The Unconventional Cubicles of a New Zealand Working Holiday

This might come as a surprise to some readers, but during 2006 & 2007 I spent a year working in New Zealand.

I say this because sometimes even I forget that I lived in New Zealand.

Sorry, New Zealand.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself – it just feels like it happened in another lifetime.

The jobs I had in NZ (that’s en-zed to the uninitiated) weren’t as unusual as the ones I had in Australia, but they weren’t exactly conventional, either.

Americans between the ages of 18-30 can work in New Zealand for a full year, so I split my time between Auckland and Christchurch. Instead of scouring the papers and pounding the pavement, I registered with recruitment agencies and let them find me a job.  This saved me a lot of hassle and time, but it did land me some jobs I probably wouldn’t have applied for on my own.


Auckland sunset
Auckland at sunset. Not a bad view for my walk home from work.

Ministry of Education – Support Officer

$18 an hour

Parker Bridge Recruitment sent me to interview with the Ministry of Education (MOE), but I wasn’t exactly clear on what I was applying for. I mainly went because it was a Ministry, like in Harry Potter.

That’s probably why I didn’t get the job.

Miraculously, my interviewer, Fiona, took a shine to me and decided to hire me for a different position. A few days later, I was a government employee, working for the Corporate Services Team.

I’m bored just saying it – corporate services.

Corporate Services was responsible for the mundane tasks that make people want to quit their jobs and go travel the world. But for me it was okay, because I was already traveling the world.

I was replacing an English girl who was also on a working holiday visa, so I just assumed her time was up and she had to leave the country. That was not the case.

Tessa took me aside on my first day for a confidential discussion.

“Look,” she said, “I’m going to be frank. They hired you to do kitchen duty.”

What? Fiona hadn’t taken a shine to me at all. She’d sensed gullibility.

Had I known the truth, I wouldn’t have ironed my pants that morning.

“I’m trying to get you out of it,” she continued. “I saw your CV. You’ve got a college degree, and it’s not right for them to put you in the kitchen. So I’ve talked to Fiona and she’s going to find another role for you.”

What a champion! At that time, I wouldn’t have had the guts to speak up. For sure I would have spent the next six months emptying the dishwasher and refreshing the coffee thermos for all 130 ministry employees.

Ministry of Education girls
Some of my Ministry co-workers from Canada, South Africa, and Denmark. We were a multi-cultural bunch.

Within a week, young Dierdre from Ireland was in the kitchen and I advanced in the ranks, taking on duties such as:

  • opening the mail
  • making a map of the car park
  • affixing extension stickers to every phone in the office
  • writing and distributing a weekly newsletter
  • pricing ergonomic chairs
  • distributing swipe cards to new employees

I hardly took the stresses of work home with me.

Surprisingly, working in a government office proved to be a cultural experience. The MOE’s Pasifika team was responsible for arranging cultural events throughout the city. It was because of them that I got to experience a hangi, the traditional Maori feast where all the food is cooked underground for hours.

Everyone gathered in an fairy-lit room as various employees told us fascinating old Maori legends, none of which I can now recall. Probably because I was in a food coma.

When I left, my colleagues gave me a jade necklace in the shape of an albatross tear. One of the Maori men blessed it, then passed it around in a circle so everyone could hold it before placing it around my neck.

“This albatross tear will protect you on your travels,” he said. “You will always carry our  protection everywhere you go.”

Wow. I’d blundered my way into this job and come out with massive rewards.

Good thing I’d ironed my pants.


Christchurch Clinical Studies Trust (CCST) – Recruiter

$22 an hour

In Christchurch my recruitment agency got me a job as a recruiter for clinical drug trials.

No biggie.

Apparently you don’t need medical knowledge for that kind of thing.

CCST was a phase I & II testing facility, which basically meant they were testing the drugs for adverse side effects. Participants received a miniscule dosage and were monitored regularly. The organization was extremely professional and sterile, and everyone made me nervous. I felt like a total fraud, as I do in many of my jobs.

