Reaping the rewards of my gig with the government

I chose to work in the government 12 years ago. Looking back, I’m glad I did.

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“What’s that?” There was a split-second pause in our conversation as a friend tried to make sense of my response. “Ah, government… right?” he said. I nodded in confirmation, and wished we’d change the topic of our conversation right away. I could sense his surprise at least, or cynicism at worst, after I told him I was leaving my job, my first one out of college and less than three months into it.

Its less-than-stellar reputation and the meager salary that came with it are common knowledge. I could almost read their thought bubbles, “Why?” or “Are you out of your mind?” Or perhaps the more pitiful “Sorry to hear that.” As friends and classmates got a good head start in their careers in private firms and non-profits, my decision to work for the government seemed like backtracking right after I started.

Anyone who has changed jobs has done it one way or another. It’s like cheating, only in a professional way. You take a day off or show up late for work for that job interview. I must have done the latter, and brought a change of clothes as I was careful not to drop any hints of my transgression. I wore a short-sleeved maroon button-up shirt and khakis, which was already dressy compared with my daily ensemble of jeans and T-shirt in my first job at a non-profit organization.

My first job wasn’t necessarily my first choice. All along, even before graduation, I had set my sight on working in the government. Not just any government office though. I applied to a few others but the development planning agency was at the top of my list. How does one development-plan? I didn’t quite fully comprehend then what the job entailed, but “development planning” sounded too important to pass up. It had the reputation of accepting only the best and the brightest. Of course, I wanted to be a part of it.

I asked for tips from two people who were then connected with the office. I made acquaintance with one via an online forum for cellphone enthusiasts, who eventually switched careers to become a tech writer. The other was an alumnus of my college who went to work there for a couple of years, and later on left to pursue graduate studies on a scholarship in Brussels. Those didn’t seem to be terrible career paths. With limited knowledge of the possible entry-level jobs I could apply to, I thought I could forge something similar for myself.

I sent in my job application in a month after I graduated, in April of 2004, and got a call from HR for a written test a month or two later. The three-hour test consisted of management questions (!), economic concepts, basic algebra, and two essays. And again, like many of job applications then (and until now), there was silence. This was in 2004, an election year, and every time the Commission on Election issues a hiring freeze in the government. This dragged on until November when I finally got called in for an interview.

The panel didn’t bring up the test results during the interview, thankfully. I still doubt I passed the economics part of the test after only taking a basic economics course in my undergrad. I must have winged it on the essay, which asked the role of “sustainable development” in national development, a concept drilled down to us in college. It was the trending development jargon, the “inclusive development” of mid-2000. The panel consisted of four chiefs, each heading the four divisions of the Agriculture Staff, and two hiring committee representatives. I can’t exactly remember their questions. All I remember is that everything went smoothly. It was jovial, almost informal- encouraging if not reassuring signs.

There were three other applicants that day. We were corralled in a waiting lounge with blue walls the size of a big cubicle, which felt like being inside the dead-end of a maze when one looked around while seated down. Like the other interviewees, I was whisked back to the maze after the panel interview and told to wait our turn before the one-on-one interview with the director.

He was portly and in his late forties. I saw him a little earlier walk in with a swagger, and assumed that must be him. We talked about an upland agriculture project, a topic I should have known well, and wished I had, especially because I spent one month doing our practicum with the implementers of that very same project.

He probably caught my bluff. After all, it’s a project he knows too well, because his office reviewed the technical aspects of the project before it got the go signal for funding by a multilateral bank- one of the core tasks of the job. He asked probing questions. But really, what does a barely-out-of-college 21 year-old know about development planning? Until now, and several local and international development organizations later, I’m still looking for that definitive answer.

Albeit late, I still went to work that day, or at least tried to, mostly asking myself: “Will I be sitting on the same chair for a while? What could I have said differently? What now? I remember asking a friend about an interview he had once for an admin job. Only with a little enthusiasm, he told me that he “said all the things they (the interviewers) wanted to hear.” I wish I could have said the same after my interview. I wasn’t new at all to the professional world, already with two months of work experience then under my belt.

