20 years of transition

So today is the day I officially reach 20 years of employment with the one institution. That feels pretty amazing, as after my last interview before I started here I felt I would never get a permanent job ever again. The interviewer said to me, “Why would anyone hire you? You haven’t held a job for more than 9 months in the last six years. You’ve lived in so many different places. If I hire you you’re probably going to quit and go travelling six months from now.”

That’s true, from leaving Australia in 1994 to where I was living when I got my current job in 2000, I had nine different addresses; I had a handful of jobs that lasted a couple of months or more but I also had a lot of temp jobs that lasted a few weeks, a week, in some cases only a day.

When you are temping and contracting you learn a lot, very quickly. You have to. It’s a survival skill. You have to learn who you can ask questions of, who you should avoid, how the social structure works (the person with the most senior job title is not always the one in charge). I learnt a lot about how to assimilate, how to work my way around unfamiliar IT systems, how to say, “I don’t know but I’ll give it a go.” I had some great bosses and I had some complete a******* bosses. I worked with some great teams and I worked in some isolated places where I was largely left to get on with things on my own.

But a lot of the time I didn’t feel I quite fit in. A lot of the time I was the only non-Brit in the office, and my lack of understanding of the nuances of Eastenders and Premier League Football meant there was a lot of conversation I couldn’t join in. And as I never watched Neighbours, my British colleagues probably felt there was not a lot they could talk to me about either.

So landing where I did – and I’ll point out I was temping for four months before the permanent job came my way – felt good. Here was an institution staffed largely by foreigners, with a focus on the bigger world, and football and Eastenders was no longer a necessary currency of conversation.

And I’m still here after twenty years.

I’ve had five promotions.

I’ve had three months working from the Moscow office in winter.

I had two years working part time while I did my M.A.

I’ve been through three IT upgrades.

Working here gave me an excuse to learn Russian. It’s now giving me an excuse to work on improving my French.

I have been lucky enough to have work trips to St Petersburg, Dubrovnik, Chisinau, Istanbul, Ankara, Bratislava, Cairo and Casablanca, and on my own time I’ve visited several more of the countries where we work. Sometimes on these trips I spot my institution’s logo beside a project we’ve financed or supported and I run to take a photo while my husband rolls his eyes and says, “Oh for heaven’s sake.”

Working in a multicultural institution means I am exposed on a day to day basis to a variety of languages, customs, foods, attitudes and beliefs: name days, roses for International Women’s Day, that weird thing about only giving an odd number of flowers unless it’s a funeral – these are all part of my life now. I’ve heard stories from colleagues about life under Communism – funny, bizarre and sometimes scary. Through the formal cultural programme I have been able to see films from Mongolia, Hungary, Ukraine. Through the literature prize I have been exposed to translations of great books from many other countries (such as Olga Tokarczuk – Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, it’s more life affirming than its title would indicate). Through the annual staff photo competition I have been disappointed and disheartened but finally victorious with my 2nd prize win this year.

I’m still in the same department, although the people around me have shifted. However there are still a handful of people who have been there longer than I have, so I don’t feel quite so “institutionally old” as I should. I started as a Secretary (they are called Assistants now). After a few years I changed job and became what a friend referred to as “Budget Bitch”, where a big chunk of my job was policing travel and expenses. And now I work on green economy projects, keeping the bankers and the engineers and the consultants all in line with what we promised to deliver, and providing judgement calls when our guiding documents are inconclusive.

What is it that keeps me here? Job security is key, I’ll agree. Benefits, also pretty good. And in The Before, I relished the subsidised cafeteria and coffee bar. (Ah, The Before when I didn’t have to think about what to make for lunch every day…) But I think it’s the people that keep me here.

Although I doubt they are enough to keep me here for another 20 years.

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