The Unconventional Cubicles of a New Zealand Working Holiday
This might come as a surprise to some readers, but during 2006 & 2007 I spent a year working in New Zealand.
I say this because sometimes even I forget that I lived in New Zealand.
Sorry, New Zealand.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself – it just feels like it happened in another lifetime.
The jobs I had in NZ (that’s en-zed to the uninitiated) weren’t as unusual as the ones I had in Australia, but they weren’t exactly conventional, either.
Americans between the ages of 18-30 can work in New Zealand for a full year, so I split my time between Auckland and Christchurch. Instead of scouring the papers and pounding the pavement, I registered with recruitment agencies and let them find me a job. This saved me a lot of hassle and time, but it did land me some jobs I probably wouldn’t have applied for on my own.
Ministry of Education – Support Officer
$18 an hour
Parker Bridge Recruitment sent me to interview with the Ministry of Education (MOE), but I wasn’t exactly clear on what I was applying for. I mainly went because it was a Ministry, like in Harry Potter.
That’s probably why I didn’t get the job.
Miraculously, my interviewer, Fiona, took a shine to me and decided to hire me for a different position. A few days later, I was a government employee, working for the Corporate Services Team.
I’m bored just saying it – corporate services.
Corporate Services was responsible for the mundane tasks that make people want to quit their jobs and go travel the world. But for me it was okay, because I was already traveling the world.
I was replacing an English girl who was also on a working holiday visa, so I just assumed her time was up and she had to leave the country. That was not the case.
Tessa took me aside on my first day for a confidential discussion.
“Look,” she said, “I’m going to be frank. They hired you to do kitchen duty.”
What? Fiona hadn’t taken a shine to me at all. She’d sensed gullibility.
Had I known the truth, I wouldn’t have ironed my pants that morning.
“I’m trying to get you out of it,” she continued. “I saw your CV. You’ve got a college degree, and it’s not right for them to put you in the kitchen. So I’ve talked to Fiona and she’s going to find another role for you.”
What a champion! At that time, I wouldn’t have had the guts to speak up. For sure I would have spent the next six months emptying the dishwasher and refreshing the coffee thermos for all 130 ministry employees.
Within a week, young Dierdre from Ireland was in the kitchen and I advanced in the ranks, taking on duties such as:
- opening the mail
- making a map of the car park
- affixing extension stickers to every phone in the office
- writing and distributing a weekly newsletter
- pricing ergonomic chairs
- distributing swipe cards to new employees
I hardly took the stresses of work home with me.
Surprisingly, working in a government office proved to be a cultural experience. The MOE’s Pasifika team was responsible for arranging cultural events throughout the city. It was because of them that I got to experience a hangi, the traditional Maori feast where all the food is cooked underground for hours.
Everyone gathered in an fairy-lit room as various employees told us fascinating old Maori legends, none of which I can now recall. Probably because I was in a food coma.
When I left, my colleagues gave me a jade necklace in the shape of an albatross tear. One of the Maori men blessed it, then passed it around in a circle so everyone could hold it before placing it around my neck.
“This albatross tear will protect you on your travels,” he said. “You will always carry our protection everywhere you go.”
Wow. I’d blundered my way into this job and come out with massive rewards.
Good thing I’d ironed my pants.
Christchurch Clinical Studies Trust (CCST) – Recruiter
$22 an hour
In Christchurch my recruitment agency got me a job as a recruiter for clinical drug trials.
Apparently you don’t need medical knowledge for that kind of thing.
CCST was a phase I & II testing facility, which basically meant they were testing the drugs for adverse side effects. Participants received a miniscule dosage and were monitored regularly. The organization was extremely professional and sterile, and everyone made me nervous. I felt like a total fraud, as I do in many of my jobs.
The first time I met Richard, the head doctor on staff, I spilled my coffee onto the carpet.
“Ha ha,” I said, rubbing it in with the toe of my shoe. “It’ll blend. You’d never believe I used to be a waitress, would you?”
First impressions. They’re the best, aren’t they?
I had to recruit healthy volunteers who were willing to commit to overnight hospital stays and multiple visits over the course of several weeks. The shortest trial spanned three days and paid $1200, while the longest covered eight weeks and paid nearly $3000.
The most willing subjects were, predictably, male college students.
This presented a problem, because there was only one rule:
No drugs or alcohol for the duration of the study.
Many of my phone conversations went like this:
“My buddy’s graduating in the middle of the study. Is it cool if, you know, I go out just that one night and have a few beers?”
“…No.” long pause. “It’s not cool.”
“Oh, yeah, I didn’t think so, just thought I’d ask.”
These were the kind of people who would go have a few beers in the middle of the study and lie about it to the doctors.
Well, blood tests don’t lie, idiots.
The cohort (test group) would then be ruined and I would have to recruit all new volunteers.
There was one question that was even more popular than, “Is it okay for me to go on a bender in the middle of the study even though I’ve already signed an agreement stating that I know it’s not okay?”.
“So, uh, if I do this study, you’re not going to give me hepatitis, are you?”
No. We’re not going to give you hepatitis.
Clinical trials aren’t like Russian roulette.
The doctors don’t infect you with a crippling disease just to see if they can cure you.
I also had to fend off the over-eager volunteers, the ‘regulars,’ if you will.
“I know I just finished a trial last week, but are there any others I could sign up for?”
Slow down there, Sparky.
Several rules were in place at CCST, one of them being that volunteers had to wait at least three months between trials.
Once I got them in the door, I handed them over to the doctors. You know, the ones who actually had medical training.
I learned more about medicine in those six months than I ever intended to, but fortunately I’ve forgotten most of it by now.
What I do remember is that by working at CCST, I saved up enough money to cruise around Milford Sound, hike the Franz Josef glacier, and go bungee jumping in Queenstown. I held my nose through Rotorua, sailed down sand dunes in Northland, and went skydiving over Lake Taupo.
And that is what a working holiday in New Zealand is really about.