The first time I met Richard, the owner and head doctor, I spilled my coffee onto the carpet.

“Ha ha,” I said, rubbing it in with the toe of my shoe. “It’ll blend. You’d never believe I used to be a waitress, would you?”

First impressions. They’re the best, aren’t they?

Spilled coffee
Hey, I’m your totally competent new employee. Don’t look down. Image credit: Flickr, Fricke_K

I had to recruit healthy volunteers who were willing to commit to overnight hospital stays and multiple visits over the course of several weeks. The shortest trial spanned three days and paid $1200, while the longest covered eight weeks and paid nearly $3000.

The most willing subjects were, predictably, male college students.

This presented a problem, because there was only one rule:

No drugs or alcohol for the duration of the study.

Many of my phone conversations went like this:

“My buddy’s graduating in the middle of the study. Is it cool if, you know, I go out just that one night and have a few beers?”

“…No.” long pause. “It’s not cool.”

“Oh, yeah, I didn’t think so, just thought I’d ask.”

These were the kind of people who would go have a few beers in the middle of the study and lie about it to the doctors.

Well, blood tests don’t lie, idiots.

The cohort (test group) would then be ruined and I would have to recruit all new volunteers.

There was one question that was even more popular than, “Is it okay for me to go on a bender in the middle of the study even though I’ve already signed an agreement stating that I know it’s not okay?”.

It was:

“So, uh, if I do this study, you’re not going to give me hepatitis, are you?”

No. We’re not going to give you hepatitis.

Clinical trials aren’t like Russian roulette.

The doctors don’t infect you with a crippling disease just to see if they can cure you.

I also had to fend off the over-eager volunteers, the ‘regulars,’ if you will.

“I know I just finished a trial last week, but are there any others I could sign up for?”

Slow down there, Sparky.

Several rules were in place at CCST, one of them being that volunteers had to wait at least three months between trials.

Once I got them in the door, I handed them over to the doctors. You know, the ones who actually had medical training.

I learned more about medicine in those six months than I ever intended to, but fortunately I’ve forgotten most of it by now.

What I do remember is that by working at CCST, I saved up enough money to cruise around Milford Sound, hike the Franz Josef glacier, and go bungee jumping in Queenstown. I held my nose through Rotorua, sailed down sand dunes in Northland, and went skydiving over Lake Taupo.

Kiwi House


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  1. Must be tradition to give all the WHV’ers jade on their way out. I got a necklace from my work place also and it was the best gift I got.

    I loved my time and job(s) in New Zealand and will cherish my memories for ever.

    1. I think it is – all of the girls who left before me got one, too. I always keep it zipped into a compartment of my backpack as a little good luck charm. Where did you work in NZ? I’m still craving Burger Fuel.

      1. Ohmigod, BURGERFUEL!!!!!!! I LOVE YOU!!!! I crave it too. I keep checking the website every few months because the rumors keep ebbing and flowing that they are coming to the US (as of now, NOT. But I can keep checking and hoping!)

        I worked at TVNZ (awesome fun) in AKL (cue groan) in two positions and just loved it.

  2. Hi, Lauren, I read your posts. What a unique experience you had as a holiday maker in New Zealand. Do you mind if I post it in my website? I will set a back link to your personal website.

    I am a WHSNZ on 2010-2011 (13 months). It was a great experience. However not as unique as yours. Your experience may become a good reference for the newbies. They actually can work with government servant or in a clinic. You are a great live example!

    Here is my website:
    Buzz me here:

    By the way, do you have any facebook, google plus, linkedin, twitter or any social media that i can connect you with?

    Have a great day Lauren

  3. Thanks for this post! I have been thinking about doing the working holiday in New Zealand and wasn’t sure if there were any non-fruit-picking jobs available. Glad to see there are. Looks like I might have to move to NZ soon!

