Arlene Smith's people skills

All Woman

ARLENE Smith is the ninth of 10 children born to a housewife and a farm worker, so she knew that it would have been difficult for her parents to put her through nursing school. Still she pursued the sciences while studying at Merl Grove High School, with high hopes of someday becoming a nurse and caring for others. But little did she know that she would end up on a career path that allows her to do just this without ever setting foot in a medical facility. Smith has become the consummate human resource savant.

After having interviewed countless employment hopefuls throughout her lengthy career in human resource management, the tables turned suddenly for Smith, she explained last week when All Woman visited her office at Epican, Marketplace, where she has served as the director of human resource (HR) since April.

“Somewhere along the line I got called into business,” she said over an ice cold caramel Frappuccino from the Epican lounge. The calming aroma created by the collection of exquisite strains of herb flitted across the medical marijuana boutique.

“After leaving high school I registered with a placement agency and I was sent to Tourism Action Plan, now Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo).”

After realising that the job description for human resource personnel matched career objectives in that it allowed her to help people in various ways, what was to be a temporary position in TPDCo's human resources department for three months grew into 11 years. During this time Smith completed a bachelor of science degree in management studies with minors in human resource management and international relations.

“I think my calling was HR, or simply working with people,” she smiled as she reflected on over 25 years of her life that was spent serving people. She left TPDCo for the LASCO Group of companies in 2004 and assumed HR responsibility for three of the group's four divisions — pharmaceutical, financial services and foods. After five years she moved on to the Yellow Pages, but not before she had her only child, who is now 13 years old.

“I had my daughter when I was 38 but it was easy for me because of all the love and support I got,” she beamed, recalling how she developed gestational diabetes during pregnancy because staff members and relatives kept offering her food that she could not refuse.

“The grounds men couldn't even wait until a mango fell from the tree to bring it to me. My siblings were so elated, because by that time they had probably thought I was never going to have a child, so they were right there with me throughout the pregnancy, and even up to now.”

She was in the middle of her studies for a master of science in human resource management at Florida State University when she realised that she was pregnant, but after the initial shock at the surprise pregnancy, she realised that she had prayed for both those things to happen for her in 2006, and she rolled with the punches.

“I had my daughter the fifth of September and I had my final exam on the 10th of September, so I actually did my exam on the bed at Andrews Memorial Hospital,” she recollected. “And then I graduated in November when she was two months old.”

Smith has since enjoyed parenting more than she could ever have imagined, and she confessed that she sometimes gets so caught up in her teenage daughter's activities that she doesn't know what to do with herself after dropping the child off for an engagement that she cannot attend.

After doing a bit of island hopping during her tenure at the Yellow Pages where she had responsibility for several Caribbean territories, Smith would later return to the public sector, working at the Housing Agency of Jamaica for a few years, before finally setting down roots in the burgeoning local cannabis industry.

The age-defying 52-year-old said she has no regrets.

“If I was to live my life all over again, I wouldn't live it any other way,” she said. “I've had 52 busy years. I've had to juggle work and school and motherhood, and I'm doing something that I'm very passionate about.”

At Epican Smith is responsible for providing support to over 70 staff members in two locations, for a company that is leading a fairly new industry — a job which she does not take lightly.

“We have several different calibres of staff; we have a set at the farm and another set in Mobay, and another set here in Kingston as well,” she said frankly. “In any organisation the staff you start with will not necessarily be the staff you end with. We have to have people who are in it for the long haul, people who know how to be in a frustrating environment without being frustrated, and people who are able to work within the confines of the regulatory bodies that govern cannabis in Jamaica.”

She is proud that despite new companies coming on board in the field of medical cannabis who would love to benefit from the years of experience of her employees, Epican has managed to retain its staff and foster a familial work environment. She shared her secret with All Woman.

“As the director of human resources here, I really go all out to make sure that my employees are satisfied and that they find satisfaction in their jobs,” she expressed. “The balance I have to strike is that I'm also a part of management, so I have to ensure that I am strategically positioned and can strike that balance between managing and representing people and ensuring that neither of the two parties feel as if I am siding with one more than the other.”

Being human resource manager for a new industry also brings its set of challenges, she said.

“It's a new entity, a new industry, so you can imagine there is still quite a bit to do and we must ensure that we are walking that thin line and doing as the labour laws stipulate, and making sure that we're putting the structure in place that will make it a successful business,” she said seriously.

“The more you get involved is the more you realise that there are certain things that maybe were not thought of, or a lot of time was not spent contemplating these things from a human resource perspective.”

It's hard work, but Smith would not have it any other way as she tries to honour the memory of her father who was a hard worker.

“It was a full house but it was never a problem,” she recalled. “Although he was a farm worker, then a taxi driver, he was a hard worker and all 12 of us in the household lived from his income. He represented what a man ought to be for his family. He was a provider and he instilled that in his children so we could all be able to provide for our families.”

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