Friday, April 9, 2010

Virtual work

I attended an information session at Ontario Works a couple of days ago. OW is big on information sessions. Some are mandatory, others not. However, if I don’t attend at least some non-mandatory ones, I risk being tarred with the non-compliance brush; see my earlier post, You will comply.

This one was advertised as a workshop on “Virtual Work” (by which, one hopes, the organizers meant “finding work in the virtual world of the Internet” not “finding work that doesn’t really exist”).

I'm always on the lookout for ways to generate income from my mostly non-income generating skillset, so I signed up. Double-bonus: I'd be meeting my compliance requirements and I might learn something useful.

The workshop proved to be an information session, not a workshop. As per all such gatherings, attendance was taken first. Next, printouts from a PowerPoint presentation were passed around. After giving me and my fellow destitutes ample time to study them, a facilitator then read the very same sheets aloud while their contents were projected on the wall.

Perhaps some of us needed the triple redundancy, but the woman biologist behind me and the neat, geeky, articulate guy beside me certainly didn’t, and neither did I.

Following the session, I was required to meet with a caseworker to determine my suitability for Virtual Work Training. Having already made that determination for myself—why else would I have signed up for the workshop-that-wasn’t-a-workshop?—I confess my irritation slipped out a few times. Not a good idea. Very non-compliant.

The worker interviewing me was a woman I'll call C. So far, I've dealt with four OW workers, all of whom are women, and all of whose names begin with C. Remarkably, they’re all about the same age, the same height, the same build, and approximately the same hair colour.

“I gather your computer skills are quite advanced,” C began. (This because of my Tourette’s Syndrome-like response during the information session, a muttered it’s not exactly rocket science when the facilitator couldn’t kill her PowerPoint’s sound effects.)

“That depends,” I answered. “If you mean, do I know MSOffice, the answer is no. I run Linux, and my skills are all Unix/Linux-based.”

“I'm sorry,” she said, puzzled. “Linux? What’s that?”

It’s 2010. The Unix operating system, of which Linux is a variant, has been around since the seventies. Linux itself—stable, secure and virus-free—has been a significant contributor to computing since the early nineties. Nearly two-thirds of the Web relies on Linux servers. Pixar, who gave you Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, runs on Linux. Googling “linux” turns up 619 million hits. In addition, Linux is at the forefront of crossing the digital divide in Africa and South America, as well as having been adopted by government departments and educational facilities in France, Germany, Spain and India. And my suitability for OW's Virtual Work Training is being assessed by someone who’s never even heard of it?

This is the third time I've had to deal with that particular bit of ignorance at OW. If their goal is helping me find work, the lacuna isn’t trivial.

At a minimum, charged with assessing my suitability for the Virtual Work programme, C needed to know whether the training (online via Skype, four days a week, one hour a day, for six weeks) would interface smoothly with my operating system. OW is hugely, if not exclusively, Windows-centric, and Windows has a way of playing nasty with other operating systems.

On discovering I run a Linux box, C ought to have been able to respond: “The training programme is geared towards Windows users.” Followed by: So it’s not for you, or, But that shouldn’t be a problem. Instead I got: “What’s Linux?”

To be fair, C admitted that the Virtual Work Programme was a new initiative, that she was only an administrator, that the actual training was being farmed out to a commercial contractor, and that I'd be interviewed by yet another worker before undergoing the training.

What I'd been hoping for from the workshop were suggestions—novel strategies, avenues to explore, resources to exploit, URLs I didn’t know about—and maybe help with mastering the jargon hirers are said to drool over, Pavlov-doggie-style.

What I got instead was an information session suitable for grade-school, and an interview that left me feeling marginal. Again.

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