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Profit over Principle

Luna Mansour -

Roisin Callaghan -

If we’re leading Scandinavia’s largest student-run career fair, and we have such a tight-knit community that everyone wants to be a part of, do we really need to incentivize volunteers by burning tons of fuel?!

THS Armada, the definition of wanting to go big, or go home — a student-driven career fair that markets itself as the largest career fair in Scandinavia, held in the largest technical university of Sweden, thought of as the largest money-making part of THS… and possibly one of the largest student-driven project on campus. Though these statements can sometimes be taken for granted, or even exaggerated, one thing we know for a fact is that it is indeed the largest student-driven career fair on campus. One other thing we know about Armada is that it’s a controversially ambitious organization, always striving for more.

In response to Osqledaren’s investigative article from March, in which we estimated and criticized the environmental impact of Armada's teambuilding cruise, THS Armada issued a report to the board of THS (Kårstyrelsen). While the report promised to thoroughly evaluate the environmental implications of the cruise and explore potential alternatives — it did not deliver. At first glance, a reader of the report could perceive the whole ‘evaluation’ as a strategy to get the board’s approval.

It’s all over Armada's website, their social media, and the report they wrote in response to Osqledaren’s article earlier this year: ‘Armada is so much more!’ Quoting the report, they describe the organization as one that “transcends mere functionality, evolving into a multi-dimensional entity that extends beyond the boundaries of a conventional career fair.” A quick AI-check suggests that many of these beautiful words were drafted by the one and only Chat GPT, but that does not make the argument they’re making any less problematic.

What is more, and where do we draw the line for how much more ‘more’ can be? How many boundaries does an organization get to cross? Several students are asking, and so is Osqledaren.

While ambition is often seen as a positive trait, there’s little disagreement that the line between ambition and greed is extremely thin. The ambition to grow is neither new nor exclusive to Armada — it’s a desire humans have pursued for centuries. We grew in population, we grew in industries, we grew in organizations, we grew in money, and we destroyed a lot in the process. You would be forgiven to think that students in such a reputable technical university would recognize the patterns, and acknowledge that societal change starts on campus. After all, we are all engineers and scientists, and in this case: planners of a career fair that markets its sustainability like there’s no tomorrow.

Quite similarly to how corporates grow like invasive trees, Armada’s exponential growth has reached a point where the impact of this growth has big implications. Following Osqledaren’s investigation of the environmental damage in March of this year, Armada’s alleged greenwashing surfaced in many students’ minds. What is often left behind, however, is Armada’s ripple effect on the mentality of several volunteers and student leaders on campus.

Limits to Growth, a theory that emerged in the early 70s and didn’t properly see the light of the day until the 2000s after we had already crossed the limits, emphasizes how exponential growth exceeding the bearing capacity of our planetary boundaries is bound to backfire on the availability of resources. Using Armada’s favorite word, ‘sustainability’, I would like to remind all of us of the most generic definition of sustainable development: meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability to meet the needs of tomorrow.

In THS jargon, this would translate to: Armada is currently resorting to controversial strategies for recruitment and reward to meet recruitment goals — but those strategies are compromising environmental wellbeing, and the internal drive of our students. They justify the cruise, in their report, as an attempt to “incentivize student participation with an intricate framework, including the prospect of a fun-filled cruise”. This leaves some of us wondering, is a cruise really the only incentive a student needs to join an organization that promises such great networking opportunities?

Like all the other parts of THS — chapters, associations, projects — Armada may struggle with recruitment. I mean, after all, would you blame them — the students? There is so much understandable allure in wanting to join HR or sales, or even in becoming their head of sustainability! I understand wanting to interact with companies, build your profile, make friends — all of that can be so exciting, and one can probably self-motivate themself to do. But gluing carpets and moving around tables — I am not surprised those positions are harder to fill.

You would expect that an organization like Armada that invests in leadership workshops for its team and prides itself in its expertise, would have come up with a better strategy for reward and recruitment by now. If I'm being honest, the bar is pretty low, when I say ‘better’, I just mean one that doesn’t involve immense CO2 emissions or disruption of marine habitats!

So, what kind of reward is used as a marketing strategy to recruit the hosts working the week of the fair? A party cruise. How do we thank our ‘‘volunteers’’? Clearly by generating tons of CO2 in their name. Armada’s report quotes an article by Novoa and Johnson (2013) and claiming that “individuals are naturally inclined towards actions that offer personal benefits and social engagement”. So you're telling me that all the millions of volunteers around the world, working for causes they believe in, would not be doing their work if they didn't get any lavish, environmentally-destructive payoffs in return?

Volunteering — be it in student-run projects, NGOs, or self-driven initiatives — is defined by working willingly for an organization or a cause for no pay, compensation, or bribe. The debate on whether volunteering is a selfless or selfish act is far from the point here; but if you need to buy off someone to get them to do the work, that definitely defeats the point, doesn’t it?

The report attempts to prove how big of an incentive ‘a fun-filled cruise’ is. As far as I’m concerned, Armada’s cruise report was not meant to be a research paper or a psychological analysis of volunteers’ drive; yet one focus of the report was on how students are more inclined to work for an organization if it offers them a lavish experience in return… Quite a confident move to assume the internal motives and intentions of students and use that as means to push your agenda forward, if I must say.

