Standing By for a Crappy Airport Job

August 13th, 2011 at 12:00 am | 35 Comments |

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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.

Recent Posts by Daniel Alexandre Portoraro



35 Comments so far ↓

  • kathyjboyd

    What’s more clear with Employment report is that when it comes to joblessness, having a college degree is more important than ever that is why we need the help of “High Speed Universities” now

    • Banty

      Yeah maybe they can just produce robo-signed diplomas.

    • Steve D

      Yup, that will water down the value of a degree even more. “High Speed University” = “Diploma Mill.”

      Ever notice how many “improvements” to the educational system involve spending as much or more but funneling the money to private sector vendors who will provide a worse product? If you think standards are low now, just wait until students really ARE customers and schools compete to see who can pull in the most students with the cheapest, shoddiest programs. (Hint: air travel, anyone?)

  • Xunzi Washington

    You sound to me like one of those very people who, eventually at some point in the future, will be rude or dismissive to the airport workers such as Celine as you pop on and off planes to ‘see your clients’.

  • NRA Liberal

    I think a summer as a deck hand would be a fine experience for you, young lad.

    I’ve ridden that ferry to the City Islands many time. All day out on the water, great views…You’d get a bit of dirt under your nails and probably learn a couple of useful things as well, like how to tie seafaring knots. Ingratiate yourself with the ships’ officers and you might get to stand a watch, learn how to read charts or take care of the diesel engines.

    All in all, “deckhand” is far cooler an answer to the question “so what did you do for a summer job” than “Starbuck’s barista”, etc.

    Or you could pop down to the offices of the Toronto laborer’s local (Local 183) and ask them about working on permit for the summer. Real work, making actual things, under the hot sun. Do you good.

    • NRA Liberal

      By the way, I’m enjoying this series. Good stuff.

      Daniel, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickled and Dimed”.

    • Primrose

      Didn’t you read the article? He would be pushing a button, just one, the entire day.

      • NRA Liberal

        Haven’t you ever heard of showing initiative?

        Put me aboard that ferryboat as an able bodied button pusher and by summer’s end, I guarantee you I’ll be first mate.

  • Redrabbit

    Does South Korea need cheap labor? I will beat ANY low paid worker there for price competitiveness just to get the hell away from Perry. Mexico doesn’t look like a bad bet either.

  • drdredel

    I don’t mean to be rude but this series has nothing to do with the general unemployment problem that we’re talking about nation wide. You are a student that’s being finicky about what sort of low paying / no-skill job you can take? That’s all well and (un)interesting but what does that have to do with the the price of tea in China? People are out of work because things they have been doing as a career, frequently blue-collar, but still involving skills of various kinds, are simply gone. For example, my wife has an MFA in theatre education with a specialty in Shakespeare and she simply can’t find a job in her field within a 2 hour drive of us. That’s anecdotal, of course, but it’s telling of what the problem is. If your story is that you went to the airport and they said “we have nothing, go home”, that would be closer to the issue, but you’re just not interested in doing dull, mostly mindless, labor. It seems you think you’re entitled to play this violin but you need to look around and see who’s sitting next to you in the string section. I think you’ll quickly discover that you don’t belong.

    • sinz54

      “For example, my wife has an MFA in theatre education with a specialty in Shakespeare and she simply can’t find a job in her field within a 2 hour drive of us. That’s anecdotal, of course, but it’s telling of what the problem is.”

      That’s not “telling of what the problem is” either.

      I’m sure your wife is a wonderful person. But let’s face it, the entertainment professions have chronically high unemployment, even in better economic times. Far more wannabe actors, producers and coaches than there are openings.

      • drdredel

        I am not listing her difficulty in finding work as an actor amongst these examples (in fact, that’s one area where she’s actually able to find work, it just doesn’t pay very well). Rather I said she has an MFA in theatre education, making her a teacher, and specifically a teacher of middle and high-school aged children, and specifically specializing in both English and Shakespeare. As it happens, making Shakespeare interesting and relevant to kids is highly tricky and involves a great deal of preparation and skill (you may recall you, most likely, hated how you were offered Shakespeare as a kid and it most likely took you decades to discover his genius, if you ever did, largely because of the ineptitude of the curriculum).
        So, she’s not looking for “coaching” gigs, she’s looking for a staff position as an English/Theatre educator at the junior and high-school levels. And there are no openings as the education budges in all states are being slashed.

  • TJ Parker

    What you learned on your summer vacation:
    1. Change your major.

    • Primrose

      Again, read the article. The woman with a finance degree is standing at the top of the stairs and pointing.

      • TJ Parker

        What the greeter learned this summer:
        1. Get an M.S. in a different field.

