Thursday, March 27, 2008

Update on the Job

It's been a while since my last job update, so I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on how things were going (hopefully this doesn't get me fired) and how my plans for attending university from April are coming along.

(For previous updates on the ever changing job situation see updates 1: The Holidays, 2 Odds and Ends: Daily Life, Update 3 The Job, Update 4, The First Day Back, Update 5:The First couple weeks and Update 6: Visa Renewal Blues).

To sum up our story thus far: After going bankrupt this fall, the pieces of what was left of the Nova franchise were picked up by a new company, and we started working again in January.

It has been a rocky start to say the least, and whether this new company will be able to make it or not is still far from certain. I won't go into all the details here, but the whole thing has been played out on the forums in Lets Japan. Anyone interested can check out their news postings here, as well as the G-Com/ Neo Nova forum and the ominously titled forum "The End of G-Com" (G-com being the name of the new sponsor company).

One of the first shake ups early on was that all the foreign management in the company were phased out. In the old days of Nova, there used to be two different tracks of hierarchies: one for the foreign teachers, one for the Japanese staff. Now with the foreign management pushed out, it created a huge information gap. Before whenever there was some important piece of information we needed to know, the foreign management would give us a call (or sometimes we had to call them first and ask, but at least the information was out there and available.)
Now nobody seems to know what was going on, and everyday things like getting visas renewed, getting up to date contracts, and getting tax forms has become a huge headache.

This was particularly frustrating for me because I was trying to submit a request to have my schedule drastically re-arranged so I could have week day afternoons free for attending University.

Into the power vacuum left by the old foreign management was thrust the Japanese staff at each branch, who were now responsible for things like calling up teachers on standby and seeing if they wanted to come back to work. But since the staff at our branch didn't speak much English, they passed the job onto me. (My Australian co-worker has been in Japan less than a year, and for all intents and purposes speaks no Japanese, so I'm the only one who can communicate with the staff).

Our branch in Nakatsu was understaffed, partly due to the confusion over who was coming back to work and who wasn't. (A couple of my former co-workers had said they were coming back at first, but then just ended up starting up their own place instead). So it was just two of us their now, and it became my job to recruit another person.

As our branch in Nakatsu was the only branch in Oita prefecture to re-open, there were lots of teachers on stand-by in Oita city. I went down the list and called them up and asked them if they wanted to come into work in Nakatsu. It was a bit awkward because I was in the position of a Go-Between. I was negotiating and answering questions from all these people, and I was in a position of absolutely no authority. I was simply the mouthpiece for the Japanese staff at our branch. (Who were themselves just fresh out of college and really had no authority either.) This was especially awkward when I was calling up some of my former supervisors and trainers in the company.

Also since I wasn't given any extra time in my schedule to make these phone calls, I mostly did it either in the 10 minute breaks between lessons, or on my own time at home.
...All that being said, I do have to confess that a part of me did enjoy the inflated sense of self importance that comes with being an access point in the chain of information.

Most of the people I called were desperately looking for work (many of them had been in the country a long time and had families to support) but none of them wanted to move out to the countryside in Nakatsu because they had families in Oita city. And at over an hour traveling time, it just wasn't practical as a daily commute.

When I communicated all this back to the staff, it produced a fresh panic with every new rejection. "What are we going to do? If we can't get another teacher out here, we're going to have to close down this branch."

"What?" I said. "You can't be serious. Our company just laid off some 800 people last month, and most of them are desperate for work. In fact I talked to some of them personally. Many of them would come back to work in a heartbeat."

"It's no good," the Japanese staff said. "We can only call the names on the list the management sends us. We can't offer jobs to people who have already been laid off." Why they were so strict about this I have no idea. And, as someone in Oita said to me on the phone, most of the people who had gotten laid off were exactly the sort of single unattached people who could have gone anywhere at a moment's notice. All the people the company had kept on standby in Oita had families and commitments to their city.

