Jobs Don’t Come Easy
Some people imagine that the president-elect has the capacity to bring manufacturing and coal mining jobs back to economically depressed areas in the United States. I have my doubts about this, but thinking about it reminded me of the number of times I have had to change jobs. I remember when the coal mines closed in the UK, and I lived in the north of England during the decline of the manufacturing industries there.
First of all, though, here is full disclosure. I am white and have benefitted from the privileges that adhere to my race. I also come from a blue-collar background in west London and am grateful for all the values that I have inherited thereby. My parents created a secure environment for their children, and stayed together in a mutually-supportive relationship that was the foundation for my childhood and adolescence. I have been able to acquire post-secondary education with financial help from government grants, loans, and relatives. I have a passport, sufficient food, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom to love whomever I choose. I have been very fortunate, and that has enabled me to broaden my horizons.
After I left high school I was pretty much on my own in making employment decisions. As you might expect, I made a few false starts, but I kept on learning, training, moving house, and reinventing myself throughout my adulthood. Not one of the careers I trained for remained static, and in order to find work I had to retrain and relocate many, many times.
When Life Gives You Lemons
In 1966, when I was 17, I went to secretarial school where I learned Pitman’s shorthand, typing, double-entry bookkeeping, how to use a Gestetner copy machine, and how to communicate via Telex. These abilities were supposed to give me a foundation for employment for most of my life. As it turned out, some of those skills were useful for a few years, but the only one that remained of value for the rest of my life was typing. Other than that, technologies changed and eliminated the need for most of my skill set.
Secretarial work in London in those days was at the mercy of bosses like the guys in Mad Men, and I had one too many uncomfortable encounters with them. In rebelling against this, I went to art college in Manchester. It was as far away as I could get at the time. I had a financial grant for one year, and lived on potatoes for a second year, but I felt I needed to do it. From there, with the help and advice of a wise brother-in-law, I went to teacher training college in Yorkshire. There, I got excellent preparation for teaching English and Art to high school students. That set me on a much more productive path.
Subsequently, I met the man who would become my husband, and he was trying to find work as an architectural draftsman. This was at a time when work was hard to find in the UK, coal mines were being closed, workers’ unions everywhere were being shattered, and architects were laying off draftsmen. My then-boyfriend found work in Canada and I followed him out here. That job fizzled out after a short while, so he reinvented himself as an engineering draftsman and ultimately as an engineering designer in the mining industry. He was doing whatever he had to do to pay the bills and use his talents.
I had to wait a couple of years before I could legally work in Canada, but when I did I found that my teaching qualifications were not immediately recognized. So, I learned Forkner shorthand (a kind of speedwriting) so that I could teach it and Pitman’s shorthand at a secretarial school. Then I became an expediter for the export of chain saws. I learned a lot about cross-border regulations and chainsaw machinery, and I bullshitted a lot. I think that’s a skill I picked up at art college.
We moved from British Columbia to the Northwest Territories, then back to BC. We took distance learning courses, evening classes, and training workshops. We learned new computer skills and upgraded our facility with various software programs so often that our heads spun.
From there we moved to Calgary, Alberta where I got two university degrees, worked part time in various service roles, and then got a job as an instructor in Red Deer. For a while we each lived in different cities, and once together in a city part-way between our two jobs.
All the time we were doing our best to support one another, learn new skills, raise our children, and be the best we could be at whatever we were doing at the time. I have lost count of the number of houses I have lived in. In fact, one of my sisters says she now keeps my address on a Post It note in her address book. When we were doing well, we would upgrade. When we were struggling, we would downsize. We often second-guessed our decision to emigrate, but having made the gamble we stuck it out. There were times when we doubted that it would all work out, but ultimately we did quite well.
Living with the Choices We Make
I understand why people want to stay with the people and places with which they are familiar because leaving them is incredibly hard. Believe me, I know. But, once you decide to do that or not to do that, you live with whatever comes with your choice. If you stay after the jobs have gone, you can enjoy your extended family, friends, and the comfort of familiar surroundings. If you leave to find work, you enjoy the benefits of your labour, make new friends, and explore new environments.
Politicians may or may not help Americans get jobs, but either way many people are probably going to have to retrain—repeatedly. Sadly, not everyone has the benefits that I had in the UK and Canada. I didn’t feel well-off at the time, but now I realize how good I had it then and I am grateful. Very, very grateful.
Making Privileges Possible
When a good friend pointed out to me that my story is rife with privilege, I was taken aback, but she is right. My life hasn’t always been easy, but I have benefitted from a supportive social and political structure that I wasn’t even aware of. I was taught that hard work was the key to success, but that isn’t all there is to it. I also needed opportunities, health care, access to education, the ability to travel, employability, access to loans, and so on.
If the coal mines stay shut and the industries don’t reopen, working people are going to need all those things and more. I only hope their politicians realize it.