Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Work experience

Work experience: do they have it in other countries? Google seems to suggest they do but not in the same way as Australia, where I think it is also dying out as more firms decide they don't want the insurance hassles associated with having high school kids drifting around the workplace damaging valuable equipment.

In year 11 I did two weeks work experience in the costume department of the Victoria State Opera. I had to go to Melbourne and stay at my uncle's house for the duration. I loved the place very much even though it offended my teenage puritanicalism with its expensive ways. They were making medieval dresses for the chorus of a production of Tannhauser, they had high waists and long trains and long trailing sleeves and used about six metres of fabric each. The fabric was a horribly expensive Swiss velvet made entirely of silk and the fabric for each dress was individually hand-dyed to match the colours in the costume designer's sketches. There were fourteen dresses. All this is part of the reason why the VSO no longer exists, of course. The other thing the department was working on was a fundraising ball imminient at the Royal Exhibition Buildings; one of the jobs I had to do was clean and mend and press various ratty old costumes from past shows which Ladies Bountiful were going to swan about in at said ball. On the second last day I burned a hole in a nasty spotty black dress from Die Fliedermaus but after a sleepless fearful night I managed to patch it up without anyone ever discovering. Probably not coincidentally this took place at about the period in my life when I began to obsessively read and re-read Lucky Jim.

The year before that I had done work experience at the Fletcher Jones factory in Warrnambool, where I lived. Probably this is the only Work Experience report from 1988 you will see on a blog today:


(The image links to a same but bigger version at Flickr)

Fletcher's was good. The women who worked on the sewing machines talked about what pricks the methods engineers were - these being the young guys who went around doing time & motion studies on the different steps in the processes of stitching up garments and worked out how many seconds each step ought to take and thus how productive each woman should be. (You see each worker did a different seam and then passed the garment on to the next person.) The men who cut out the pieces (using "lasers" which left behind a dust rumoured to be carcinogenic) did not stand for this sort of bullying thing and that attitude seemed to be accepted by the factory management. I was put to work on a machine stitching together backs and fronts of jade green pencil skirts which the supervisor said were called "frogs". I don't really know what factories are usually like to work in but I remember this one as being light, airy, and fastidiously clean. Every two hours music and instructions were played over the PAs and those who wished to could stand up beside their sewing machines and go through a series of exercises meant to prevent RSI and back injuries. Not many did, as it looked silly.
Most interesting to me were the tailors who made samples, corrected the patterns made by inexperienced university-graduate patternmakers, and generally supervised the whole garment construction process. They worked sitting on high stools, under hanging green-shaded lights, on a raised platform to one side of the main factory floor. There were two, they were both middle-aged Italian men, they both wore impeccably cut dark striped three-piece suits with aprons over the top, and the rest of the staff treated them with enormous deference. They checked work coming off the assembly line and told people off for doing things like allowing a piece of stray black thread to be sewed into the waistband of a yellow skirt where you could see it through the fabric. The older of these men spent a lot of time talking to me about the company and his lack of confidence in its future. He showed me a rack of sample garments for the new "youthful" line of womens' clothes called "Prophecy" that the company was about put into production. Shaking his head he pulled out a skirt that was gathered onto a deep flat waistband. "My wife could not wear this" he said, meaning that a deep waistband is only suitable for a woman with a very flat midriff and that the women likely to buy FJ's stuff are of an age where the middle is rather soft and rounded. On the second last day I was there he said he would show me how to do anything I liked, so I asked him to show me how to make a welt pocket and he did. Though I was very very careful mine came out fairly clumsy-looking but his was immaculate. It was useful to learn that even when you try hard you can still end up making a mess of something if you don't really understand what it is you're doing.

Poor old Fletcher Jones. What other factories have elaborate kitsch pleasure gardens out the front for the workers to eat their lunches in? I think they make all their stuff overseas now, like most textiles manufacturers.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the Americans call it "internships".

I like the way the Work Experience Kid has become a national archetype.

- barista

elaine said...

I love this story. Especially the bits about the tailors. It reminds me in some ways of days spent in the "Garment Construction Room" at TAFE.

And yes, welt pockets ARE hard. Even when you do know what you're doing it's easy to make a mess.

Hil said...

My parents, particularly my dad, used to buy clothing from Fletcher Jones in Adelaide in the 1960's and 70's. I think he appreciated being able to be fitted, and being able to get two pairs of trousers with one jacket, because the trousers wore out more quickly. I don't know if that is common for mens' suits, or not! He also approved of the company philosophy of the workers buying into and owning the company, so that it operated like a co-operative. I wonder if that still is how it works?

Lucy Tartan said...

