27 April, 2013

Work Placement

As part of my course, I am spending 6 weeks in a voluntary work placement. I say voluntary because it's not paid, but it's not actually voluntary. Or, you could say, I'm being paid by way of the unemployment benefit.

The reasons... I'm not entirely sure. I bet if you ask the politicians it's because I need experience in being part of the workplace. Fair enough; except, this course contains only people with educations - there are no illiterates in the class and it is primarily people with work histories and tertiary qualifications. We know that you need to dress appropriately, turn up on time, and be respectful. In that regard, the work placement scheme would be more appropriate for the "slow" class (primarily refugees and other immigrants who arrived in Finland unable to read or write in their native languages). I had these kinds of clients in my previous life, people who honestly didn't know that you should dress nicely for a job interview. Well, how could they know, if nobody in their social circles had ever been to one? Sometimes, what appears to be stupidity is merely a lack of life experience. Without having seen a formal dinner table, you'd never know that the knives go on the right, and so on.

However, the teachers have all talked about this work placement as being a time to practice speaking Finnish. Sadly most of us, at around level B1, are not at the level required to understand ordinary conversation from a Finn.

I'm doing mine at the local library. I quite like it - the people are pleasant enough and the work is not stressful. In the first few days I spent most of the time on my feet. I swear, I have not known such foot-agony in my life. Even back in the days of a checkout operator when I was standing up for 8 hours. But the biggest frustration is the language. I have now lost my chance to practice each day at the lunch table with my friends (the library staff carefully stagger their lunchtimes to be alone, so I just sit and read as I eat). The main supervisor is very nice, but I understand almost nothing that she says. She will repeat it when I'm confused, but it still isn't any easier for my beginner ears. Then, she'll just pantomime it or switch to English.

The big boss is very patient with me and dumbs it down so I understand, but she's got other libraries to run as well, and I'm lucky if I see her for ten minutes a day. The other staff mostly just switch to English, or begin in English. I also spend long hours of the day doing tasks by myself.

None of it is the fault of the library staff. Really, they have been very kind and appreciative of me. They've even offered me things for free - like, food - why there's so much in the library kitchen I don't understand, but there always is - and any of the books for sale, I can take home for free. It's not their job to improve my Finnish. I'm just really frustrated and worried that I'm going backwards. Worse, even if I don't go backwards, I will be sliding down the class as all the others improve.

I had coffee with my classmates on Thursday (it was WONDERFUL!) and two of them have noticeably more fluent Finnish already, after just 6 days in the placement. One has hit the jackpot, with two co-workers whose entire working lives now seem to revolve around their new helper. A second one's boss has thoughtfully forbidden anyone from using English or Russian with her, ensuring that she gets plenty of practice in nothing but Finnish for at least half her work day.

But I'm not alone. One guy is chopping vegetables all day. His Finnish knowledge is excellent, but he says he's completely unable to talk as he works. Another student (also excellent Finnish) has unwittingly discovered that her boss cherishes her other language skills, and she has found herself speaking Russian all day with tourists.

I suppose on the balance of things I have it ok. It is merely marking time; we all know that in about 6 weeks' time we will be forcibly ejected back into the world of unemployment, equal to Finns in the eyes of the law, but with a myriad comparative disadvantages, meaning we'll never get selected from a pool of applicants, unless we somehow find the position which only a foreigner can fill. We (mostly) haven't got enough Finnish to even function in a conversation with the local shopkeeper. The Finns, meanwhile, pretty much all have the English skills that some jobs require. And yet we can't study to improve our Finnish. Those magical skill numbers declare that we're finished. If we want that, we're kicked off unemployment and told to go apply for student benefit - which will be rejected (there is no provision for an adult wanting to study at anything less than degree level). No, we can't even go to a course that's ONE night per week, ONE hour per week.

Where's the logic? They say they need immigrants - particularly skilled ones - but let's imagine I were a trained nurse. How many of us would still bother to stay, after being here almost four years and still can't get work thanks to the language? Even the ones who WANT to stay, aren't allowed to study Finnish in order to get there. Net result: we nurses take our (educated, skilled, Finnish) partners and children and we leave Finland. Net result, Finland just lost four potential taxpayers.

The only recourse for me is to choose between three difficult roads. Illegal study using a false name (I am not very fond of this route). Or sitting at home unemployed, looking for work and being slapped down non-stop (not fond of this one either; even the main employer of cleaners requires fluent Finnish, and supposing I got work from somewhere else, I would still be... a cleaner, not a life's ambition of mine). Or, thirdly, somehow using my own skills to become self-employed. Except I don't know what I can do. English is not a selling point for me and no advantage whatsoever, despite being not only native and fluent but able to use it to a business level. I don't have relevant qualifications (my computer skills are excellent but so are half the country's). I have, variously, made money by blogging, writing articles, selling jewellery, and completing surveys, but none of these really suit me as a full-time career.

My career is just... it's an endless cycle of wondering. It's an exercise bike. It's not goin' anywhere. I don't know what I am. Husband just tells me to continue being "awesome" but it's just more spinning wheels, in my head. I don't know...