The Value of Work

My youngest entered kindergarten in the fall of this year.  Since quitting work shortly after her birth, I have assumed that this would be the year I would return to work. I expected then it would be hard today.  I also thought I’d probably do something different from what I had been doing, not only because I had moved from a big city in the south to a small town in New England, but also because I figured my interests would likely shift after five years “off”.

This winter, after much hand wringing about full-time vs. part-time I decided maybe the first step would be to try substituting at school. So predictable and so not me, but I truly figured maybe it would at least break me in to having to shower & apply make-up & leave at the same time my children do.   I thought I could work out the trauma of getting three people ready for the day in a “test” job.

A position in my school district became available for “substitute administrative” jobs, such as administrative assistant, cafeteria worker, custodian, bus driver.   I figured this was perfect! I volunteer enough at school to know I don’t have the patience to deal with a classroom full of children for longer than an hour at a time.

So, I filled out the application online. I listed my past “supervisors” and phone numbers for employers going back to 1988 —  a good 6 or seven employers representing at least 10 positions.  This in and of itself was no small feat.  I then contacted the local folks who I have volunteered with and asked them if they would be my references.  I serve as co-president for a neighborhood of 250 homes (and an annual budget of $25,000) and have for the past five years.  I also run the local elementary school’s nature education program — recruiting over 30 volunteers annually.

Last year I was president of a cooperative preschool.  I managed a budget of over $100,000, led a board of directors of 12, oversaw the salaries and contracts for 4 staff, facilitated school-wide changes, led marketing efforts, intervened in bad contracts,  cut benefits from staff, fielded grievances from employees and families. Oh, and I volunteered with the children in the classroom countless times. I even substituted for teachers.

You can imagine my surprise when my application was returned to me as Incomplete because I had not included any references from “supervisors of past employer”  Humph.

So, even though I did the equivalent of an executive’s job, because I did it as a “volunteer” and had no “supervisor” it does not count!

To be fair, I did not pursue this any further with the district human resources office.  I decided it was a good lesson.  I certainly did not want to contact the vice president from my corporate days and ask for a letter of reference to be the substitute lunch lady!  I was totally willing to check my ego at the door and BE the substitute lunch lady, but apparently I could not qualify with just volunteer labor references.

And while I appreciate the school district’s need to be very careful about the background of its employees, must it overlook the reputation and skill of volunteerism?  Afterall, what is work?  Must one be paid to be reputable?  If one has the highest rank within an organization they have no “supervisors”, does that not count toward one’s qualifications for the next job?  Why can’t my skills used in community organizations be valued by society?  I know I don’t have the answer.  So many others have been down this path before me.

I think what stopped me in my tracks more than anything was that I never expected it to happen to me.