        Sorry, but I surely didn’t mean to suggest that “change your major” applies only to English majors or that you should choose your major indiscriminately. But if you look at the job market, what do you see: (1) people with no skills (e.g. English majors) have few job opportunities; (2) professions that were hot during the last bull market are no longer hot: banks are currently laying off, lawyers can’t find jobs.

        When I said “change your major”, of course I meant “change your major to science, math or engineering”. Few other majors actually prepare you for a career in anything. Harsh but true.

  • Houndentenor

    What a snot nosed brat! No wonder he can’t find a job. His attitude surely comes across loud and clear in every interview.

  • ottovbvs

    Who is this whining twit? When I was nearly 16 I ran away from school and got a job as a deckhand on a small oil tanker for a year (one of the greatest experiences of my life). My son in law whose a very high powered corporate lost his job about six years ago and while he was looking around worked in liquor distribution warehouse for a few months and had a great time. This weeny needs to get with the program.

    • sinz54

      This time I agree with you.

      When I was putting myself through college, I happily took whatever job I could find. (And in 1975, economic times were tough too.) Sometimes I endured abuse from bosses and customers too–but I didn’t even think about quitting. I wasn’t taking the jobs to find personal fulfillment, but to help defray part of my education expenses.

      Hey, maybe we can introduce him to Vivian Darkbloom, and they can write a series together:

      “How to have sex when even your horny girlfriend is tired of your whining.”

    • NRA Liberal

      This is Part Two of a series about the travails of educated youth in this job market. You need to read the first one to properly appreciate it.

      • drdredel

        alternatively you can skip them both having missed absolutely nothing.

        • PracticalGirl

          NRA- you’re only partly right. This is a series about a search for employment, but I think we shouldn’t skip the obvious:

          Daniel is, as of now, not yet part of the educated work force. He’s a college kid looking for the type of summer work that he feels entitled to, not a degreed professional finding it difficult to find fulfilling work with a future.

        • NRA Liberal

          Duly noted. I amend my remarks to read “partially educated youth”.

  • Banty

    “my guide introduced me to Kotar, a young man who came from Ghana in 2003 to find a “better life.” ”

    C’mon, Daniel – why the scare quotes around ‘better life’? Do you know what his life was like in Ghana?

    Sometimes you take a job just to show you can stay employed and get out in the world. You can look for a better job in the meantime (this, by the way, is the reason why many employers won’t touch a college student). And you never know; I was recruited for a machinist/tool-and-die apprenticeship when I was a truck stop waitress by a regular customer there. I didn’t take it as I was working toward a physics degree (they didn’t know that), but I got that offer for being sharp, consistent, friendly, and holding it together in a short-handed situation, as a truck stop waitress wearing the flouncy dress they made me wear, and making the best of it for the best tips I could find during an oil embargo. Heck, another time I got an offer to manage the front office of a tire and transmission shop just for being a knowledgeable customer. I didn’t take that one either as I was more gainfully employed than that, but my point is that you have to get out there.

  • Oldskool

    A job on a ferry sounds pretty good to me. Then again, my childhood reading gave me a bad case of wanderlust, probably thanks to Jack London. I still enjoy it today but on a smaller scale than when I was your age. I did some very hard work because it meant constant travel. No way could I do it today but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

  • Argy F

    In my experience I’ve known more people who’ve accepted crummy jobs and remained at crummy jobs than people who did otherwise.

    I feel the acceptance of poorly paying jobs lacking in dignity is a sign of hopelessness – however necessary it might be for some – rather than a label of honor.

    Even for plants the natural order of things is to grow towards the light.

  • PracticalGirl

    Daniel, you really need to adjust your thinking about who you are in the world right now. As much as you’re working toward it, you are still an unskilled, inexperienced workerp without a degree who has nothing particularly unique to offer an employer at this point. Yet, somehow, you still think that the (summer) job of your your dreams is somethingp that should be attainable. Very strange.

    If you really believe that a good paying, exciting and fulfilling job in advertising, marketing or PR is something that a person with no professional skills, experience or college degree can easily snag, why are you still in college?

    I’m enjoying your series, but you’ve laid out a premise that has little to do with the very real challenges you’ll face when you actually enter the real job market. As one at an executive level within the professional arena you say you want to enter, I’ve got some advice. Get rid of the long list of things you won’t do, and focus on what you will do to succeed. You’re going to start at the bottom of this field, and you’ll never make it unless you change your entitlement attitude.

  • NRA Liberal

    Another thing: if you want to be a writer (and it seems that you do); those experiences at the bottom of the social heap, and the people you meet there, are solid gold.

    • japhi

      I agree. The most intersting people I work with have various bavkgrounds, and most of them didnt make it to the top the conventional way. My boss was in the military, my boss before that was a middle manager at bus company after getting his MBA. He made 35k a year, ten years later hes an executive at at a f500 company. I started my sales career at a freakin Kinkos wearing a goofy blue bib. At the time that was all I was qualified to do!