The factory in Warrnambool was called "Fletcher Jones and Staff" reflecting that, Hil. I wonder too whether things have changed.

Zoe said...

What a lovely post. I think I've got my work experience report at home somewhere ...

No Bazlotto, sadly. I think I was getting away with myself a bit there for a while.

Pavlov's Cat said...

What a fabulous post.

I'm too old to have done work experience so I have no idea how it works. Did you already have an interest in dressmaking and request to work somewhere that would relate to that? Or were FJ's and then the VSO what got you into it in the first place?

NB I am shocked by what you say about the VSO, especially given that I was on a committee fighting for a bigger share of the Arts money to go to literature at the time. I wish I'd known about the Swiss silk velvet and the individual hand-dyeing.

TimT said...

Hey, if you've got a budget, then you might as well blow it on hideously expensive gold-laced frocks. The VSO had the right idea. You can't make Aida without elephants, after all ...

Kate said...

I did work experience at the Northern Daily Leader NSW in Tamworth in NSW. It was as fabulous as it sounds, and the only useful thing I learned was that journalists spend a lot of time in the company of press releases. (And that having a mild phobia about using the telephone was more of a handicap than I thought.)

Ampersand Duck said...

My boarding school uniform was made by Fletcher Jones. Before your time, of course. Used to cost the earth!

Hil said...

Long ago I was a volunteer worker at 2XX, the community public radio here in Canberra. They gave the job of purging the record collection to two work experience kids, who chucked out anything they hadn't heard of... Joni Mitchell - who's she? Miles Davis? never heard of him!

Uccellina said...

Internships in the U.S. are a bit different, I think. Sometimes they're done through schools, but sometimes they're independent of education. In the latter case, "internship" is really a euphemism for "unpaid or grossly underpaid work." This type is often undertaken by people who want to get into a particular industry - like entertainment, politics, or finance - in which there is a great deal of competition for jobs. Unfortunately, only relatively well-off people (generally) can afford to work for free, which means that only relatively well-off people (generally) end up with the good jobs in those industries. Thus the class structure perpetuates itself.

Not that I'm bitter, of course :-)

Tim said...

How odd - just hours after reading this post I noticed a passing reference to Warrnambool Fletcher Jones factory in Peter Carey's Theft.

Great post, Laura. Perhaps it will inspire a spate of work experience reminiscing. I'm certainly planning to post on my until-now-repressed memories of work experience at an off-set printing place.

Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks, Uccelina, that explains many passing references to internships in American film & TV which I didn't understand before.

Duck, I'd forgotten that Fletcher's made school uniforms - all the Warrnambool secondary schools had them, of course. The pleated skirts were sold with extra pleats in the seam allowances and very deep hems so they could be let out and let down as the kid grew. And they did last the whole five years, usually. By Year 12 everyone at my school had a row of faded lines around the bottom edge of the winter skirt where it had been let down several years running.

Barista and Hil, the work experience kid is a byword for something....what is it, exactly? Clumsy enthusiasm? Innocent destructiveness? The key traits are qualities that babies have, too.

Lucy Tartan said...

Pav, I think you could either ask to be sent to a place that you had some interest in, or else you just went to whatever firm the school had some sort of arrangement with.

I must have been contemplating some kind of work in costume / clothing. I went to a tech school where this would have been encouraged, and my mum already taught me how to sew.

Elaine, are you a dressmaker?

wen said...

I have these two gorgeous Fletcher Jones kilts (one black watch, the other that classic red tartan) that belonged to my mum & aunt. They're from the early 70s & have been radically modified (not sure that FJ would approve, really) -- they end just below the bottom rather than just below the knee. I'm still waiting to fit into them...

My work experience (early 80s) was at the Nimrod theatre. The highlights: watching the Bell/Volska team in rehearsal for a musical(Flash Jim Vaux); cleaning the dressing-room mirror. Eldest son did his work experience recently....scary.

David said...

I did my work experience at Richmond Recorders in....... Richmond in......... 1980. James Freud had recently recorded his album Breaking Silence there and the Young Talent Time kids recorded all the songs they would mime to on the show there, every week. It was a godawful place for me to do my work experience at because I wasn't interested in recording at all. I picked it because I had to do something and no-one else wanted to do it.

I think interns are different from work experience kids in that they are generally (always?) college students. Some universities here have instituted internships with course credit. Interns serve a year or maybe six months as basically an unpaid employee at a company/organisation. It's one more of those rites of passage we in Australia don't get and are probably in most cases the better for it.

Any insight into the logo of the Warrnambool and District Secondary Schools Work Experience Program? The balancing of a bone and a cash register - always an important skill. Of course it is probably a spanner, not a bone, in which case I will say: the balancing of a spanner and a cash register - always an important skill.

kate2 said...

