Worthy, necessary, beautiful work, but I’m not the right person to do it.
Worthy, necessary, beautiful work, but I’m not the right person to do it.

OPINIONSocietyApril 11, 2024

No, I can’t just get a frontline job

Worthy, necessary, beautiful work, but I’m not the right person to do it.
Worthy, necessary, beautiful work, but I’m not the right person to do it.

A commentator recently suggested laid-off public servants should move into frontline work. My response: I can’t.

Early on in my career, a personality test told me I had no practical skills. “May struggle with everyday tasks,” it said. This came as no surprise to me, nor my colleagues, almost all of whom quickly realised I was a bureaucrat because my other employment options were slim to non-existent. It also didn’t bother me, because it was true. 

“How can a smart person be so dumb?” I have been asked often, in a variety of ways, some kinder than others. I like to borrow a friend’s line and reply that I exist in a different realm. In reality, it’s because the day God was handing out executive functioning skills, my parents were giving me a double dose of neurosis. 

So when I saw the suggestion that, in a tight job market, laid-off government employees should retrain for front-line roles in areas like healthcare and teaching, I had one thought: I can’t. 

I’ve had the privilege of working with loads of government employees whose empathy and intellect are genuinely realm-transcending. These are the workmates to whom I owe my professional successes, big and small. They have helped me develop my critical thinking skills, taught me how to navigate complex situations, and, memorably, given me the literal shirt off their backs because “you can’t go to a meeting dressed like that.” Many of these people would thrive in a front-line position, at least in part because they would thrive wherever they ended up. 

But I know my own limitations. With my genetic cocktail and trio of impractical degrees, I am phenomenal at holding onto information, which, according to the test, “may someday prove useful.” I am uniquely unqualified, though, for the kind of work that requires an ability to manage thirty other humans and make life-and-death calls about peoples’ physical and mental wellbeing.

To suggest, then, that public servants who have lost their jobs should move from data analysis to teaching, project management to social work, policy to midwifery, is great advice for some people and really, really terrible advice for others. 

Yes, there’s lots of crossover between the skill sets needed to do those jobs well, but the roles are inherently different. My nurse’s understanding of the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport really does nothing for the health of my cervix. Similarly, the “Good enough for government work” mindset that’s helpful when crafting quick-turnaround answers to parliamentary questions should not be applied when performing a colonoscopy. 

Beyond this, there’s another key consideration: money. Taking three years out of full-time paid employment to get by, if you’re eligible, on the maximum weekly student loan amount of $316.39 is a tough sell, especially when last year the cost of living increased by 7.4%. Add to this that, by nature of being historically female-dominated, many front-line roles are also relatively low paid, there’s no guarantee the investment would ever stack up.  

I’m not saying I support a nation-wide Ford production model of employment, the kind that turns humans into cogs and jobs into repetitive tasks. Far from it, actually. When individuals choose to pursue “multiple careers,” they create new opportunities for themselves and facilitate knowledge transfer. This in turn supports innovation and progress, which betters society more broadly. But if you, like me, care about those kinds of things, you’ll realise how important it is that this cog doesn’t lose her desk job.

Keep going!