I’ve always thought that working at an airport must be one of the most depressing jobs available. Far, far away from the center of a city, and often, in an ugly, poorly-designed environment. However, here in Toronto, we are lucky to have the Billy Bishop Airport, a small property in the heart of downtown. Situated on Centre Island, 200 yards from the mainland, one rides a ferry to get across. So in my hunt for a job, I figured such a nearby and urban location might be not so bad—even suited to my needs.
I walked into the Toronto Port Authority offices with high hopes. I envisioned myself riding along the tarmac, throwing suitcases into small airplanes. The fresh air and surrounding lake sounded appealing, and such a job seemed within reach. After all, how hard could it be to be a grunt? Especially for someone like me with the best of both worlds: a higher education and past summer experience as stockroom boy.
“We don’t handle tarmac operations,” a duty manager told me, shattering my low-level dreams. “But,” she continued, “we do offer positions for students and recent graduates.” I had my pick from three: greeter, deck-hand laborer on the ferry, and building attendant. The last one piqued my interest. Building attendant: it sounded noble and almost prestigious. But after asking what the job would entail for someone with my qualifications, my query was met with politically-correct, PR-generated response employing enough vagueness and foggy terminology to make Orwell rise from the grave and puke his brains out on customs floor: I would essentially be a janitor.
Now, while I need money, I’m not going to wear yellow gloves and mop up a nervous passenger’s vomit; I do enough of that at my frat house. But apparently, my pride is unique in this job market: “Most of the people applying for this job are actually graduates,” the duty manager told me, “And the position acts as a foot in the door; there’s definitely room for growth and promotion here.”
As if a glory story for the airport, my guide introduced me to Kotar, a young man who came from Ghana in 2003 to find a “better life.” He worked as a deck-hand laborer. “It’s a position we reserve mainly for immigrants,” I was told, “because they tend to have experience on boats.” I asked Kotar what he did on the ferry, and while my guide, answering for him, gave me yet another one of her politically correct responses (a trait which doesn’t seem to extend to her mentality of immigrants and boat skills), I took what she said with a grain of salt. “I basically push the button to raise and lower the ramp on the ferry,” Kotar told me with a straight face. I had to hand it to him, he knew he had a crappy job, and made no efforts to over-complicate it as his superior did. I asked him how he got this position, and the manager told me he was “promoted” from being a building attendant. “You see?” she said, “Kotar here is moving on up in the company!”
Now, I put “promoted” in quotation marks because a few hours later, when my guide and I spoke to the Ghanian some more, I asked him what his position in the food-chain was. That is, what’s he making in comparison to everyone else. Kontar didn’t know, so I pressed his manager. “Well, the closest thing to deck-hand laborer at the airport itself would be building attendant.” Some promotion, I thought to myself.
As we got off the ferry, I was beginning to get annoyed with my guide. There is a difference between help and hand-holding. But here, this was tongue-holding. She was obviously put-off by the Konar incident, and when I told her I’d like to speak to a greeter on my own, she furrowed her brow and told me she would prefer it if she stayed with me. I was introduced to a young girl by the name of Celine, and this was the final straw to an already disappointing day.
The way Kotar, an immigrant with a degree from the Third World, is treated is expected in the West. Maybe not right, but expected. What is not expected however is to lower our own graduates to such menial tasks. Meet Celine, a young woman of 23, and graduate from one of the country’s most prestigious universities. What’s more is that over the course of her four years in college, Celine wasn’t wasting her time with an English degree (as I am), but spent thousands of dollars on completing the finance program from the Rotman School of Management, a grueling business school which ranks alongside Wharton and other top programs. Now, with a Bs.C. in finance, Celine is working as a greeter in a small airport. Her job? To stand at top of the escalator and point travelers to the check-in line…a line a mere 10 feet away. A sign could do her job, and the girl knew this.
“I don’t like it here,” Celine told me after I had managed to ditch my guide ( I’d told her she had given me all the information I needed in regards to work in the glamorous airline industry. Then I bolted back to chat with Celine.) “I don’t really do anything except for point people in the right direction,” she continued. “And even then, customers are just rude to me.”
A young woman of Celine’s age walked up as we spoke and asked where the line for the ferry was. “There,” Celine said, pointing to the queue. I could read what Celine was thinking: it was meant to be her on these flights, traveling to meet clients and the like—not relegated to having to watch others travel while she stays put in front of an escalator.
“It would help if the pay was better,” she continued, “but $14 an hour? That’s nothing. I have to pay back my student debt, I have to save up for graduate school, I have to pay for gas.” Celine lives an hour away from the airport. “It doesn’t matter that I’m still living with my parents. There’s almost no mobility here. At least I was making $18 an hour at my old job and had benefits, as a security officer for CATSA [Canada's less-perverted version of the TSA] even though I was part-time. But as a greeter, I’m doing this full-time and yet for some reason, I’m considered a casual worker.” What does that mean? “I don’t get benefits even though I work more hours and for less.”
In an environment that’s fraught with security, vigilance, and such an appearance of officialism, one would think an airport, even a small one, would compensate its young employees more competitively than your run-of-the-mill clothing store. And the fact that a business school graduate, someone who very well could be at the administrative level, is pointing people her own age where to wait in line for their flights to Myrtle Beach ,is a clear indicator of these difficult economic times. If this young woman, with all her knowledge of, in short, how to flip singles into thousands, is in such a low position, where does that leave me, who only knows the slight difference between a rispetto and a strambotto?
On my way out I stopped by the office to thank my guide, but I’d be looking for a job elsewhere…
Daniel Portoraro, 21, is a senior at the University of Toronto, majoring in English. This is the second in his 5-part series of trying to find summer work in a tough economy.