Um, actually, an internship was/is a compulsory component of my Masters degree (usually unpaid, though I was lucky because I went to the country - I got $100/week). Work placements are also essential parts of all the health sciences, and are becoming increasingly popular components of Arts degrees in an effort to make graduates more immediately employable in a field they're interested in (rather than say, retail). Apart from the actual work experience, it's a networking opportunity.

My school work experience was at a curtain makers (they did pretty well out of it, my Mum later got them to do all the new curtains for her house), the local library (I got very good at contacting books, checking books back in, and re-shelving), and at an architects. I have since worked as a secretary, a caterer, and (very occasionally) as an historian.

Anonymous said...

My boarding school kilt was made by FJs - I wish I could wear it, as it was practical, and flattering, and it looked magnificent when you twirled in it.

The elder tailor showed a heck of a lot of foresight - FJs is fairly conservative, so why they would aim at the youth market is beyond me. Furthermore - that level of QA is just unseen these days, buy something from Target and you practically need to re-hem it once you get it off the shelf.

I did work experience at the State Library in Melbourne - it was great, but there was this peculiar tension that everyone thought that they would soon lose their jobs [this was under Kennett - so perhaps a legitimate fear!]. The second lot of work experience I did was with the Stock and Land Newspaper, which seemed to be entirely staffed by people who went to teh Ag college at Dookie, but didn't like the country! [Slight exaggerated there.]

Lucy Tartan said...

I guess aiming at the youth market (or the somewhat nearer to youthful market) was an attempt to get future customers. Like advertising cigarettes to teenagers. But the irony is that, as your point about the niceness of well-made clothes, FJs has always been just a hairs-breadth away from the line dividing uberdaggy from cutting-edge hip (think Burberry, Lacoste etc) and with really small but sharp adjustments they could have built themselves a cult following among Teh Well-Heeled Kids.

It's too late for that now.

Tony.T said...

Sounds like the methods engineers time-and-motioned themselves out of a job.

My boarding school dres ... clothes ... were from Buckley's & Nunn and I remember spending two whole days there in January 1973 getting fitted out for all sorts of compulsory kit. Even now I shudder when I think of that time.

Tony.T said...

Shudder.

Hil said...

Good point about the babies, Laura.

When I think of work experience I tend to think more of the employers scratching around trying to come up with something the kid can do, and it being pretty lowly, than the kids botching it, though. Sometimes I wonder if it might be intentional, in order to knock down starry-eyed fantasies, (for exasmple, I had a friend who ended up only shovelling shit in the stables for a week when she signed up to a horseriding place) but its probably mostly dictated by realities in trying to match skills.
The kids at 2XX were really doing exactly what they were asked, and the people who were running the station didn't have any problem with their choices... Strange but true.

At the other end of the scale you get places that go out of their way to make it a good experience. When I was at the puppetry summit Polyglot Puppet Theatre had sponsored their 15 year old work experience kid to attend, which I thought was pretty good.

When we were working on making the puppets for The Hobbit, we had a number of work experience kids. The first morning when things were frenetic, one of them got assigned to straightening wire, and then forgotten about for quite a while, and she dutifully went on straightening wire! She was with us for a few weeks, and actually ended up doing some interesting things, but when she wrote to say thanks afterwards said she had enjoyed the wire straightening the best. She will go far I think!

Lucy Tartan said...

What, you didn't study spanner / cash register balancing at your school? That's strange.

At my school the corridors were one-way only. So sometimes you had to do a lap in order to get into the classroom next door. The principal also used to come up to kids whose shirts were hanging out and tuck them in himself.

elaine said...

Laura, I did a fashion degree/diploma before my science degree.

My experience of the (then dying) Australian fashion industry in the early 90's sent me scuttling. I think that had I started even 3-4 years later I may have kept with fashion. Maybe.

I still do a lot of dress-making; these days it's mainly things for myself and commissions for friends but just about anything if I'm asked...but not wedding dresses (eek too much pressure!).

tin3 said...

Internships doesnt exist in America alone. Usually it is required to college students. I think its a great opportunity for students to experience work before entering to the real professional world.

worldpeace_and_aspeedboat said...

I think the Fletcher Jones factory closed down a couple of years ago and production went offshore (insert sigh here). I have my nanna's FJ kilts. hot damn, they're still gorgeous.

elsewhere said...

Just catching up on my backlog of blog-post-reading here and can I just say, I'm really, really impressed at how exslant you were on work experience, Miss Laura (and sorry I never get round to blogging for Sars -- just over-worked and all-over-the-place).