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Rachel’s Travel Diary

Monday, 29 May 2006

Location: Cork, Ireland

MapPrepare yourself for a looooong entry...

Have I mentioned that the TV in my apartment has CNN International? This brings me great joy. I love CNN Int'l. It may be as biased as every other news channel out there, but it always reminds me of travelling because it's usually on in European airports and is usually one of the TV channels in international hotels/hostels.

Oh, and Ireland has also made me a slightly obsessive U2 fan, thanks to the fact that not a day goes by when they don't play their songs on the radio.

Anyway.

Contrary to popular belief, I am indeed working and am not merely spending my days killing off my liver in the pubs.

So my job... let's start at the beginning, shall we? I flew in on a Tuesday, had orientation on Wednesday, relocated to Cork on Thursday, spent Friday finding an apartment, couldn't really accomplish anything over the weekend, moved into my apartment on Monday, and FINALLY was able to start looking for jobs on Tuesday. So there went Week 1.

Then there's the fact that USIT (the Irish travel center that arranges the work visas for us foreign college students/graduates) wasn't kidding when it said that February was part of low season for hiring. Tourists aren't exactly flocking to Ireland in the late winter (and for good reason), so the kind of jobs that short term work people like me were looking for weren't exactly in overabundance.

Then there would be what I refer to as the Polish Factor. Poland and several other eastern European countries (Lithuania, Slovakia etc.) joined the EU (European Union) just about two years ago, and Ireland is one of the western European countries that relaxed its EU immigrant laws because its booming economy - it's referred to as the Celtic Tiger, and the economic revival has been going on since about 1994 - has created an insatiable appetite for foreign labor for things like construction, the service industry, etc. And people from Poland, Lithuania, etc., are only too happy to come here for what they see as better opportunities than what's available in their own countries. Think of it as a situation sort of similar to Mexican immigrants in the U.S., except eastern Europeans who are EU members have a much easier time getting into other EU countries legally, plus they're also coming from countries that, while certainly not perfect, aren't nearly as destitute as Mexico. I've heard that the Polish now make up nearly 1-2% of the population in Ireland... which doesn't sound like a lot, until you consider that this tiny little island only has 4 million people here to begin with and that this increase in Polish immigrants has happened only since 2004, when Poland was admitted to the EU. Nearly 2% of your population becomes Polish in barely over 2 years? CRAZY.

Anyway. So this "Polish Factor", this huge influx of people from mainly Poland (plus a tiny handful from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, etc.), has created a huge pool of people who are looking for any kind of job in the areas of construction, hotels, restaurants, etc. Not to mention the people from western EU countries like Spain, France, and Germany who come to Ireland to work for a bit in order to improve their English. These types of skilled labor jobs with high turnover rates are also exactly the kind of thing that those of us with temporary student work visas from the U.S./Canada/etc. are looking for. Competition can be fierce.

Then there was my own minor problem - I don't have any experience in restaurants/bars/hotels/the general service industry. I could have cared less before coming over here (my life has hardly been lacking because I haven't had the opportunity to be a waitress), but all of a sudden it became an issue because there are SO many applicants for these jobs that the Irish employers almost always state that they're only looking for employees with previous experience in order to narrow down a huge interview pool.

Dang. I've never been so annoyed that I didn't slave away at Olive Garden for a summer or two during high school.

And looking for a job in an office or some area that was better suited to my past experience and education didn't turn out much better because I only have a 4-month visa. There were a fair amount of more "white collar" positions that I was easily qualified for, but no one wanted to hire me knowing that I'd only be around for 4 months (and I can't really blame them for that).

Ah yes, the many forces that were working against Rachel's quest for employment: arriving in low season (Issue #1 that I now have with USIT - make sure U.S. participants REALLY understand the pain in the rear that is low season), competing against a billion Polish, no service industry experience, and a mere 4 months of being able to legally work here. GOOD THING I'M NOT A WUSS. Sheesh. It was a slightly more uphill battle to get bloody employed than I'd originally pictured...

So what I ended up doing was turning to a temp agency for a temporary office position. USIT mentioned at orientation that more and more of the work visa program participants were using these agencies to find jobs because, HAH, we have ONE advantage, we all speak fluent English, which every Irish employer also now demands (again, because of the influx of non-native English speaking immigrants). Although USIT didn't add the HAH part. Plus the temp agencies don't care if you're only around for 4 months, because duh, they're giving you temporary jobs.