And then, after about a month of hand wringing about this issue, a new order came in from the company. The previous ratio of 40 students to 1 teacher was now outdated. From now the new goal was 100 students per each teacher. And so overnight we had gone from being seriously understaffed to now overstaffed, and the problem of finding a new teacher was suddenly dropped.
The staff told me that a minimum of 2 teachers was needed at each branch so that one could go on break while the other was working, and things like that, so for the moment our jobs were still safe. Where this is all going in the long run is another story though. The reason the old Nova got in trouble in the first place is that students couldn't reserve lessons when they wanted to. With 100 to 1 student teacher ratio, many are wondering how long it is before the complaints begin to resurface.


In the meantime, work continues as normal. The first few weeks I had a lot of free lessons, which I liked because it meant I was able to get a lot of books read. However the word eventually came down from on high that the staff was to make sure the teachers did have any free time during work hours. And so the busy work began. At first we were stamping the address of our local branch onto fliers, folding up those fliers, and organizing free tissues. Then we started being asked to hand out those tissues.

The whole "handing out tissues" is an interesting Japanese business idea. If you go into any Japanese city, you can see several people on each street corner (usually young women fresh out of college) handing out small packets of tissues to passersby. The wrapping surrounding the tissues is all advertisements for the company, but most people will happily accept a free packet of tissues because it's something you can use, especially in cold season and hay fever season. Thus a brilliant Japanese advertising strategy was born.

Many was the time I wondered through a busy city or shopping mall, and watched those girls stand in the same place and hand out tissues over and over again to the people passing by, and I wondered what it would be like to have to do that job. It's just like the guy who stands and directs traffic all day next to a construction site: it looks so boring, it's almost fascinating. What does your mind think of all day while you do that?
Well, I guess I should be careful what I wish for, because now we were being asked to hand out tissues.

In truth I didn't mind that much. Don't get me wrong I would greatly have preferred to use that time to get some reading done given the choice, but I thought it was more than fair enough that I was being asked to work during the time I was getting paid. And with a company that's going down the toilet fast, I understand they need all the help they can get.

My co-worker was furious. "Can you believe it?" he said. "They're asking teachers to hand out the tissues now." (Before this job had only been done by the Japanese staff).

I thought it was funny he was so upset by it. "Let me get this straight," I said. "You don't mind sitting in the office and stuffing tissues into packets, but you're upset by the idea of handing them out?"

"Actually I have my issues about stuffing the tissues as well. But that's another story. What I really can't believe is that they expect us as teachers to stand out in the mall handing out these tissues as if we hadn't even graduated from college."

It was then I realized the poor fool still thought we were professionals, instead of just English speaking machines. I didn't have the heart to disabuse him of this notion, and so just let it go.

When asked to hand out tissues, my co-worker scowled so much that eventually the Japanese staff just stopped asking him. Now they just give all the free periods in the schedule to me instead of him, and I go out and hand out the tissues while he teaches. This suits both of us fine. My co-worker would much more prefer to teach than distribute the tissues, and I like having my day broken up a little bit and doing something else for an hour or so.


In the old Nova, information used to be carefully guarded. In the new Nova, it's the same, but, perhaps because we are now technically a different company, the archives have been thrown open, and all the old records are now being used as scratch paper. Old performance reports, student complaints, and instructor evaluations are now found on the backsides of the paper in the printer and copy machine. It has provided us with some interesting reading material.

...Although actually not quite as interesting as you might think. For example I found some of my old evaluations, which contained almost nothing of note and probably can be considered damning me with faint praise. The first report read something like: "Joel has been fitting into the branch really well. The staff thinks he's all right. We've received no negative comments about him."

A few months later there was something more in depth: "Joel has been doing good. We've received no negative comments about him, and one positive comment. A number of students have mentioned his voice his really loud, which makes him easy to understand. [It's true actually. Perhaps because of years of being an ALT and teaching in the elementary schools, I now automatically switch into my booming voice mood when teaching English. My co-workers have often commented that they can hear my lessons perfectly from the staff room]. In a branch with no team leader, Joel has been really helpful in getting the all the new teachers settled in and showing them around. Joel tends to do most of his lessons closely following the textbook [ie-not very creative] but as he has a quiet reserved personality, the staff thinks this style suits him well."

