Hera - Call Centre Operator / Kaimahi Pokapū Whakapā

The other day I was asking my nana how her family coped. She had 16 siblings. How did they get everything done? How did they manage to clothe and feed the whole family? She said her mum was always out in the garden growing food and got all the kids to help her. Many hands make light work. Never a moment of down time, there was just too much to get done. Instead of a washing machine she had a big drum. They lit the fire underneath and filled the thing up with water. When it was warm enough, they’d chuck in the sunlight soap then the dirty clothes. All the kids would grab sticks and start swirling the clothes around.

We’re from Porirua, just out of Wellington. It’s not the flashest of places, but the culture and the people, that’s what makes it good. It’s definitely not a high income area. A lot of people are on a benefit and have never known anything else. Dad believed if I went to a good school, I’d have a head start in life. I got sent to a Catholic primary school and then Sacred Heart in Wellington. At primary, I was amongst heaps of darkies. At intermediate, there were parliamentarians’ children, asians, many different people from different backgrounds.

I went high school for two weeks and then I dropped out. I didn’t want to be there. I kept running away from home to get away from the police. It all caught up with me and I ended up in Child Youth and Family. They locked me up in a residential home in Auckland. It was a place where bad children went. I was doing drugs, drinking alcohol, doing really bad stuff. I was surrounded by more bad kids. They kept me for about two years. When I was brought back to Porirua, I attended an alternative school. Students there didn’t fit in at ‘normal’ school either, or they didn't want to be at school, full stop. They put on careers days where people would come in and talk to us about their jobs. Teachers always asked me what I wanted to be. I’d always reply excitedly, “I wanna be a doctor! A lawyer! I wanna own a restaurant!”.

A woman called Geraldine came in one day. She owned a cafe stall. She asked me how I was doing at school and we got talking. She said I could work for her, but she needed to know why I wanted a job and what skills I could bring. How could I fit work in around school? Practical stuff like that. Geraldine was a good lady. She showed me how to use and clean a coffee machine and eventually started paying me. My dad took notice. I was actually committing to something!

One day he showed up at my work and offered to buy the cart off her. She agreed and he gave her a few grand. I was blown away when he gave the business to me. When I took over the cart, the adrenalin and euphoria kicked in. “This is mine? This is mine?! This doesn’t happen to people like me!”. I was running my own business at 14, for real! I wasn’t good at it, I employed all my friends and they never turned up to work. A lot of the street kids visited me at the end of each day. They’d wait for me to pack up and I’d shout them a hot chocolate or a mocha. If anything, the business kept me grounded. Unfortunately, at that rate, it couldn’t last forever.

Dad was a very big man and his health issues were through the roof. He couldn’t go to work, he was too sick. He grew up in the ghetto, doing dumb stuff like I did. He always said to me, “Hera, you don't want to end up like this. Be at work, Hera. I’m a hypocrite, I know, but if you have children and they see you on the benefit, they will end up on it, too. But if you’re a working parent and you strive for a better life, they’ll see opportunity for themselves.”

Porirua isn’t the place to be if you strive for success in terms of money or income. But if you’re about family and community, it’s great. There’s always kids outside the corner dairy doing a sausage sizzle fundraiser, someone putting on a gig down at the pub for a special cause. They have an open market on a Saturday morning, they sell food and all sorts. You’ll always get a group of people out on the corner singing the gospel. They’ll be out there rain or shine, clapping their hands and strumming their guitars. At the same time, there are downsides of being in a low income area. More young women have children at early ages and more young men join gangs.

After the coffee cart I drifted from job to job. Stock taking at supermarkets, to labouring at the fisheries, stuff like that. Then I got pregnant. I was 19. To make it even harder, dad died two months after I gave birth. While that was really, really tough, I’m very thankful that he got to hold my baby in his arms. I named my son Stanley, after dad. In our culture, if you name name a baby after someone, it means they will carry on that person’s good traits.
My partner Jack is in the construction industry. He was offered ten years of work down here, so it made sense to bring the whole family and settle in together. When we arrived, he drove us down this street and said, “Babe, this is our new house!”. I looked out the window and what I saw wasn’t pretty. But he drove up a different drive way, and pulled up outside this beautiful, modern home. I couldn’t believe it. I grew up in Housing Corp units, you know? Sometimes I feel guilty, living in a house like this, having the vehicle that I have, those sorts of things. I think far out, I’m sitting here living this life and my people back home are still struggling. But I have to remind myself that I came here to experience something different, so one day I can go back home and say, “Look, there is other stuff outside of this town. I know it’s hard trying to break the cycle, but it’s possible.”