Mind you, my application to the temp agency was only sent in after I interviewed with SoHo (restaurant), two marketing agencies that lied and said they don't do door-to-door selling when they actually do (I turned down 2nd interviews for both of them because I am NOT interested in trying to sell cheap crap to recently paid construction workers because HELLO, I have a soul, and yes, that is exactly what they do because one of the other Americans here went on the 2nd all-day interview and ended up walking out halfway through the day because he was so depressed/appalled about what they wanted him to do), a daycare (creche or nursery is what they call them here) that clearly didn't like my meager 4 months available, plus many, many, MANY phone calls and e-mailings of my CV to places that were either in the want ads or that I'd cold call because they looked interesting and I'd want to know if they were hiring.

If it sounds stressful, it was, but only because I was worried about my finances. Otherwise, trust me, I had an absolute blast not working for several weeks. : ) My savings account was appalled by the situation (eegads, the amount of money I went through is positively sickening), but I could not have had a more enjoyable time when I wasn't running around begging people to hire me... I went to classes with Bekah at UCC, I wandered around Cork, I travelled on the weekends... it was great.

So the temp agency hired me on Wednesday, March 8th (all those agonizing summers in the office at Pioneer Metal Finishing came in handy!!), and finally, a week later, on Thursday, March 16th (right before the 3-day weekend for St. Patrick's Day), they found me a job that started the following Monday, March 20th. And let me tell you, it could not have been a more awesome job. I really believe that I was meant to remember about the temp agency possibility after almost 3 weeks of job searching because applying when I did put me in the perfect place to be offered a job at: DePuy.

DePuy (pronounced Duh-Pew, although some of the Irish call it Duh-Pwee, goofs that they are) is a part of Johnson & Johnson. J&J is a huge international company, and it specializes in three areas - consumer products (J&J baby shampoo, anyone?? Not to mention all the other companies it has bought out, like Aveeno, Roc, etc.), pharmaceuticals (it owns companies that make everything from Viagra to Lipitor), and medical device companies. Actually, J&J doesn't really create anything of its own, it just buys other people out. DePuy, which it bought out maybe 10 years ago (it's headquartered in Warsaw, Indiana, and also has plants in Massachusetts, Germany, England, and obviously Ireland), specializes in medical devices, and this particular plant that I worked at makes things like knee replacements, plus a neck/back vertebrae replacement that has been approved in Europe but is still awaiting approval in the U.S.

What did I do at DePuy? Worked as an engineer as we designed the newest medical devices to ease the suffering of orthopaedic patients around the world.

Right. I hate math. You couldn't PAY me to get an engineering degree. Liberal arts kid all the way, that's what I am.

I worked in the HSE (Health, Safety, & Environment) department. My boss, Tim (who is also American), was an ergonomics engineer, and I worked with him on various projects that he needed help on. I made lovely charts and graphs for employee injury statistics in Excel and Power Point, I researched the 5-year work histories of all the employees out on the plant floor who were injured in the last three years and then helped analyze the data to find the problem areas, I made bulletin boards (apparently I can't escape my elementary ed. past...), I did random things like measuring and taking digital photos, I put together a survey... if Tim didn't have anything for the day, I worked with Deirdre on the environmental aspect by updating chemical and waste databases, organizing the internal audit binders, etc.

Some days it was boring (like the 5 days straight it took me to look up 5 years' worth of 100 employees' rotations out in the plant - I was about ready to kill myself by the time I finished), other days it was fascinating, but all around it was a good job. Not to mention the fact that while the hours were from 8:30-5:30, an hour of that was a paid 15 minute breakfast (yes indeed, they have breakfast sometimes at work over here), a paid 15 minute afternoon tea/coffee break (although most people combined the two together to have a 30 minute breakfast), and a paid 30 minute lunch. And on Fridays the hours were 8:30-1:30. So everyone is at DePuy 40 hours a week, but that includes 5 hours paid to eat, and everyone is done early on Fridays. I LOVE EUROPEAN WORK ETHIC. And like everyone else in Europe, they all get minimum 3 weeks vacation, even if you're a brand new employee just starting out.

Ya know, the vacation time alone is enough to make me want to work in Europe permanently. U.S. vacation time is pathetic. Oh, and have I mentioned that holidays are all paid over here, like Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick's Day, the 4 or 5 bank holidays scattered throughout the year, etc.? Which makes complete sense, because why would you force your employees to go without pay when Christmas, Easter, and the like are mandatory holidays and they couldn't work even if they wanted to? Who on earth would do that? Oh, wait, the U.S.

Yes, lack of vacation time is a pet peeve for me. Personally, I think the U.S. would be a far less stressed out nation if we had paid bank holidays and paid lunches to look forward to like the Irish do.

But I digress. Back to my job.

