Apr. 17th, 2012

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I overheard a conversation today in the canteen where two young kids, probably on work experience, were discussing the automated career systems much beloved of schools in the 1990s.

If you didn't experience this, presumably as an alternative to paying for a career's teacher, you all sat down and were given some of that paper where you have to mark between brackets with a marker so that it could be read by a computer (they used the same technology a lot in GCSEs when I was at school). Then they'd collect your documents post them to Swindon or Worthing or Stevenage or some such atomised subtopia where they would be read by a computer. When I say "read by a computer", the whole process had very much the air of large Wallace and Grommit type machines built aluminium sheet, painted haze-grey (as if constantly at risk from the Tirpitz), and smelling of burnt dust as well as things like shellac, camphor, collodion, bakelite, sepia, rosin, and similar infinite arrays of brown 1940's type chemicals all derived from surprising sources which would be Terence Davies' prop master's idea of Shangri-La.

At some point a winding would go: it was the kind of machine with windings. A man with thick glasses and an ironed shirt who lived in an Airey House and kept a Ford Popular would smell the air and recognise it as either camphor or rosin and so know that water had penetrated the wax in the contactors: it was the kind of machine with waxed contactors.

But I digress.

The questions were all a bit odd: "Do you prefer cheese or justice?" "How are Tuesdays?" "Is an occupation involving phosphorous abhorrent to you?" "To what extent do you love soft furnishings?" "Is the radiogram an important part of your self-worth?", etc.

The results would be sent back to you by post and you would be handed a sheet of equally bizarre conclusions without explanation: Junior Caustic Flue Lagging Draughtsman 89%; Zookeeper 87%; Quantity Surveying Risk Management Database Operator 84%; Queens Council (Family Law Division) 81%; Nurse (Not Otherwise Specified) 80%. Nobody would even tell you what most of these professions were (because they didn't know, I suspect), and off you went into the world.

After a great deal of naive anticipation, I still remember my results: commissioned RAF officer; neon light blower; photographic development technician.

I was distressed to discover that this insane process is still undertaken, confusing the poor kids of today, and even more distressed to find that these two boys had been advised to take up professions which didn't even exist when I was at school, not even the idea of them: bioinformatician and webmaster. The sheet said I'd make a good web-master, one said to the other, I don't know why, it didn't say. But I guess it would be ok. I don't really know what it is though. Do you think I'd be any good at it? Only two legs the other one replied, 75% structural deficit.

We have a generation of kids who make jokes about structural deficit. Be very afraid.

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