A few weeks after the interview, I got an email asking me to submit documents to kickstart the hiring process, before assuming my government post. On the last workday of 2004 I became an “Economic Development Specialist.” I reveled in my job title. I’ll be doing development planning.

The Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan or MTPDP was our bible. Jeffrey Sachs lauded that version of the plan as “one of the best, if not the best, he has ever seen.” Those words would have looked nice in its dust jacket if ever it had one. The Plan was an infallible scripture cited in memos, quoted in government meetings, and subscribed to as our superior belief system during donor meetings. We deferred to its wisdom. At least for the next six years until a new leader is elected. The plan coincides with the term of the president, after which its contents are revised or recycled, or rendered irrelevant.

Some days we argued over the technical merits of Jatropha curcas as a source biofuel, other days we’re building capacity to mainstream sustainable development before we moved on to the mainstream climate change in local development. Yes, I learned its jargons. I met many technocrats, competent and controversial ones.

Those two and a half years must have been my busiest: reviewing projects, attending technical working groups, facilitating workshops. My blog that I started in 2003 was inactive during those years. It’s also the longest I’ve held down a job.

I observed that my senior colleagues, including those who have left, have a predictable career progression: work for a couple of years, go on study leave to study abroad, and return to government. Our office was notorious for its high churn rate. Those who didn’t opt for a study leave resigned from their post because they didn’t want to be bound to a service contract.

I usually went to work at 7:00 in the morning so I can leave at 4:00 in the afternoon. One day I stayed later than usual, making sure many of my colleagues have left for the day. I sent my then chief who concurrently worked as the officer-in-charge a Sametime message, asking her if she had a minute to speak. She said yes so I went to her office, sat down, and talked about my plans, which unfortunately no longer included them. She understood and respected my decision. I was one of those who didn’t want to be tethered to a service contract. After two and a half years, I left my job to study on a scholarship in Freiburg in Germany.

I became good friends with many of my colleagues, and still keep in touch with many of them. It’s a unique professional relationship I haven’t been able to replicate in my other jobs, for better or worse. We have bumped into each other in international conferences in South Africa, or worked together again a few years down the road at the United Nations or Asian Development Bank in Manila.

My stint with the government prepared me well in understanding its machinations. This appreciation comes in handy even up to this day. I’ve established lifelong friendships and a sturdy network. I’ve been shaping an interesting through the years. That second job provided me a mental model of the so-called bureaucracy, including its potential and foibles. After making a decision twelve years hence, when I thought I was making a backtrack, I didn’t know it would propel me forward.

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This is the second of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. Read the first post here. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter.

Road trip: How I deal with SLEx on a bus

After moving back to Metro Manila, and to shield myself from the stress-inducing snarling traffic, I’ve pretty much given up on mass transit. I’ve setup a routine, and by way of extension, a life, where I try to avoid all modes of wheeled transportation- even a car- if I can help it.

My daily commute is a seven-minute walk, door-to-desk. For those times I have to go somewhere farther- home in Las Piñas or an aunt’s house in Manila (the city) on weekends- I rely on Uber. Without a driver’s license, a car, and the skills to drive one, it’s the only way to get around in the metro. Taxis, with all the haggling, crime, and grime involved, are now a far, second option. This of course limits my mobility. Save for a jaunt to Singapore in January and to my mother’s hometown in Sorsogon over Christmas, the farthest trip I managed last year was to Los Baños in Laguna, just 68 kilometers south of Manila.

Just recently, I renewed extra-curricular ties to my university, which means making more frequent visits to Los Baños this year. I’m exploring to volunteer in an elderly care program, and have been recently elected as an officer for the college-affiliated professional organization that I helped establish.

More than a decade after graduating from university, I still make that trip south every now and then, just to take a breather from the city. I arrange ‘official’ excuses to go back. I attend alumni meetings in my college, a fiesta farther south in San Pablo City, or do a day trip to Nagcarlan and Pandin. Facebook check-ins garner likes from university friends and other fellow alumni. For sure they would click the ‘envious’ emoji if there was one.