    1. You are welcome! Glad it helped. I found that applying with several recruitment agencies was the easiest way of finding work. The people who got me the job at the Ministry of Ed actually gave me work at their office for several weeks until my position started with the MoE. I almost took bar work as well, but decided not to in the end. You shouldn’t have a problem staying out of the fields!

  4. I’m leaving soon for a working holiday in NZ – but only going for 6 months. You’re one of the few bloggers I’ve seen who went and stayed in one place, as opposed to traveling all over doing odd jobs. While the travel sounds cool and all, I think I would prefer the stability (and getting to know more!) one specific place. Are you glad you took the route you did?

    Was housing pretty easy/reasonable to find? Everything I’m seeing is from people who just stopped at different farms or hostels along their route!

    1. Hi Miriam,

      Congrats on your decision to do a working holiday in NZ! Yes, I’m a huge proponent of staying in one place when you do something like this. I believe I found my apartments through the newspaper and a rental agency, but that was in 2006. I don’t think you’ll have any problems finding an apartment, especially with the internet on your side. Ask at your hostel, too. I based myself in Auckland & Christchurch, but used weekends and holidays to travel around the area. New Zealand is so easy to get around. You could also save up money and rent a car for a few weeks at the end of your trip. Just be flexible & trust your instincts and you shouldn’t have any problems. Enjoy and if you have any questions feel free to ask!


  5. Dear Lauren,

    Thank you for the post! I’m leaving for a working holiday in New Zealand in two weeks. Very excited and so glad to read about your fun work experience. Did you find an apartment before work? Because my visa only allows me to work for the same employer for three months, which means I might need to switch jobs and possibly locations more often. Was the recruitment agencies informaton easy to come by and did you register with them online before arriving? I searched a bit but didn’t know which ones to choose. Thanks again! 😀

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful to you! The weeks leading up to a working holiday can be so exciting but nerve-wracking at the same time. I didn’t have trouble finding an apartment, and waited until I was on the ground to look. I stayed at a hostel in Auckland until finding an apartment – in 2006 I think it took about 1 week. If you’re open to flatshares, it could be even quicker – check for flatshares. At the time, I googled local recruitment agencies and called them to make an in-person registration appointment. I think now many agencies ask you to register online and only get in touch if they have a suitable job. I’d still try to go see them in person if they do take appointments – it’s much easier to remember and recommend someone you’ve met rather than someone you only know through a CV.

  6. This is such a great blog! I did a working holiday in Australia for one year and have been back in the states for about a year and a half, but am itching to be overseas again, so I was thinking of doing a working holiday in New Zealand.

    Can I ask what kind of work experience you had before you went to NZ? Working for the government sounds really cool! I’m interested in doing an office or bartending (I know, very different!) job in Wellington or Auckland.


    1. Thanks! I would totally recommend the NZ working holiday. Before I went, I’d worked as a PA to the dean of the business school at a London University, a receptionist at a real estate company, a coffee shop waitress, a night manager at a hostel, and a handful of other part-time jobs. So I didn’t really have specific experience in any one field, but the recruitment agencies really did all the work in finding me a job. I think you’d be able to find office or barwork even if you don’t have extensive experience in either!

  7. Just stumbled across your blog and I’m loving reading about your jobs in different areas! I’m going to be buying a ticket to go to either New Zealand or Australia sometime between November and January and have been looking into working holiday visas in one of them to work for a bit then travel a bit through Asia so I’m reading as much as I can about them and people who have worked abroad. I don’t have a college degree, so I’m hoping that doesn’t hinder me too much in the job searching and I’m not too picky- it’s mainly a way to go abroad and experience new things while also being able to fund future travels- plus I don’t think I could just travel and not work some of the time! Looking forward to reading more from you!

    1. Working while traveling makes it a whole different experience. I wouldn’t have been able to do half the traveling I did had it not been for the working holiday visas, and I love how it lets you get to know a small corner of the country you’re in. I wouldn’t worry too much about not having a degree – it shouldn’t stop you!

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