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The hiring lesson I learned on the road to Mandalay

Greg Savage

I admit it, I am a ‘recruiting tragic’.

And a symptom of this condition is that I can’t help but think about the hiring implications of almost any situation.

And so it was, a few months ago, travelling with my family in Myanmar (formerly Burma), one of the most isolated countries anywhere, that I was struck with a hiring lesson that resonates across the world, in any situation.

We were in the northern town of Nyaung Shwe on the road to Mandalay when, in the back streets, we stumbled on what turned out to be a tomato-processing factory. Well, to be more exact, it was a tomato-sorting warehouse.

Being intrepid travellers, and inquisitive by nature, we trooped in. And soon we found ourselves in a giant hall surrounded by tens of thousands of green tomatoes. And there, crouching all day, were a group of young women sorting tomatoes by size and quality.

Fascinated, I asked my guide to help me talk to the owner, a corpulent, grumpy-looking gentleman with a thin black moustache, reclining on the only comfortable chair in the building, and smoking a huge green Burmese cheroot.

He was polite, but not particularly interested in my questions, although he did tell me they work eight-hour shifts, are contract labourers and earn US$2 a day (approximately R20). It seems each contract is for four days, and on the evening of the fourth day, each worker is paid her wage and is then told if she is wanted back for the next four-day contract.

The work is back breaking, monotonous and, of course, not secure. But in fact, these jobs are highly prized in the community, and I learned that many of the girls had left high school to secure this job, thereby supporting their struggling families.

I could not help myself. Through my guide, I asked the owner what was it that enticed him to hire any one of the many eager applicants for the jobs available. Furthermore, what did they have to do or show, to ensure that they would keep on being contracted for future work?

For the first time in our conversation, the owner perked up, and turned his black eyes directly on me. There are three things, he told me firmly, that he always looks for in a potential hire, or a re-hire:

1.    Above all, he looks for evidence and history of hard work. In his opinion, nothing is as important as effort, diligence and perseverance.
2.    Secondly, he looks at attitude. To him, this means a willingness to learn, ability to follow instructions, and a desire to improve.
3.    Finally, he likes people who smile, who are cheerful while they work and, in his own words, ‘are very happy to be among the tomatoes’.

And so, as we bade farewell to the tomato workers, and disappeared into the twilight of a bustling Burmese town, it struck me that maybe the tomato factory owner had identified the universal criteria upon which all good hires, and fulfilling careers, are built… work hard, keep learning, and enjoy what you do.

And as we sat down at a tiny restaurant a few minutes later, I turned to my two sons, who frankly were a little shell-shocked by the working conditions they had just seen, and I said to them: “Boys, there is a lesson there”.

And as children always do, they shrugged off what their dumb old dad had to say, but I think the message got through because two days later, my older boy said, out of nowhere: “Dad, what were those three things the tomato-guy said were important to get a good job?”

* This article first appeared on Gregg Savage’s blog, the Savage Truth.

Over 30 years, Greg Savage has established himself as an undisputed leader in the Australian recruitment industry and is a regular keynote speaker at staffing conferences around the world. Educated in South Africa, Greg has lived in Australia for many years and has been involved in all aspects of recruitment, including running a multinational search business with offices across the globe. Follow this link to learn about his latest seminars.