The Jobs Problem

November 23, 2011 at 5:34 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I have been really deviating from my original intent with my blog, which was to talk about athletics and the environment. At first, I was somewhat ashamed that I couldn’t stay on topic. Now, I’m thinking that if I really wanted to stick with that scope, it was stupid to begin with since they’re really unrelated topics. And lately I have just been writing whatever comes to mind. Although I have only ranted lately, and I feel like I should try to offer something of value this time.

I have been watching the economic struggle of our country for a while now, like everybody else. I have learned a lot in the last year as it has been my first year of real, honest-to-science employment. One of the problems that our economy has utterly failed to solve, regardless of any political or fiscal policies, is the jobs problem. There are simply not enough jobs and a lot of people are out of work. I have a few theories as to why this is the case, but I want to present my strongest one here. Why? It’s not just a “Hey here’s what I think!” post. I would label it as a rant if I intended to waste your time in that manner. Instead, I hope that you take it as a way that you can improve your own game as an employee, employer, or unemployed person. After all, it helps to know what the problem is if you’re going to solve it, right?

The way I see it, everyone has done something really stupid to get us to this point. Everyone is two groups: employees (current and potential) and employers.

Employees

Employees is a pretty broad term. I want to keep it broad, but note that there are marked differences that you can draw between older and younger generations. That said, let’s dig in.

The biggest mistake employees are currently making is the one you see all of the Occupy Wall Street kids making. Simply put, they want to start at the top. I’ll admit that I haven’t figured out exactly what Occupy Wall Street is trying to accomplish but, as far as I can tell, I see a couple of major themes in the “movement.” There are a lot of people who are complaining about how hard their lives are. For most of them I have little to no sympathy because their current situation was due to extremely myopic planning, or even downright stupidity. The other theme I see is naive college kids wanting a job handed to them on a silver platter.

Take a look at the baby boomer generation. Most of them have worked the same old job since they began working.  Most of them aren’t college-educated and they work jobs like receptionists, mechanics, maintenance, construction, etc. Maybe they haven’t lead particularly illustrious careers or made a name for themselves that will go in a book somewhere, but one thing they did do was work hard and get really good at what they do. My father is one of the most accomplished mechanics I have ever met. He doesn’t just work on cars. This guy maintains a fleet of concrete mixer trucks. I know a lot of older folks for whom I have immense respect because of how hard they work and how good they are at doing so.

By contrast, I can’t really say I have that kind of respect for most people around my age. Every kid in college right now has this delusional dream that they’re going to be hired for six-figure salaries right outside the auditorium doors after the graduation ceremony. Forget going out to the sewage lagoons and taking sludge samples. Forget getting down in a manhole and measuring the flows. No, these kids want to be the engineering manager. They earned it. With their pretty, $100,000 degrees. And what’s more: they deserve to be engineering managers in Newfucking York City. They’re the best of the best. But it’s hard to blame them when they are being fed this kind of crap from the institution that sold them the degree.

One thing that no college graduate has is experience. Kids are electing to stay in college to get master’s degrees and even doctorates. Why? Two reasons, I think. One is that it helps them stave off the real world of work and keep living the dream as they know it. The other is that they think it will help them get hired. In my business, it doesn’t matter if you have a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. You start out with the same salary and same position because you have the same thing: zero experience.

And experience matters. Experience matters more than any education you can get. Experience made the baby boomers into one of the most formidable, successful groups of employees history has seen. To all you college students and soon-to-be graduates, you could take a serious piece of humble pie from your parents.

Here’s a quick little story about myself, because I’m a bit of a narcissist. I was one of the best civil engineering students in my class. Not just at my university or in my state, but in the entire Midwest. I know that because I’ve been all over the Midwest, by the way. I have as good a college career as any graduate. I, too, thought I deserved a great job doing awesome sustainable projects that made use of all of my “special training” in hydrology and water resources. I was on track for my master’s degree while working – the works. Guess where I got hired? Woodward fucking Oklahoma. Possibly the shittiest backwater outpost work camp the country has to offer. Actually it’s probably not the worst, but it sucks. Hard.

A little about my job: I go out to sewage lagoons and take sludge samples. I frequently pull manhole lids in the field and check out lift stations and pumps. I go out to jobs and get dirty and muddy all the time on inspections. I get down into the trench to check out the pipes being laid. I travel all over Northwest Oklahoma, traveling from one shitty small town to the next shitty small town. Each place takes a little bit more of your soul with its shittiness. When I go home at night, I stare at the walls of my apartment. I try to catch up on the sleep I didn’t get the night before. I don’t go out. There are no places to go to besides the gym. There are no girls to meet. There wouldn’t be a neutral public place at which to meet them even if there were girls. There are no concerts. There are no sports teams to join. There are no classes to take at night. There is only work.