The student life culture at KTH generally gives value to teambuildings and thank you events. You see it in everyone’s budget, planning, and sometimes recruitment posters: ‘you will get an exclusive thank you event if you work with us!’. While I very much see the benefit in recognizing and appreciating the efforts that our student volunteers are putting in, I cannot but point out the very fine line between thanking someone for willingly doing their work — and bribing someone to do the work. A thank you event was never meant to be a bribe. In my two years at KTH, I have been very active in the union and have been both on the receiving and giving ends of these ‘thank you events’ many, many times — and not once have I heard that anyone has joined an organization or a project for its ‘thank you event’ except for the students who sign up for Armada. Of course it’s a nice bonus for everyone: the community, the free food, the alcohol — it’s definitely very nice to feel spoiled or appreciated; but it’s rarely a motive that drives students to dedicate long and tiresome hours and energy for. In Osqledaren's article in March 2023, Leonard Hökby, Armada's current project manager, confirmed that there are people who join Armada because of the cruise. What THS Armada seems to fail to consider is the impact that they are having on the volunteering culture across campus. I’ve been hearing it everywhere recently - how many students who are active in other associations have started obsessing about getting a ‘cruise’ in return for their efforts. When these students receive an answer that emphasizes THS’s sustainability policy, they often reply: ‘Is THS only okay with Armada going on the cruise because of how much money they bring into the union?’

The board of THS, who has approved the cruise, says that the decision was made “as it was deemed a significant factor in why students choose to participate in Armada instead of the chapter career fairs” — raising questions regarding whether the cruise is actually the only leverage there is to recruit students. In all fairness, the board did clarify how Armada had discussed two alternatives for their thank you event: hosting an event in Nymble that is entirely or partly arranged by students, or hosting a land-based event organized by an external party.

The land-based event was dismissed as too expensive “in hopes that THS could instead spend that money on other sustainability efforts with more impact”, the board says. So far, as the year nears an end, no such sustainability efforts have been budgeted for or heard of. We sure hope that the money ends up being used for some sort of sustainability thingies — but as it currently looks to many of us, money was the clear winner of this dilemma.

Similarly, hosting an event in Nymble was also dismissed as it was not thought to be “exciting” enough for the students, since “they already experience parties and similar things in Nymble”, the board claimed in an email. What does this mean in concrete terms? Not so much. Osqledaren has received no elaboration on what kind of land-based events those could be; but the assumption from the wording is that the suggestions were for parties. In THS’s operational plan for this year, one of the clauses explicitly states how the events held in Nymble should be diversified and the building must be used to its fullest potential. Creative and exciting events, such as turning Nymble into a venue for laser tag, have taken place in the past and were deemed so exciting that people still speak of it two years later. But then again, if Nymble isn’t seen as a very exciting place to be, in the eyes of THS centrally, why is money and effort consistently invested to bring students to the building? Why do we pride ourselves in having such a grand union house, thought of as one of Stockholm’s largest nightclub venues, if our own students think it's more exciting to go somewhere else instead?

Another reason why THS’s board dismisses the alternative of hosting an event in Nymble was because it was thought to “jeopardize the health of the project group who might not be able to organize a thank you event in parallel with organizing the career fair”. While the workload question is very much valid, thank you events at THS are rarely ever organized “in parallel” — they are budgeted and planned before the project itself is taking place, and then executed afterwards. Other large projects and groups within THS Central, of a similar size and structure to Armada - such as SNNC, the international reception, Quarnevalen - all organize their thank you events with the same hierarchy that recruitment follows. For comparison purposes, we asked SNNC (Students' Nobel Nightcap) how the thank you events for this year are going to be structured. Gabriel, SNNC General, explained how the committee will help organize a grand party in Nymble for everyone who has worked for the organization; and in return, the General & Vice-General of SNNC will organize a personalized thank you event for the committee. This structure also exists in the international reception, for example; where the project team organizes a thank you event for the buddies, the project managers organize a thank you event for the team, and the Head of THS International plans a personalized thank you event for the project managers. In both the cases of SNNC & THS International, the highest ranked positions in those organizations hold the same full-time positions of trust in THS as the Project Manager of THS Armada does — which leaves more questions as to why that structure of planning is completely normalized in other big parts of THS, but not in the case of Armada.

In the aforementioned projects and organizations, the community is thought to be strengthened when the leaders of the groups plan personal thank you(s) for their teams, with thought and effort going into both the planning and execution - and at the end of the day, everyone, top to bottom, gets a thank you event without leaving behind a trail of environmental damage. If the wellbeing of volunteers in terms of planning thank you events was such a large concern to the board of THS, how come it's only taken into consideration when discussing the case of Armada?

In an attempt to understand the impact that this is having on other career fairs around campus, we reached out to the bigger chapter fairs to compare their recruitment strategies to Armada’s. With the exception of LAVA, S-chapter’s career fair, every fair surveyed has stated that they do face a bit of trouble recruiting their teams. While answers varied between some fairs who advertise the position for what it is, and others who market the benefits you get from working - there was a general consensus from all those surveyed that they think THS Armada’s cruise thank you event heavily influences its recruitment.

