Monday, February 19, 2007

The New Job

Well, I have to say, all things considered, that the new job did not start off with a bang. More like a fizzle. I’m now in the second week and more disorganization has struck. This morning, when I arrived, I was told that I had to move desks because someone important was coming that needed a better desk than the ¼ inch table that I am currently using. They’re having space problems, which is a bit ridiculous since they just remodeled a 10 floor building to suit their needs and it’s clearly not enough.

That being said, the lack of organization is not the only problem. In fact, I’m beginning to have grave reservations about this job, or, I should say, this aspect of my career options. While it’s only the first week, the following are my initial concerns:

1. My co-workers have made me feel like an outcast foreigner who shouldn’t be here. This is obviously a concern completely unrelated to the career path or job functions, but it should be mentioned. I have yet to have a personal conversation with anyone (i.e. a conversation where it wasn’t them asking me to do something), nor have I received more than one or two friendly greetings. In fact, the only people that have been friendly at all are the receptionist (it’s her job), the HR staff (their jobs as well), and one of my bosses (she seems genuinely nice).

Now this may change in the long run, but I’d have to say that if it were me (and indeed, I’ve been in their place), I would at least try to be welcoming. But between the language barrier, the novelty of adding a gringo to this department, and the general cliquishness, well, I feel pretty damn unwelcome.

Of course, as of this week, there are several other gringos on this floor, so maybe I’ll make friends and we’ll form our own little clique. Because that looks like that’s the only way I’m going to start having lunch with anyone but myself.

2. I’m not confident this program is going to work. I know it’s early but I’ve been trained to analyze and that’s what I’ve done. The goals of the program from the Colombian view are to increase jobs with sustainable forest exploitation. The measures for that are fairly simple and easy to verify. But from the American side, the goal is first and foremost to replace coca production with licit crop production. That’s not going to work. In fact, the whole idea of crop substitution as a remedy to coca production is a joke. These programs will show modest gains, but they can never remove the incentive to grow coca. The financial returns from illicit crop production are just too high and can never be matched.

That being said, bringing new jobs to the rural poor is a good thing. And this program will probably help thousands of rural poor. So I can feel good about that. However, I’m not certain the US government is going to be overjoyed unless they see a reduction in coca production in the targeted areas. And that bodes ill for the long term longevity of the program.

This is critically important because under the rubric of a 5-year USAID contract a company called Chemotics successfully lobbied the Colombian government to change the forestry law resulting in the Forestry Law 2006. This was a horrible thing for Colombia as, among other things, it opened the doors for large, well funded companies to exploit forest resources. More on this in a future post.

The end result of this process is that it will make it more difficult for small and medium enterprises to compete, as well as giving incentives to private landowners to lease their forests to large multinationals that have no care for sustainability. If we end this program prematurely, which is a distinct possibility; it seems apparent that the enterprises we gave assistance to will not be able to survive against powerful internationals.

Basically, the point is that I feel we’re pissing into the wind, to put it as crassly as possible. Successfully changing the law to enable greater exploitation ultimately wasn’t such a hot idea if your goal was to help the rural poor.

3. Government contracting is akin to “project management”. I’m an analyst by nature. It’s what I do, almost instinctually, and it’s what you learn to do in graduate school (or you refine your abilities). So, to be suddenly put in a position where my basic responsibilities include pushing paper across desks and writing quarterly reports on our achievements, well, it’s not exactly going to satisfy my analytical passions.

In fact, the whole idea of project management is really just glorified administration. And I’m pretty sure I went to grad school so that I wouldn’t have to live, once again, in the administrative world. But apparently not. So, given that at least 50% of my responsibilities will be administrative in nature, I find it hard to see me being intellectually satisfied in this position.

(And yeah, people always say, “admin work is part of every job” or “you have to start somewhere” and maybe they’re right. But for the love of God, I’m almost 32 years old and I’ve spent the vast majority of my working life pushing other people’s papers across my desk. It’s high time I had some actual responsibilities that couldn’t be performed by a non-Spanish speaking chimpanzee.)

