Bubble Talk

I’ve made these two points before, somewhere in the blog’s past 13 or so years – maybe several times.  But I think there’s a fresh-ish point here, so bear with me.

Background: Two of the luckiest breaks of my life were:

  1. In 1980, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, a couple of slickie boys who’d been working in major market radio bought out my first radio station, KEYJ.  They changed the format, ramped up the “slick”, and fired most of the locals (including me).  The lesson?  Loyalty to one’s employer is a sucker bet.
  2. Later, I went to college at an obscure little school in the middle of North Dakota.  My mom worked as a secretary in the nursing department, so I got a huuuuuge tuition break, and I graduated debt-free.  But in those days, nobody but nobody came to Jamestown College to recruit graduates (other than the Air Force, and all they were interested in was nursing majors).  You were on your own.  The lesson:  You’re only as marketable as you make yourself; relying on your “credentials” is a sucker’s bet, too.

Stemming From Misinformation:  We’ve talked a lot about the Higher Ed Bubble in this space over the years; decades of government and government-backed student lending has built up an immense system of higher education institutions that crank out a huge surplus of people with degrees that “aren’t needed” in our society, or for whom at least the markets are very tight; because of the “borrow now, pay later” policies that the government and Big Education have been pushing, these students are not only coming into the workforce with degrees that “didn’t train them” for a career that was viable, much less one that could pay off all that debt.

Now, I’m not sure if there was ever a time when an anthropology or music or history or theatre or Norwegian major could graduate from college and look forward to getting snapped up purely for the skills they learned in college; engineers and nurses and computer programmers, yes, but not English majors (outside the Education track, anyway – and that’s getting dicier too).  I’m not sure if it was the crowd I hung out with, or the place I went to school, or the time I went there, but I don’t recall any non-teaching-track writing or art  or English or theater performance majors getting out of school and expecting a job as an writer or artist or actor; they – we – either…:

  • Hunkered down for a rather straitened near-term life against the hope of finding a niche that paid the bills (and I do have friends who’ve done this)
  • Adapted, and used the marketable meta-skills they’d picked up in college and/or their early work careers to find a career in another field, possibly completely unrelated) (that’d be me), or…
  • Toiled away at their chosen major field with no expectation of making a living at it.

That was then; kids graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt in those fields is now.

False Optimism:  The answers, we’re told, are to either focus kids toward:

  • Vocational and technical fields – everything from tool and die manufacturing to personal care.
  • “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and math.

For the former?  I couldn’t agree more.  There is a big chunk of American academia that takes students “settling” for a vo-ed or technical career as a defeat.  It’s just not true – or shouldn’t be.

As to STEM as a panacaea?  It’s a bit of a racket; business is pushing STEM even as wages are stagnant and industry imports “labor” from overseas as fast as they can find it.  Industry is pushing people into STEM to drive down the cost of labor, and it’s working.

Still, there are quite a few jobs in the field, and a kid who’s so inclined can get a decent start in life that way, if they’re so inclined.

What’s Missing Here:  But let’s go back to the two big lessons I learned up front in this post.

Loyalty to one’s employer – in the sense that people who spent 35 years working at the same job and retired with a company or union pension used to feel it – is a thing of the past.  So why do people think that spending ones career tied to a field of study one (usually) chose in ones teens and twenties should have a longer shelf life?

Because one’s working life is more likely than ever to involve adapting, changing, re-learning and starting over than to involve doing the same thing for forty-odd years.

And that’s the part that modern education – high school, liberal arts, STEM or technical – always, always seems to get wrong.  The supreme skill in life is not building a circuit or writing a term paper or analyzing historical political campaigns; it’s knowing how to adapt to the many changes life throws at you, no matter what you major in.

Can that be taught?  Sure.  Not everyone can learn it, no more than I will ever be adept at calculus.

But it’s certainly more useful than 95% of what people are taught these days.

9 thoughts on “Bubble Talk

  1. “The supreme skill in life is not building a circuit or writing a term paper or analyzing historical political campaigns; it’s knowing how to adapt to the many changes life throws at you, no matter what you major in.”
    When I was in college in the 80’s (I’m your age Mitch) the financial reporter Louis Rukeyser (from PBS) gave a speech about how one needed to prepared to do something different than what their father had done. That the steel industry and the auto industry that employed “the greatest generation” didn’t owe and likely couldn’t provide a living to the ne’er do well progeny of the current auto workers and steel workers who couldn’t do much more than show up half-sober and put a nut on a bolt.
    My school was in Ohio and the steel mills and auto factories where “dad and grandpa and uncle charley” worked were closing. His speech was panned by the lefty iron triangle (big government, big labor and the Democrat Party Dominated Media Culture) of course and there was a movement to get him removed from PBS. But his point rang true with me at least. Just because dad and Grandpa worked for “Fords” didn’t mean I’d get a job there unless I had some special skill they needed. What I learned was that by getting that special skill, I had value to many others at a better price and better working conditions.
    Until the schools are made responsible for their graduates student debt defaults, the colleges and universities will continue to train, educate and/or indoctrinate young minds full of mush in fields with a very narrow opportunity windows. Maybe they might allow the unemployed alumni to use the rock climbing wall?