When asked about their fairs’ relationship to Armada, all the surveyed teams stated that they refer to some of Armada’s operations when planning their own chapter career fairs – with the exception of Dagen — I, I-chapter’s career fair, who stated that they do not view THS Armada as an example or inspiration for their fair. What this means is that Armada, being part of THS’s central operations, holds a responsibility of being a positive example to the chapters and the career fairs at KTH. What this also means, is that THS’s decision to approve Armada’s cruise because it’s ‘more affordable than having sustainable alternatives’ sends a message to the chapters that environmental sustainability is not a priority for THS. The decision is rather unfortunate, especially so when compared to the answers of the survey – where only one career fair, D-dagen, stated that sustainability is not a priority of theirs when planning the fair; though they do try to operate green(er) in many aspects.

As I finish writing this article in the Osqledaren office tonight, D-dagen volunteers are right outside the door gluing their bright pink carpets on the grounds of Nymble. According to Armada’s report, these volunteers must’ve been promised a luxurious event away from our boring campus to incentivize them - but according to the organizers of D-dagen, they most certainly weren’t! Taking a look at what kind of thank you events the chapters plan, the most common answer is definitely a gasque; which is the answer all surveyed career fairs have given. In addition to a gasque, some ideas that came up were: free or priority tickets to the banquets where companies are invited, release-parties before the fair, and additional thank you events for the groups – with activities such as laser tag, bowling, and minigolf.

If we compare the kind of thank you events that chapter fairs offer their volunteers to Armada’s promise of a lavish cruise, the distinction is clear: the first is meant to simply thank the students for their contribution, while the latter feels more like a buy-off. In the report that Armada published, they promised to evaluate sustainable alternatives which they later on claim clash with the budget – so naturally we asked the chapter career fairs about their budget for thank you events! Their budgets, ranging between 200-500 SEK, averaged to approximately 300 SEK per volunteer. Comparing these numbers to Armada’s cruise which costs around 485.25 SEK per student, it’s clear that the chapters have been doing their events on land with a lower budget. If the idea is to have something more lavish to lure the students with, a budget of 485 SEK can do that just as well.

I was hoping that the report would contain a detailed comparison between ‘the suggested alternatives’ and the cruise itself – but it unfortunately did not meet my expectations. The report itself was titled ‘Armada Cruise Report’ - with the subheading ‘Carbon Footprint and Economic Viability: A Critical Analysis of Armada Cruise 2023’. What that tells me as a reader is that the core focus of the report was not the evaluation of thank you events, but rather the justification of the cruise. Nonetheless, we skip towards the last page of this four-page report, where the writers discuss potential courses of action.

Their first potential course of action, as expected, was “persistence with viking ferries: leveraging financial feasibility and countering unjust criticism”. What is meant by unjust criticism, you may wonder? “Countering unjust criticism” refers to Osqledaren’s investigation in March which highlighted how the cruise generates approximately 20 tons of CO2 emissions; to which Armada responds: “The actual CO2 emission is estimated to be around 12 tons!”. To get to this number, the report uses the same source Osqledaren referred to but chooses the lowest of the estimated range of CO2 emissions per km (170 g CO2 per person per km), rather than the average of 226 g. Even if the actual emissions were lower than what Osqledaren had calculated, I find it very hard to believe that it is at those 8 tons where we draw the line regarding how much environmental damage and emissions are deemed ‘acceptable’! But in their defense, Armada does say that “numerous academic and institutional sources such as & advocate for even lower rates”!

The second – and clearly less important – course of action was the “exploration of sustainable alternatives” which is proposed as follows: “Alternatively, the event organizers could consider sustainable alternatives for the cruise, acknowledging potential economic strains and the current technological stagnation in low-emission ferries. This course aligns more closely with the pursuit of environmental sustainability. Importantly, taking place in winter, the challenge of finding an alternative, exciting, and sustainable option is extremely limited and more than likely would be financially undesirable”. What are those options, how much do they cost, how much were they actually considered… The report does not answer these questions. I wonder whether the members of Armada were ever surveyed for their interest, asked for opinions on what they think is exciting; or if we are just out there assuming that everyone is into partying at sea and burning fuel in the process?

The candidate for Project Manager of THS Armada 2024, Geetesh Tiwari, when asked about the incentives that he envisions will help in recruiting students for the career fair, confidently replied that Armada’s reputation as ‘Scandinavia’s largest career fair’ is a sufficient attraction for students. During his interview, Geetesh, who is also part of Armada’s current project group, insisted that the attractiveness that Armada has as a tight-knit community that provides students with vast networking opportunities is a very sufficient incentive for volunteers to join the organization - with or without a cruise. And so I wonder, if Armada sticks to its own sustainability policy for a change and opts out of the cruise next year, would they be able to recruit as many people to glue their carpets – without emitting tons of CO2 in return?

Publicerad: 2023-11-02

Ansvarig utgivare: Benjamin Javitz
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