Entrusted With Public Money

Working in a Purchasing Department was never an ambition of mine; I’d never even heard of one before working at the college, but centralising all the buying made sense – you could get bulk discounts, negotiate contracts, and take the pressure off already overworked staff.

But I approached the job with a new-found vigour. I had spent four years in total working in libraries, and a new challenge was overdue. A new manager had recently been appointed, after a rather disasterous manager had nearly destroyed the entire team, and he was a joy and a delight. I truly respected and liked him, and he made my 15-month stint in his team an absolute delight. He had two assistants – me and one other – and two technicians; we ordered everything from food supplies (the college had a very well-respected catering department) to stationary, photocopiers, books … well, you can stretch your imagination.

I never worked very much with the chef-teachers, and I was glad of it. I used to flinch if I heard the connecting door between our office and the catering department open at ten to five, especially if I was the only one in the office – it meant that there was a sudden crisis of forgotten orders and insufficient food (which happened almost weekly), and we’d need to increase the next-day food order by a factor of twenty.

But I did a lot of other things, and loved the challenge of finding deals. I was better at it than I expected, and the backlog that had unavoidably picked up during a previous hiatus soon went down to nothing. I felt a sense of achievement at being so involved in something and actually making a difference; I had some responsibility, and it felt good.

I was still young and naive, so made mistakes; I struggled with some organisational parts of the job, and I learnt not to try and muddle through without asking for help. I’ll never make that mistake again.

But I soon learnt some oddities that will probably stick with me; even now, years and years after I left, I can talk to you about photocopiers and scanners more than I should be able to. It’s not a skill I particularly craved, but working with my boss on a new photocopier contract across the college was more interesting than I had thought it would be.

I once helped a department spend £90,000 opening up a new building and technical skills division, and I once had to be in charge of a committee designed to recommend changes about the college because no-one else would do it. I didn’t really have to do much, to be fair, but I knew it was going to look good on my CV. When I had to corrall a committee that included the vice-principal (who liked to pontificate on life, the universe, and everything at every opportunity), I started to lose the will to live. I was very happy when the committee folded.

Another time, we had a work experience lad from Denmark spend three months with us to learn English. I don’t know why; his English was perfect, and he spoke it more clearly and succinctly than some English people I knew. One thing he didn’t know, however, was idiom – any idiom. If you said to him, “That’s put the cat amongst the pigeons”, he would look for the cat and the pigeons.

Myself and the rest of team took it upon ourselves to teach him English idioms. When I discovered that he was planning to go to London the following weekend with friends, to experience some of the clubs, I was nervous about him experiencing drunk English people in all their glory. He didn’t have much concept of English swear words, and I wondered what would happen if some idiot swore at him and he didn’t recognise the words. So I taught him swear words, purely for linguistical purposes, and he then increased his vocabulary by smashing words together. When his tutor then came to ask us how his language was developing, we had to think very creatively how to answer that one.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time away from libraries and retail, and I wish I had stayed longer – but a friend of mine, who I had worked with in libraries, had moved on to Pfizer and asked if I wanted to join her on slightly more money. I was swayed by the pound signs in the private sector, so decided – despite loving my team – to try a move.

I missed the lovely people there as soon as I moved, but it was the first time I was approached by someone I had once worked with to come and work with them somewhere else. Keeping professional relationships going even when you don’t work together was clearly important, so off I jolly well went.

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