• Learning About Work

    The advent of November tells us that the year is nearing its end – and that means in turn that summer is about to arrive (if we are lucky) and that Christmas is just around the corner.  But it also brings another annual ritual – the end of the university year and the return of thousands of young people to Mum’s cooking and the other comforts of home.

    This annual migration often means the disruption of domestic calm, as large and noisy young men and women re-establish themselves temporarily in the bosom of a family that had adjusted to a quieter life without them.  And the end of academic pursuits for the year does not – nor should it – mean for those returning students the end of the learning process.

    For many homecoming students, the end of studies provides an opportunity, and means an obligation, to go out and get a (usually seasonal) job in their home town, in the hope of earning enough to cover their costs in the coming year – and that can offer a different kind of learning and instruction.

    In my own case, and even at a time when fees were not charged for a university education, it was  necessary to cover the cost of board and lodging.   For me, the long summer holiday at home meant getting a job in the local dairy factory.  Those months doing hard physical work taught me lessons that remain with me today.  I learnt about working with mates in a team, how important it was to earn respect by pulling your weight and how tough physical work can be.  And I learnt about the wider world and how milk powder, casein and butter were made, and gained an insight into what lay behind one of our most important export industries.

    I learnt, too, about the dangers of working with powerful machinery.  While I was working at the dairy factory, one workmate was killed and another was seriously injured.  The fatal accident occurred when a workmate was steam-hosing the interior of a large steel vat which had originally been bought to make casein and was equipped with a large beater; it was however being used for the time being to store milk, and therefore had to be cleaned each day.  One day, someone carelessly pushed a starter button on the wall with the result that the beater started whirring while my mate was inside.

    These lessons were a valuable adjunct to what I was studying at university and could not have been available to me if I had not had to work my way through university.  Perhaps the most important aspect of my education in this respect was what it taught me about my fellow-citizens.  I learnt about how those of my contemporaries who were not at university but were earning a living looked at life and how they went about dealing with the obstacles in their path.  This was knowledge I could never have acquired, from within “the groves of Academe”.  It was knowledge that has greatly affected the way I look – even today – at contemporary New Zealand.

    In a country that is, it seems, increasingly polarised between those fortunate enough to gain qualifications that open the door to a comfortable life, and those on the other hand who survive by “the sweat of their brow”, it is salutary for the former to understand the problems that face the latter.

    I have sometimes heard the scornful comments of motorists as they drive past a gang of workers doing road repairs and notice someone “leaning on a shovel”.  I wonder how many of those making such comments have actually spent a day on physical labour?

    It is an important factor in building an integrated society that we should each have some insight into what life is actually like for our fellow-citizens and that we should each give proper value to the efforts made by others.  The annual rite of the “summer job” is not only essential in financial terms for the students involved, but helps us all to share life’s experiences.  Long may it continue.

    Bryan Gould

    19 November 2017




1 Comment

  1. Jon says: November 26, 2017 at 2:04 amReply

    Great bryan! Now it would be fantastic if you were able to tell labour to have some of these physical manual workers in Parliament and not just graduates. It’s key when understanding forming policy for all our communities. Otherwise parliament becomes like a monarchy of elites in rotating shifts. Do you think chris hipkins really cares about boys education and male suicide?

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