It’s easy to travel to Los Baños. Hop on a bus going to Sta. Cruz, Laguna along EDSA, Buendia, or Alabang and about two hours or so later, voila, you’re in Los Baños. If I’m lucky, I’m able to hitch a ride with a friend who would go home on weekends. Going back from a meeting, for sure a fellow alumnus is driving somewhere to Manila. Otherwise, I don’t have any qualms (and choice) taking the bus.

As a university student, I would travel home on Saturday afternoons after our military training, and be back on Sunday evening or early Monday morning in time for my first class. It was a weekly ritual, a route I know all too well, now hardwired in my body’s internal GPS.

The bus provides few forms of entertainment enough to kill the half-hour stretch of the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx). Most air-conditioned buses have a TV (and recently WiFi), which is good and bad. Good because there’s something to alleviate the humdrum of the trip. Bad, because I never got to start or finish whatever is playing. Most of the time, a movie is already playing when one gets on the bus. Sometimes I partly get lucky when the bus conductor starts playing the movie as soon as the bus hits the expressway, only for me to get off an hour later as the movie is about to reach climax. This was right before the time of the iPods and Spotify, when on-demand music meant burning your favorite playlist on a CD.

I recently visited a college friend in San Pablo, further south of Los Baños, who has turned into a regular weekend bus commuter when he started working in Manila full-time. He said you meet all sorts of people on a bus. I encountered one of them that morning.

A time-tested way to while away the time is to sleep, if you have the tenacity to do so. I had planned on sleeping on the bus after a rough night. I could get at least a good hour of shuteye from the two-hour bus ride once I have paid my fare, or so I thought. The lady seating on the opposite side was holding a talkfest. She was already deep into her conversation with her companion as I got on the bus along EDSA in Ortigas. She talked non-stop all the way to Calamba, where she and her companion finally got off. She talked so much that I barely remember hearing the voice of the guy she was with. When they got off the bus, a guy moved to their vacated seats. This time, he was singing along in a deep monotone to Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love All’ as he looked out the window. Sleeping on a bus is not easy to achieve, and that morning it wasn’t happening to me. I started singing along.

Upon leaving Metro Manila, Calamba is the first city that greets motorists at the southern tip of the expressway. It’s the last exit of the SLEx, the gateway to Laguna’s more rustic parts and all things calm and green, past the urban sprawl that has engulfed parts of the province closer to Manila. It signals ‘one more hour before arrival’ to my ultimate destination. The Calamba-Los Baños stretch used to be shorter. The volume of vehicles has unfortunately given way to predictable choke points in Calamba Crossing and the junction going into the UP Los Baños campus. A third one exists in summer, in Pansol, where Manileños troop to swimming pool resorts to cool down.

For someone who has visited six out of the seven continents, I can’t say I’ve always been, or already am, a good traveler. I feel anxious at the thought of air travel. As a child, I would feel nauseous after seating for a while in a moving vehicle. My mother made sure she had a barf bag with her in the unfortunate event that I needed one, which was quite frequent. At times, even up till now, a whiff of a musty taxi or pine-scented air-conditioned bus still triggers childhood memories of motion-sickness, projectiles, and plastic bags.

Memories of traversing the SLEx are nothing but a blur, like a necessary purgatory one has to go through to escape Manila and reach the gates of provincial Laguna. Most times I simply tune out and get lost in the time-space abyss. It’s transit in a trance.

I still squirm at the thought of long land travel, just sitting there in limbo, neither comfortable nor productive, neither here nor there. But for a couple of hours away to escape Manila en route to my happy place, I deal with it.

If you’ve taken a specific route countless times, you more or less can estimate where are you are depending on the time and speed of the vehicle, even with your eyes closed. Approaching Calamba exit, the driver releases the gas pedal and slightly applies the break. The bus slows down as it rounds the exit ramp, the centrifugal force pushing me lightly to the left. I then feel a rush, as if I’m on a plane preparing for landing, banking, gradually descending and raising its flaps to aid its deceleration and finish off with a smooth soft landing. It’s a gentle wake up call to tell me I’m approaching a familiar destination, now one that is part-holiday, part-business, but always like home. It’s a nudge I recognize, a unique one just for this particular bend in the road.