But what do I get in return? Experience that far exceeds anything my peers get. Our office has so much work we can’t even see straight. I have a nationally recognized mentor to work under. I am allowed to take on as much work with as much complexity as I feel I can handle. Sure, it’s not glamorous. There’s nothing thrilling about standing out in the middle of a semi-arid desert without a tree in sight watching sludge being dug up. But at the end of this hellish period in my life, I will be better equipped to work in a nice place than any of my peers.

The point of this anecdote isn’t to complain about my job or ask for your sympathy. The point is to tell you to suck it the fuck up and move to Woodward, America and work a shitty job. If you really want to make yourself into a successful professional with an illustrious career, you’re going to need as much experience as you can get. And waiting around for a few years to get into that struggling MEP firm in Phoenix isn’t going to get you any experience. You don’t start at the top. You eat shit at the bottom for a long time until you’re worth moving up. And like it or not, you’re not better than Woodward, America when you graduate college. It’s called earning it, and you should try it.

Employers

Employers are at least as responsible for this problem as employees, however. In fact, if I could say anything about employers as a group, it’s that they have the same problems as employees but they have more power.

Take a look at any company actually hiring these days. And for a real thrill, take a look at the good ones or the ones whose offices are in places where you might actually want to live. My favorite example is URS, an environmental/civil engineering firm. They do decent work on projects that I would have killed to be a part of in college. Not a single one of their entry level postings requires anything less than a master’s degree. You can’t even apply without a master’s degree. Without even having worked at URS, I can say with certainty that a good bachelor’s degree candidate would be more than capable of their entry level work. Yes, URS, I am calling you out. That’s partially for not hiring me, but it’s entirely the truth.

But this is just one case of a thousand. URS is not the only company at fault. Most hiring managers are trying to do exactly what college graduates are trying to do: “start at the top.” Except in hiring, starting at the top isn’t about getting the best job without having worked up to it. It’s about getting the best employee without having invested anything in said employee. Open engineering positions all ask for 200 years of experience, knowledge of local regulations (how could you if you don’t live there or work there as an engineer already?), and about eight or nine certifications of which you have never heard. These certifications will likely be useless in a few years, too. If I was guessing, the interview would involve some sort of test in which you part the seas and walk on water.

The only jobs that are open are the ones to which almost no one can apply and meet the minimum requirements. I use engineering as an example because I’m so close to it. Engineering students that graduate college, whether it be with a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D., must work for a certain number of years before they are even eligible to sit for the PE licensure examination. This means that the young engineer is not able to sign or stamp drawings, construction documents, or design calculations. This means that, to a company, the young engineer will be something of an investment. Even if the young engineer is extremely capable and produces more work (measured in dollars) than he (or she) costs, he will not be able to work without supervision until he has the license. Therefore, EITs are in a massive hiring slump. Almost no one will take on an EIT.

Now, this has something to do with the concept of “career security.” Without going on a tangent, career security is the idea that job security is a thing of the past, but if we keep up our qualifications and continue learning, we will always be hireable within our chosen career somewhere. This concept was brought about by massive corporate layoffs in the past decade, which urged or even forced most professionals to become self-reliant for training and continued education in order to recover. The employees have responded by screwing over companies by moving around a lot. The idea is there’s no employer loyalty to the faithful employee, so why should the employee be faithful? It’s difficult to say who is at fault and for what, but it seems clear to me that both parties have a degree of guilt here as well.

Regardless, the main problem is that employers simply are not being realistic in their expectations when they hire. The only group of people in the country whose skills are in demand are the ones with all the experience already under their belts. There is very little room for newcomers in almost all industries. If all of the engineering firms refuse to develop new talent, what will be left when the old talent retires? It is simple common sense, but when was the last time you encountered a hiring manager with common sense? Hiring managers try to sound clever and profess to know what they’re doing when they give the vaunted hiring advice on public message boards and in “exclusive” interviews, but really they are just playing politics and contributing to the problem like anyone else. The fact is there is legitimate young talent out there, and lots of it. And if hiring managers were really as good as they claim to be at what they do, they would have found it by now.

Anyways, there you have it. My brief opinion on what’s wrong with the economy. Lazy employees and myopic employers. If you’re looking for a job, the best thing you can do right now is go to where the work is, which is where the shittiest quality of life is, not-so-coincidentally. Suck it up and get your experience. Stop expecting to have a downtown loft and a glamorous job right out of the box. Alternatively, move to Canada. Employers need to come back to earth with their expectations and start thinking long-term. And, if you ask me, they need to stop pushing specialization so hard and focus on the fundamentals. But so do students.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Part of the problem is the job market. Since the economy tanked engineering companies lost work and needed less engineers… thus they can be more selective with who they take.


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