  2. The point of going to a “University” (I thought) was to expose one’s self both to new ideas as well as gain a deeper appreciation for “the classics” within a particular discipline so as to foster a broader perspective and stimulate deeper thinking. The expectation was that a more well-rounded, self-aware, deeper-thinking graduate would have the mental capability to bring additional value to their employer and to the world. Maybe this has always been a myth, but it does seem to me that our centers of “higher learning” seem to be just as doctrinaire and anti-thinking as the K-12 government schools.

  3. In the Liberal Arts, college used to be proof that you could study, learn, and think critically. These days, college is proof that you can parrot back what your instructor told you verbatim without thinking for yourself.

  4. “Loyalty to one’s employer – in the sense that people who spent 35 years working at the same job and retired with a company or union pension used to feel it – is a thing of the past.”
    This is a bit of a cliche. I cannot think of a time when this was true. Maybe 1948-1973?
    Not before WW2 and not after the 1960s, anyhow.
    These days I hear news stories about how the demand for certain skilled workers — machinists, for example — exceeds supply. The people who report this invariably talk to only one side of the supply=demand equation, namely employers. It would be nice to talk to a machinist & see what he thinks about the job market. Employers will work very hard to reduce wage costs. As a buyer of labor, you want to buy in a commodity market: a market where the sellers are interchangeable and cannot affect the price they are able to charge.
    The comments on slashdot about H1B1 workers is fascinating. STEM workers know exactly what the capitalists are doing by promoting open immigration for tech workers, the corporations want an international labor market, but want the value of the product they sell to be protected by US laws.

  5. PM, the machinist I know says the market is reasonable, not great. You have two choices, though: being up on the latest tech to program the latest fancy computer machining tool, or being one of the highly skilled guys who does 1-off (or similar low number) jobs. As he put it, if you’re skilled and experienced you get off the treadmill of learning a new machine every other year so that’s what the guys like to do. That’s not what employers want since the volume goes to the guys learning the new tools, but the employees don’t particularly like the grind of relearning their craft every few years on the latest tool that does everything differently.

    The STEM market scarcity is a lie, especially in Silicon Valley. The problem for most of the tech titans in SV is that their employees have wised up. VCs need a constant stream of new idiots uninformed techies that don’t realize they’re being milked and having their shares arbitrarily diminished to enrich investors. That’s why they like H1Bs: they’re tied to one company and they don’t understand the economics behind startups enough to know they’re being taken advantage of. The price fixing scheme between Apple, Google, Intel, et. al. should tell you that the money in SV has found out that employees have figured out the real story since they had to resort to illegal schemes to drive down wages. Now the tech industry is resorting to try to drive down the wages legally, albeit dishonestly.

  6. Thanks for the detailed info re machinists, nerdbert.
    I have a brother who does carpentry, mostly new home construction (non-union). Indexed for inflation his wages have declined over the last two decades. He is making less supervising a crew now than he did in the 1980s framing houses as laborer-carpenter. Also he has had to learn Spanish. Brother got smart, though, he is now buying and rehabing houses in the St. Croix Falls area.
    Occasionally I get into arguments with Libertarians when I explain how businesses work in the real world. They usually end up calling me a commie.

  7. I wonder how long it will be before President Obama threatens to cut off the influx of free money to the schools unless they cooperate by engaging in some kind of “fair grading” scam, or other equal opportunity boondoggle which will obfuscate GPAs and other success-based measures? A system so fair that the true honor students will be indistinguishable from those first defined by Tom Wolfe in his work, “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

    I also wonder how long it’ll be before the free money gets wicked upward into Ivy League and other prestigious educational bastions … shades of Ted Kennedy’s ghost …

    After all, it’s only fair. Hang on to your tonsils though, I doubt if medical schools will be exempted.

  8. “Indexed for inflation his wages have declined over the last two decades. He is making less supervising a crew now than he did in the 1980s framing houses as laborer-carpenter. Also he has had to learn Spanish. ”

    These two things are, I am sure, completely unrelated…

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