense verifiable and enforceable.

The first commitment is "to interview all disabled applicants who meet the minimum criteria for a job vacancy and to consider them on their abilities". The action itself is verifiable, dependant upon the condition of meeting the minimum criteria, which is potentially more open to interpretation. It is this one that concerns me, and more of it later.

The second commitment is "to discuss with disabled employees, at any time but at least once a year, what both parties can do to make sure disabled employees can develop and use their abilities". Discussing once a year is certainly an objective measure and a worthy one, though there is no guarantee that anything positive will come of it. Communication is a good thing, so we won't knock it.

Number three is "to make every effort when employees become disabled to make sure they stay in employment". "To make every effort" is pretty meaningless, it's certainly not a phrase that could be objectively verified. You could always do more, and you could probably do less and still claim you made every effort. Verbalising intentions does increase the likelihood of their being seen through however, so not necessarily a bad thing.

The next commitment states "to take action to ensure that all employees develop the appropriate level of disability awareness needed to make these commitments work". "To take action" means to do something. I suppose something is distinguishable from nothing. "To ensure" would be better (and ensure being a verb, action is integral) . Why "take action to ensure" rather than "ensure"? To make it vaguer, less meaningful, less enforceable. As for "the appropriate level" - that's highly arguable too.

Finally, "to review these commitments each year and assess what has been achieved, plan ways to improve on them and let employees and Jobcentre Plus know about progress and future plans". To review, to assess and to let know are demonstrable and hopefully do make some difference.

Clearly, the more meaningful a commitment is, the harder it is to achieve. No news there. But a commitment to motherhood and apple pie is still "A Commitment". Good PR.

Where this relates to me is the question of whether I meet the minimum criteria for the jobs I've applied for, whether the minimum criteria are actually open to interpretation and conversely, whether objectivity and mechanistic reading of applications actually makes it easier to exclude on a technicality those you don't wish to interview.

I've applied for a lot of Teaching Assistant jobs and got ten or so interviews. Some of these have been with authorities such as Brighton and Hove, West Sussex and East Sussex who are all committed to the Double Tick scheme. Others have been with Academies or other schools with independent employment policies, that don't apply this rule. I've got interviews for similar jobs in similar schools both where the policy applies and where it does not, meaning that I may have benefited from the policy in some cases but I have certainly been in the top five or six applicants in others. I've also not been invited for interview at some schools in all three of the above local authorities, in theory meaning that I didn't meet (or demonstrate that I met) the person specification.

Generally speaking, I think I both meet the minimum criteria and make a good candidate for interview for Teaching Assistant jobs and also do a good job of demonstrating this in my applications. This is born out by the fact that I've got interviews both in the three LAs above, and in Academies etc. Where I haven't got interviews with "Double Tick" employers, were the person specifications so radically different that I didn't meet them? Were they just worded subtly differently such that my application, though otherwise good, didn't check all the mechanistic boxes applied for fairness's sake? Were the so called "objective criteria" actually open to interpretation, or were technicalities used to avoid giving me an interview (because I wasn't actually one of the very best candidates)?

I have no objection to this. If there are five outstanding candidates and I make it to interview on the grounds of mere competence, I'm pretty unlikely to get the job and, other than honing my interview technique, I'm wasting my time and theirs. What I object to is meaningless commitments. I'm sure I'm competent to do most of the jobs I've applied for. I'm also confident of my ability to demonstrate this in writing. Whether I'm an outstanding candidate worthy of interview is another matter. So I can't help feeling that HR departments, faced with several outstanding (disabled or non disabled) candidates plus some merely competent disabled ones, won't want either to bump up the numbers coming to interview or abandon some of the better candidates simply to meet the requirements. So they interpret the supposedly objective person specification and what's written on the applications so as to exclude the merely competent and only invite the best candidates.

Getting interviews on the grounds of my largely irrelevant disability is good for my experience and in some ways good for my confidence - and there are other disabled candidates more in need of it than me. That doesn't stop it being a sham. Keep the meaningful parts of the policy, but don't make promises you can't keep. It only excites the Daily Mail tendency.

Any comments are particularly welcome on this controversial issue.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Baggage and luggage.

I've been tidying up. All the boxes of wedding presents have gone in the spare room. The junk that's been waiting to be thrown out for months (yes, I've been back for months), has been disposed of. My vinyl is neatly arranged ready to be played and every corner of the room is for the first time accessible. Order prevails.

Which has the uncomfortable effect of making it seem more like a functional bedroom and less like a staging post. The feeling struck me as I stood next to the window to draw the curtain as regular people do, rather than leaning over the stack of boxes filling the corner or more likely, just leaving the curtain closed as I had been doing.

The more livable in I make my room, the more paraphernalia I dispose of, the more contemporary I make it, the further back it takes me. Living with the baggage of my past and the luggage of my present, makes me a guest of my younger self. Occupying the room, annexing it to my current self makes it my life now!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The art of blagging.

I received a message from a skills website saying that, based on my profile they had an opportunity that I might be interested in. It was from a company describing itself as a literary consultancy, doing copy writing, editing etc. The advert, written in painful English said the company "seeks an writer for the occasional work on book covers..." "This shall be on a...." "You shall be registered..." "...would suit somebody whom wants" "send an email to myself for further information."

You gotta admire the balls of someone who can't write for toffee, setting up a company whose mission is to improve the copy of others!

Lesson: it's all about having the face to say you can do a job. Regardless of whether you actually can, if one person believes you, you're on your way.

How long will I be an ex-expat?

I''ve been the object of a lot of good will since I've been back. People have been very sympathetic and understanding towards me. I've been back for more than three months now and am beginning to wonder how long it can last.

In my first month, I made a concerted effort, applying for all the teaching assistant jobs that came up and successfully gaining eight or so interviews. Arguably, I lost momentum over the school holidays, with no schools jobs to apply for and no Plan B to put in their place. There was the hope that further TA jobs would come up in September and that my questions would answer themselves. There have been a number of positions come up but I've been less successful in gaining interviews, perhaps because some schools have a blanket policy of not interviewing candidates they've interviewed before. This seems a little absurd, assuming they interviewed 6 acceptable candidates and chose the best, the other five would remain at least acceptable and might prove better than any new applicants.

In the absence of any further TA opportunities coming up for the time being, I need a Plan B. This writing is useful, but it's no substitute for full time paid work.

The premise of this blog is that it aint easy being an ex-expat. But you can't keep on telling people that forever and you can't keep on defining yourself as an ex-expat forever! People will get bored and your life won't move forward. You have to do something new, here and now.

Hopefully, things will get better. And what then for the blog?

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