4. Government contracting companies operate like small start-ups no matter the size. Competitive bidding is great for the taxpayer. It reduces costs and forces companies to provide services to the government at very low prices. The drawback, of course, is that company margins are necessarily low meaning that the support they provide employees is correspondingly low. Salaries are one area where low level employees are clearly disadvantaged, but also everyday needs (like white copy paper and other office supplies) are always in short supply.

(I don’t know the margins for my current company, but the previous contractor I worked for was looking at margins in the single dollars per hour billed. Something in the range of $2.50/hour billed. The cumulative effect is that upper level employees got huge bonuses while the lower level got a nice fat $1,000 or about 1/20th of our direct bosses. Hardly fair considering that we spent roughly the same amount of overtime slaving away in what was a required capacity.)

Moreover, the environment is one that I find particularly grating. Part of this is because I’ve been a bit spoiled by my law firm experiences and all the lavish support that they provide, but also because I find the typical government contractor somewhere wedged between obnoxiously self-righteous that they’re doing good things for the world (always dubious to found your confidence on government projects) and naive about the direction of those programs.

In fact, one key area of difference that existed between me and my former government contracting co-workers was that I seemed to be the only one who regularly questioned the value of the projects we worked on. Nothing has changed in that capacity. For whatever reason, my co-workers here seem to have resolved whatever questions they may have had about this program and are working diligently to pursue the best administrative strategy they can. But I just can’t seem to get past the big picture. For me, analyzing the big picture is more interesting and relevant than the microcosm of program administration.

5. I’m a political scientist with a specialization in International Relations, not an Agronomist or a Development scholar. I’ve mentioned this to several people and the universal response is, “you’re a smart guy, you’ll learn quick and won’t have any problems.” With all due respect, I wasn’t having a crisis of confidence. Really. What I was trying to express is that had I wanted to be an Agronomist, I would have opted for that career choice. Equally had I been really interested in development, I would have specialized in that for my masters. But I didn’t. I did a general IR masters because I wanted the flexibility to study conflicts, treaties, international organizations, and other such things. Development and sustainable forestry were far from the world in which I wanted to live and remain so.

This doesn’t mean that I’m displeased to have this opportunity. On the contrary, this is a good opportunity to get some real experience in government contracting and in sustainable development. That being said, I’m fairly convinced that the microcosm of Forest Management, while interesting in some capacity, is clearly not going to hold my interest. It also seems a bit ridiculous that I live in Colombia, the country with the gravest refugee problem on this hemisphere, with an ongoing conflict, and a myriad of social-political problems and the work that I end up finding is in Forestry. What were the odds?

Ultimately, the point is that this just isn’t what I specifically chose to do. This is just the first opportunity that came along and I accepted it. I worry about this because I don’t want to set myself on a course that is ultimately going to lead me down a road I don’t want to go. Nor do I want to accumulate a wealth of experience that will typecast me and restrict future options. At the same time, I wonder how this experience is going to translate for a future in a NGO that works with refugees or conflict issues. And I also worry that perhaps life in NGOs is more or less the same as it is here. Maybe they do little more than project administration as well. Maybe you just don’t get the opportunity to write in any other capacity than that of the university professor. And maybe that’s the ultimate answer to my ultimate question.

I don’t really know. But I do know that I’m not working in the capacity that I desire and that I look forward to two things each week: my Intro to IR class and the weekend. So maybe that’s all that needs to be said. (PhD applications due in December…)

***This post could easily be criticized in the following manners: I’ve critiqued the business world; quit bitching and be grateful you have a job; and/or, relax a little. All of these are valid in their own way and I’m definitely not foreclosing the possibility that this job will turn out well for me. These are just initial reactions and, if nothing else, working in an actual business has reminded me of just how little love I have for the business world. But, I reserve the right to change my mind at any point, without notice.***


Post a Comment

<< Home

Political Favorites
Guilty Pleasures
My Global Position