Continuing Thoughts on Careers and the Workplace
In what has become a series of sorts for me here at the League I thought I would put together some rambling thoughts about the work place and what our careers mean. For the first two posts checkout here and here.
Something to See
Recently I finished World War Z (which I loved). There was a section of the book that talked about how the U.S. had to re-tool it’s economy to fight the zombies that had taken over much of the country. Fictional character Arthur Sinclair Jr. is appointed the Director of the newly-formed Department of Strategic Resourses. His task made me think about my own situation:
Sinclair tried to find and use “Tools and Talent”, the skills of the workforce and the means by which they could those skills. Skilled artisans and tradesmen like machinists, gunsmiths, metalworkers, masons, carpenters, and engineers were at an all-time shortage, as most of the refugees were businessmen, accountants, executives, lawyers, representatives, and consultants who all lacked the simple know-how to fix a cracked window. Over 65% percent of the potential workforce was classified as F6, or those with no valued vocation. This required a massive work retraining program, the most radical since WWII. A big challenge to this was transportation mostly due to lack of fuel, which saw a massive comeback of horses and bicycles.
Anyone classified F6 and physically able was used as unskilled labor, i.e. clearing rubble, harvesting crops and digging the numerous graves that winter. Those classified A1, those with war-appropriate skills, became part of the Community Self-Sufficiency Program (CSSP) under the National Reeducation Act, designed to instruct those without vocational skills. This became vitally successful: in the first few months there was a significant drop in requests for government aid. There was some friction however, since most instructors were first-generation immigrants, who knew how to get by with few resources. Many of their former white-collar students resented now having to learn how to fix toilets from people who used to fix their toilets.
I started wondering if I would get the same designation of F6. I am an analyst by profession and have been for nearly a decade. I do have some other skills like knowing my way around the woods, being good with a gun and some rudimentary ability with electric and plumbing. I’m also a decent gardener. I assume I would have some value to a battle against zombies, but what does that mean in the real world? The biggest thing i think about now is the lack of visible product in the work I am tasked to do. That weighs on me as I get older and also as I think about my dad’s career as a welder.
My dad was like most parents in that he wanted better for us than what he had. The 80s were a tough time for construction and he went through a few bouts of unemployment. His back hurt nearly all the time. He was envious of the engineers he worked for and wished he had stayed in college. I knew that his work had real value but I lacked the ability to articulate how proud I was of him. His neighbors loved him and his ability to repair their farm equipment. At his funeral one of his coworkers told me he was the best welder he had ever seen. I came across a Toni Morrison quote in college that I wish I had found before my dad passed. It chokes me up nearly every time I re-read it:
“I remember a very important lesson that my father gave me when I was 12 or 13. He said, ‘You know, today I welded a perfect seam and I signed my name to it.’ And I said, ‘But, Daddy, no one’s going to see it!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I know it’s there.'”
As I am about to turn 38 this year I find myself wanting that kind of pride for myself dearly, but I struggle to discover a career path that will take me towards that visible product at the end of the day. I am a knowledge worker and we work in the ether. The most visible product of my work are the words you are reading right now.
I have written roughly a dozen cover letters in the last six weeks for various positions around town that sound interesting. Being currently employed (though monumentally under-satisfied) I have the luxury of being picky, but man, those cover letters are no fun. I am slowly remembering my Hemmingway and trying to re-master the art of brevity. The send-and-wait game is odd. I get a rush of euphoria with each resume submission, which then fades to anxiety after a couple of weeks of silence. The internet has made the process even less personal than it was the last time I was looking for a job some ten years ago.
When I scan the classifieds I see a LOT of those F6 positions. Apparently if you know medical coding the world is your oyster. Various kinds of engineering specialties still rule. Sales seems to have died down a bit only to be replaced with program management, which is the kind of work I did before. The non-profit world I long to return to is still low-paying and I fear it will take the biggest hit in the next recession.
Brother Patrick Cahalan recently mentioned somewhere in the comment section that he believes in short commutes so I have also been looking at jobs out here in the exurbs. My wife and I drove through a business park down the road on Sunday and made a list of companies for me to investigate. The notion of driving less than 50 miles round-trip to work seems fantastic right now.
Plans for My Kids
With the oldest daughter just starting college and the youngest not too far behind, I’m thinking about what advice to give them. If they were boys I would tell them to get their BA in the field of their choosing and then learn a trade before they settle on a career. Because they are girls they don’t want to hear my recommendation of a plumbing apprenticeship or a summer internship with the forestry service. We’ve raised kids that feel entitled to success and the reality is that their BA will mean exactly as much as my high school diploma did in 1993. They will have to do more and find careers that can’t be outsourced. They will need to figure out how to be A1s in the new economy.