A couple weeks later, we all went out to dinner (me, my co-worker, the Japanese staff, and Shoko). The Japanese staff, being new to the Nakatsu branch from this year, told Shoko that back in the first weeks of January, before classes had officially started and when Nova had only opened it's doors to meet with students, many of the students had inquired about me. (And I assume everyone else, but the staff only mentioned my part to Shoko).

"Is teacher Joel returning to work?" the students would ask.

"We have no idea," the staff would answer. "We haven't met anyone yet."

"Oh he's nice," the students would reply. "A real gentleman."

"Ah, so he's from England then,"said the staff.

"No, that's the odd thing," the students would say. "You would think so, but actually he's an American."

I guess this right here says a lot about the stereo-types Japanese people have about British and Americans. It also helps explain the comments my principal made when I was departing from Gifu, that although I was an American, he thought I acted more British.


Almost as soon as Nova had re-opened, I submitted my request to re-arrange my schedule so I took attend University classes this spring. (Actually I waited until I had my visa application sorted out first, and then I asked.) The staff promised to forward my request to the management, but almost immediately I got a negative answer. I had been naively hoping this might get passed through without a hassle, but everything is a hassle.

"But why?" I asked. "The times I'm still available to work, the evenings and the weeknights, are our busiest times anyway. Surely it would be better to have me work those times?"

"Yes, but all teachers must be available to work on weekday afternoons as well," the staff answered. This struck me as being rigid for the sake of being rigid.
I was reminded of what a friend told me when I first started work here last year. "Nova's a great company to work for as long as you stay inside the box. If you try and do something outside the box, you run into all sorts of problems." (And this was before all the problems and bankruptcy).

So I put on my worried face, sucked in air through my teeth, and said, "Listen, I don't know if I'll be able to stay on if I can't get this schedule."

This caused all sorts of panic, like I knew it would. At this time we were still trying desperately, without any luck, to get a 3rd person to come out to Nakatsu. I don't know what they would have done if I had left. They'd probably have to shut down the branch.

So, they told me they would take it under consideration again. And for the next couple months it bounced around in the void as upper management got reshuffled, and then reshuffled again. It was an extremely frustrating time to get a request through.

Finally I got in touch with someone who was a liaison to someone with the power to decide. And pleaded my case. And I was told it was probably not possible, and that my job should be my first priority anyway. (With it being an open secret that our parent company was thinking about pulling the plug and shutting the whole business down again, I didn't really feel like making Nova my first priority). So I said I might not be able to stay on again, and I was told it would again be taken under consideration. After not hearing back for a week, I wrote a long pleading fax and sent it in as a follow up.

"Dear XXX,
hope you're doing well and not too busy.
I wanted to follow up on my schedule request, especially since the staff tell me they will start taking reservations for April lessons from the 11th onward.
I checked with my co-worker, and he is more than happy to switch shifts with me on Friday. (In fact he prefers the 1:20 shift). Perhaps you saw his note to that effect on his fax last week. Otherwise I'm sure he could send another one.
Also our Nakatsu branch is currently open, but has no classes, on Wednesday and Thursday. I'd be more than willing to teach on one or both of these days if it will help.
And just a reminder that I'll still be able to work full schedules on public holidays. (I think most public holidays are on Mondays anyway, so maybe that will help).
Thanks for you help in sorting all this out, and sorry to add to your work load. I understand of course your position as a liaison and the limitations it carries with it. I was in a similar position a few weeks ago when I was making phone calls to stand-by teachers on behalf of the Nakatsu staff.
I hope on not coming off as too confrontational. An old AT (area trainer) told me long ago that the worst thing you could do is to phrase your requests in terms of ultimatums.
However, my priorities have shifted since October and the fall of Nova. I now realize teaching English in Japan as a long term career carries with it certain liabilities, and as I'm turning 30 and getting married this year, it is important to me to develop other skills. I've already enrolled in the school and paid my money. And at this point I'm too concerned about the stability of Nova to make it my first priority. So if it comes to a conflict between Nova and school, I'm going to have to choose the school. Again, I don't mean to sound confrontational, that's just how things stand with me.
However, if it can be worked out, I would love to continue at Nova while attending school. Last year I met someone at training who was attending University, and working at Nova in the evenings. So it is my understanding that there is some precedent for this kind of thing.

