Just Because Someone’s Not an Engineer Does Not Make Them a Hippie
One of the more curious things that the Occupy Wall Street phenomena has wrought has been making those not within the Occupy tribe channel my dad circa 1968.
One of the memes in the OWS’s organic, bottom-up spin is that even those with a college education are finding it harder in this recession to find a job at a reasonable wage. Mind you, those with Apple laptops, web access and notebook paper can make this observation in an eye-rolling and sometimes over-the-top way. But put simply it is a true enough statement on its face. After all, making quality-pay jobs harder to find is part of what a recession does; it’s definitional. One might have differing opinions about how to reverse this tide, and I suppose one might even believe that the tide will naturally correct itself over time. But the oddest response to this observation, to my mind, is the growing meme from OWS critics that anything but an engineering, hard science or computer programming degree is a not an investment but rather just asking for a lifetime of economic misery.
Jason noted a column by our own Blunt Object that tried to flesh out why people even bother to go to college but not become engineers. (Blunt Object is a great blog, btw. Check it out.) Jason quotes him as saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, that people who choose liberal arts majors are hippies. I want to note that Blunt Object specifically backs off this track in his own column. In his blog, he suggests it may just be that for many, majoring in mathematics and hard sciences is simply more difficult. This is of course true, though in a kind of myopic way. Many chemistry majors, for example, might well find completing a dissertation in music composition more difficult for them; many mathematics majors might actually find scoring high on a math exam easier than writing iambic pentameter that doesn’t make its reader cringe. Everything’s relative.
Jason, on the other hand, simply (and bizarrely) dismisses those that go to college and don’t become doctors, engineers or computer programmers. To him (if I am reading him correctly), these people have little desire to better themselves; for them, going to college is all “about enjoying [oneself].” The idea that they might be going to school to better their future prospects is one Jason classifies as over-thinking; in fact, in his view the non-engineer-types view their futures as “secondary.” Or a least they used to; now both their desire to work and job prospects have “evaporated.”
All we need now is for someone to complain about all the weed, sex and rock and roll. And to ask them to get off my lawn. Kids today!
I’m not sure where this meme that students who aren’t learning how to become doctors, engineers or computer programmers are all flirting with breadlines has come from, but I have to say it requires a pretty high degree of ostrich-head. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not engaging this question from a touchy-feely “the liberal arts are an awesome end unto themselves” argument. I’m talking cold, hard dollars and jobs. The truth of the matter is that the vast preponderance of white-collar jobs out there today do not fall into those categories Jason and Blunt seem to think kids need to choose to have a viable future.
There’s nothing wrong with being an engineer, of course. We as a society need them. In fact, studies I have seen suggest we could use more of them. But both Blunt and Jason are missing a pretty obvious truism. The reason kids don’t all learn to be engineers isn’t that they’re lazy, or slow, or Good Time Charlies. It’s because everybody can’t be engineers. And as luck would have it, there’s no reason to think we all need to be.
My company hires people on a fairly regular basis. (To be sure, less during the recession than before, but still…) It is the fifth company I have worked for where I have been part of the hiring process for at least my department. For most non-clerical jobs, having a four-year degree for all of these companies has been a requirement. Having a particular major – any particular major – has not been. We are not being “edgy” setting the bar like this; most white collar employers today hire in this fashion.
You may believe that a Philosophy major has no job prospects after college, but you’d be wrong. True, the opportunities for being a Professional Philosopher might be quite slim. (Thankfully.) But having gotten an undergraduate degree of any kind has value – especially if you are under 40 – because it means something to a perspective employer: It means that the candidate has a workable baseline of intellectual discipline. It means that they have the ability to effectively communicate, in writing as well as verbally. It means that they have demonstrated the life skills to juggle a personal life with non-fun goals and deadlines. More importantly, it means that they have demonstrated that they are cable of learning. (I will tell you that people who have not graduated from college but have been held leadership positions in the armed services get the same consideration, for the same reasons.)
Jason and Blunt might believe that getting an English degree makes you all but unemployable. But I will tell you that if you are applying for a job in the white-collar world, the resume that has [Major: English/GPA: 3.8] gets put higher in the stack than the resume that reads [Major: Biology/GPA: 2.5].
The notion that not having a hard science degree cripples your career options is also ludicrous. Off the top of my head, here are just a few industries that are heavily populated by people with “soft” degrees in non-labor positions: Insurance, credit finance, advertising, healthcare management, social services, marketing, sales, utilities management, construction management, property development, banking, journalism, publishing, telecommunications management, attorney, entertainment, hospitality management, human recourses, distribution and warehousing, wholesaling, not to mention any of the jobs running, managing, or selling any of the things that those with the “hard” degrees are doing.
In fact, unless you actually work for a science-specific venture such as an engineering firm, computer programming company, or biotech startup, here’s a useful exercise: Go find the people in your company that make the most money. (If you are unsure who they are, here is a hint: The highest earners will be in sales, the next highest will be the top executives.) Ask them what their major was. See how many under-graduate chem majors you find compared to the “soft” majors. (The answer may surprise you!)
I understand the impulse to roll your eyes when you see some of the messages put forth by the OSW crowd. But let’s resist the temptation to go to the other end of the eye-rolling statement spectrum.