The only downside was how far away it was from Cork. DePuy is in an industrial area near Ringaskiddy (although Ireland's industrial areas are somehow still really pretty - you should see the fantastic views of the harbor from the DePuy cafeteria. As Tim put it, "The best thing about working here is the view."), and Ringaskiddy is about a 30 minute drive from Cork... BUT, I have no car. So it was a 1 hour bus ride every morning, and a one hour bus ride every night. I'd leave my apartment around 7:50 and walk to the bus stop to catch the 8:05 bus (ok, let's be honest, I SPEED walked/ran every morning), got dropped off around 9:00 depending on traffic, then had a 15 minute walk (part way uphill -KILLER) to DePuy. I stayed till 6:00, caught the 6:20 bus, and would walk back into my apartment around 7:20 at night. It's a good thing Bekah didn't mind eating late each night. I had almost a 12 hour day, but again, it was worth it. Good job, good pay, absolutely fantastic people to work with... the people were one of my favorite parts, actually - I loved getting to talk the Irish. I wish I had their stories and various accents on tape, because I feel like I learned so much from them. They were all really good about letting me pester them with questions, too.

Even the bus ride didn't end up being that bad. Like I said, Ringaskiddy is on the harbor, and the route the bus takes down from Cork is very pretty. It was also kinda nice to just veg in my own little world at the beginning and end of the day. I can't read in cars/buses because it makes me feel sick, so my mp3 player became my best friend. In the morning a cacophony of fairly hideous yet upbeat and addicting pop would blare through my headphones in order to wake me up (I promise that if you listen to Cher every morning, you, too, will arrive at your place of employment ready to be a Happy Worker Bee). Sometimes Alan, a 21-year-old from Galway with an internship in the engineering department at DePuy, would ride the bus home with me, being a victim of public transportation as well - he was also really patient about me asking seven trillion questions about Ireland.

I honestly could not have ended up with a better job, especially when you consider that most of the Americans in Cork that I know in this program ended up working in the service industry. Yes, their jobs pay the bills, but considering that they're all college graduates, their work experience over here at sandwich bars will have minimal effect on their resumes when they go back to the States. I came over here for fun and travel (heck, we all did), not the job experience, and expected to end up with jobs similar to theirs, but I instead ended up gaining incredibly valuable work experience that is going to look beeyooteeful on my resume. You have no idea how lucky I feel.

So I ended up staying at DePuy for two months until Friday, May 12th. I was only going to work for another two weeks anyway, until Friday, May 26th, but DePuy couldn't keep me any longer for budget reasons. Alas, back I went to the temp agency (who I really rather despise at this point) to harass them to find me more work. But the temp agency is lame, so my last two weeks of work went like this:

Monday: nothing

Tuesday: spend all day at the business headquarters for Supervalu/Centra (kinda like our 7-11s) verifying checks worth a crapload of Euros and then stuffing them into envelopes

Wednesday: was supposed to do a half day of reception work (despite the fact I told La Creme I had no reception experience and really wasn't interested in gaining any (ok, I didn't say the second part)) all the way out in Mallow. Was actually early for once in my life and was on the bus, having already paid 10 for the roundtrip ticket, when the temp office calls and says that the client cancelled. Lesson learned - I will never be early for anything again, I SWEAR. This was also the day that it was POURING, which is unusual for Ireland. Usually it mists/drizzles/spits. So I got to hang out at the poorly constructed shelter for 40 minutes waiting for the next bus back to Cork. While waiting, at least I met this really nice guy in his 70s and another in his 30s from Cork who decided to talk to me about Ireland's economy. Whether I understood anything these kind-hearted souls said to me is another thing (more on West Cork accents later).

Thursday: spent all day alphabetizing time sheets for La Creme's parent company, Premier. Didn't know it was possible to end up sore after sitting on the floor for 7 hours.

Friday: said screw this, I'm going on a final trip with Bekah, I'm not working today.

Monday: called in sick because the cold medicine I took before I went to bed pretty much knocked me unconscious.

Tuesday-Friday: More alphabetizing at Premier. For four days, seven hours a day. The one good thing that came out of those days from hell is that I am more determined than ever to find some sort of job that I really love in the U.S. and that fits my abilities, because let me tell you, as academically snobby as this may sound, I did not spend 4 years in a highly regarded private college expanding my mind and learning how to communicate well and think critically in order to end up doing stupid, absolutely meaningless tasks all day.

So Friday, May 26th was my last day working in Ireland. I have travel plans that work was just going to get in the way off (yes, I know, my priorities are straight). Financially I could have used the money and should have kept working for another week or two (my permit is good until the 14th of June), but I couldn't take the mental stress of not knowing each morning if I'd be working or not (thank heavens the DePuy assignment lasted for so long and only my last two weeks were short temp jobs), plus I was so sick of menial office tasks that I was ready to drown myself in a large vat of Guinness.

And so here I sit, just hanging out in my beloved city of Cork and figuring out where I'll be wandering off to next. : ) Life is good.