I'm more than willing to have my hours cut or go down to part time. I'm also willing to work overtime on weekends, 6 or 7 days a week, or even add on more classes in my available hours (if that would help).

I do realize that I am asking for some flexibility on the part of Nova. However in an ideal world, I don't think flexibility on 3 classes Monday afternoon is asking too much, especially after all I put up with the past half year. And plus the hours I'm available to work is when our branch is the most busy.

Anything you can do to pass this message on to the Japanese manager, or help me out in anyway would be greatly appreciated."

This was somewhat playing chicken on my part. Whether I would really have been able to quit or not was still being debated by me and Shoko. I would have been perfectly fine with quitting work and being a full time student, but Shoko would never have forgiven it. And because this is the countryside, there aren't that many other jobs around here. I was considering asking at a couple places, or seeing if I could pick up enough private students to equal out my current wage, but it was all pretty iffy.

Fortunately, Nova gave in and re-arranged my schedule. I was kind of hoping they would cut my hours, but in an effort to be diplomatic I gave them the option of doing whatever they wanted, and they chose to re-arrange them. The 3 hours I used to work on Monday afternoon will be moved to the weekend. I'll now work a 9 class shift on Saturday, and a 10 class shift on Sunday. It will be a long day, but I think I can handle it. Back last summer when we were shorthanded for a couple weeks because everyone left at once I pulled some similar shifts.

What's more worrying is the long days I'm going to have during the week. I'll be up at 6:30, an hour commute into Beppu, class from 9 to 3, an hour commute back to Nakatsu, and then work from 5 to 9.

These will be long days, no doubt about it. Although when you think about it, it's no longer than the kind of days a lot of other people put in all the time. Like working mothers who are doing 3 jobs and raising a family. Or you average Japanese business man, who routinely stays at work till about 9 everyday. Or everybody else in the world who is working while going to school, or going to school while working. (I came from a privileged middle class background where I was free to goof-off during my free hours at college, but we all know lots of people who worked their way through school).
The big question, given my famous laziness and love of sleep, is whether I'll be one of those people who's able to pull it off. Well I guess we'll see.

One last piece of news. We finally got our back pay slips in the mail this month. The Japanese government is reimbursing us at 80% for the months of September and October when Nova went bankrupt and no one got paid.

Link of the Day
Youtube clip WMD Lies


inertbat said...

Congrats on finally getting most of what was owed you! If it were my workplace with old files being used for paper in the printer, I'd take out the stack and read the whole lot!

Best of luck with school and work! Your new schedule kind of sounds like what I'm doing now with my full-time job in Oita and part time job at the high school, except you'll probably have homework so that means you win! (if we were playing the game of who is closer to karoushi - death from working too much).

It's a shame I didn't have time to meet up with you today, since we probably can't once you start school and my spring break is over :(

paul bowman said...

Happy developments overall, it sounds like. Definitely enjoying your account of the whole thing, and am hoping the best for you & Shoko. To me, it's great you're making the studies priority — that's bound to pay off.

The Brit-vs.-Yank business cracks me up. It's not too hard to understand how these cultural impressions come about, I guess, but I don't think I'd have predicted it so easily assumed over there, if I'd thought about it.

Hope the heavier schedule won't keep you from continuing to blog a bit.