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:
- 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.
- 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.