      The common demonitor between all the successful people i know is work ethic and an ability to relate to other people. There are so many opportunities in Canada for people that are talented and will do the work. Im dying for good sales talent, there is an unlimited amount of worknfor people that will bang doors and talk to prospects. Most people wont do this though, they feel they are above it.

      The author of this article is going to struggle i his career. He comes across as an entitled brat. My suggestion… get a government or city job, public sevice is made for no talent BA’s.

  • hedgehog

    I would like to clear up a few of the references you make in Celine’s story. Spending thousands of dollars on an education is not equivalent to increasing your marketability in the job market. While the undergraduate commerce program at Rotman/UofT is one that is definitely in the running for top business school in Canada (I would say Ivey at UWO is better), it is not in any way comparable to Wharton/Harvard/Stanford.

    On a side note, please keep in mind that the Rotman School of Management is an MBA program, and it is wrong on many levels to associate it with the undergraduate equivalent at U of T – Rotman Commerce (B.Com). Why does this matter? Wharton/Harvard/Stanford do NOT have undergraduate degrees that solely focus on commerce (specialist in finance, you name it) and, as such, the quality of the MBA programs of these schools is not pertinent to your article. If you check out financial times (ft.com), they have a section on hire rates for these graduate business schools (including some Canadian MBA programs) and I think you would surprised to see some of the numbers.

    Going back to Celine’s story, as a recent Rotman Commerce graduate myself, it is extremely difficult to land a good job even with a finance degree. 25% of the finance graduating class gets a job straight out of university, and that includes ANY job, so that rate should be even lower. Why is this so? It really is not how much money you spend on your education that matters, but rather it is the skill set you bring to the table at an interview that decide if you get a job. Sure, Celine may have had a high GPA, but she may not have been able to demonstrate how she would use her skills to contribute to a company’s success. As a junior investment banker I can tell you that just because you have a bachelor of commerce or any degree for that matter doesn’t make you marketable. It certainly helps you get that initial interview, but if you have nothing to offer your degree is essentially useless, which reflects poorly on yourself. In addition, I can guarantee you that you will not be able to land your dream job with all the “glamour” and “responsibility” straight out of university. Even as an investment banking analyst I make 70k annually, but I work 80-90 hours a week, which includes A LOT of grunt work, but there are certainly quite a few rewarding moments. Prior to that I worked very hard on landing internships, working with professors, working part time and expanding on my interest in finance that is not taught in class. Only then you can separate yourself from the crowd.

    I would suggest, as someone else mentioned earlier, concentrate on what you can bring to the table when considering a position. Realistically, that is really the one factor that interviewers look for in a potential employee – bottom line, will your addition to the team be value additive or dilutive?

    There was a good line in friends by Estelle (Joey’s agent) to Joey: “take any job you get, and don’t make on the floor”.

    Good luck.

    • Banty

      Most firms, including my own, consider certain graduate programs to be their “feeder” programs. In reality, to a large extent they use the success of grads in those programs to be most of their own interview process. To come in from the outside of these, you have to have pertinent experience on top of it (and I don’t mean any experience; it has to be directly applicable to the job in question.)

      If you don’t go to the Stanford/Wharton programs for MBA’s, you look to smaller, more local firms. Actually, anyone going for an MBA (or any graduate program for that matter) should have investigated where the post-graduate hire connections are.

  • Graychin

    Although I didn’t walk ten miles to school every day in deep snow, I did handle freight in boxcars and trucks during my college days.

    This schmuck is a whiner. After last week’s silly essay, I see that his attitude hasn’t improved much. No way I would hire him.

    Stop pointing your fucking cigarette at me!

  • growsmarter

    Not much has changed since I first entered the world of work several decades ago. I was given glamourous jobs like painting garbage cans or washing broken glass off unbroken ketchup bottles so they could be used. Unless Daddy owns the company, it’s very hard to start at the top.
    What Mr. Portoraro excels at is expressing his thoughts and helping us see the humour and irony in his journey. These are rare and valuable skills which at some point (later than sooner) will open a world of interesting opportunities to him. In the meantime, he is taking us along for an interesting ride. To the rest of you critics who are providing unsolicited advice and scorn, chill out.

  • Smargalicious

    As a business owner I am familiar with Daniel’s ilk:

    “You owe me a high paying job, with which I can make my own hours, abuse sick leave time, call in frequently late or no-show and still expect to hold the job…after all, how can I pay for my $5 a pack cig habit, and my weed and gas expenses?? I have a large cell phone bill that my daddy was paying for me in college but that’s stopped. He also stopped paying for my car insurance and my health insurance on his policy cuts off soon.

    The world owes me!!”

    Sheeeeiiit.