When the kids and I had moved in, Jack asked me to think about getting a job. He didn’t want me to stay on the benefit and when I thought about it, neither did I. So I took myself to Work & Income and told them what the story was. I’m so lucky, they paid for the kids to go to day care and I got a job as a cleaner. Yeah, I was scrubbing toilets, but it was a start. I worked full time, six at night ’til two in the morning. Jack would watch the children in the evenings, make dinner, help them with homework and take them to bed. I’d get home at two in the morning, try to get some sleep and be up early to get the kids fed and off to school. I was so tired. I missed them a lot during those six months.

I knew I needed to find a different job. I started looking on Trademe, and there was an ad for a call centre operator. I thought I’d go and have a look. When I walked in, I liked the feel of the place. The people there seemed familiar. They were chirpy and they all loved talking, just like me. I called into Work & Income again and asked what my options were. Compared to my previous full time cleaning job, my pay would be significantly smaller. The hours were nine in the morning ’til one in the afternoon. I wanted to be able to drop the kids off and pick them up from daycare and school. I was amazed when Work & Income told me they were able to top my pay package up. They even offered me financial support to get the kids into holiday programs. It was just a matter of asking the right questions and finding the right information. After I figured out I could make it work, I went in for the job interview.

The boss asked me the same questions I’d been asked by Geraldine, “What can you offer me?” She told me it was cold calling, so I’d have to have a thick skin. “How are you going to work around your children? What plan have you got in place if they get sick?” I really wanted the job so I did my best to answer her questions as well as I could.

She gave me the job! My title is now 'Call Centre Operator'. I’m one of those annoying people who ring your home phone and try to sell you double glazed windows. I set up appointments with homeowners, then our consultants go in and do a free quote. If they want it, they want it. If they don’t, that’s cool. At least we helped them get a quote and maybe they’ll consider it later on down the track. Sometimes we get abused over the phone, hence the need for a thick skin! There are targets that need to be met, a certain amount of appointments need to be made every day. If those appointments turn into sales, then I get commission.

There are a lot of women that work in the office with me. We’re all chirpy and most of us have strong personalities. We go out together as a group, to the movies, out for dinner, stuff like that. Back home I’d be going to parties and getting drunk. It’s different here. We’re all mums and we’re all from different backgrounds. I really enjoy getting to know them and hearing their stories.

Jack’s boss is my brother in law. They know a lot of other business owners and we often get invited along to their social events. The talk at these events is different and it’s good talk. They speak about taking their families out, going out on their boats or going on holidays. It made me think. I've realised that their definition of success is different to mine. Theirs seems to hinge on having yachts and living a glamorous lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, part of me wants that, too. We all deserve a yacht. We all deserve education. We all deserve all of these things. But part of me wants something else.

Most importantly, I want to use what we’ve been given to help those that are still in the struggle. My dream would be to run a foundation where people could get free advice about job hunting. A place where they could bring their babies, sit down, have a cup of tea and have someone help them out. There are so many benefits available for working parents, but it can be hard to find the right information. Some people don’t know how to write a CV and they can’t afford to pay someone to show them how.

As for my kids, I want to teach them that they can do anything. I want to take my dad’s words seriously and teach them a positive way to
live their lives.

How do I get into this career?

Call centre operators can do a variety of jobs, from dealing with customer calls to selling products over the phone:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about being a call centre operator. Their 'How to enter the job' section has a lot of really good info.

- Another idea is to research local businesses, call them, and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some great online resources on how to approach this.

- Hera mentioned that Work & Income have been a good financial aid to her and her family. There are some great resources on their website, but as Hera recommended, it might be better to go in and make an appointment. That way, you may be able to get the right information more easily.