Sunday, July 08, 2012

Overcoming the Limits on Job Markets

Kenneth Anderson wrote a provocative post at the Volokh Conspiracy entitled "Limits on Job Market for Scientists and STEM (and Why, in an Alternative Universe Not Consisting of Our Universities, You Should Also Study Humanities)."

This is my contribution to the discussion:
I majored in mechanical engineering, but I spent considerable time in elective courses on philosophy of science and American literature. I believe the combination gave me a rounder view of the world, taught me multiple disciplines of critical analysis, and prepared me to communicate effectively. I also think those integrated, cross disciplinary skills made me broadly employable as I've enjoyed being a teacher, an engineer, a marketeer, a strategist, and a consultant - most of the time in a lucrative manner (well, except the teaching, but I loved being a teacher, even as my waistline got thinner). However, I do think the engineering degree conferred an edge to my employability that a humanities degree alone would not have.

Looking back even further than engineering school, I'd have to say that it was my peculiar constitution, not the probability of employment, that lead me there. I never conceived of being anything but an engineer, and I'm not sure I would be happy pursuing anything else but engineering of some kind.

Today I have two high school boys, both of whom are bright, studious, disciplined, and creative, yet neither of them has a technical bone in their body. Their heads and hearts are firmly oriented to the humanities. While I cringe at the prospect of supporting them financially until they are 40, I also struggle with directing them toward a STEM related field knowing that without a passion or aptitude for it, they likely will not do their best, most creative, valuable work. So many of my colleagues vocally express hatred for their jobs because they were directed there through the employability argument. Their discontent expresses itself beyond words. While the rate of employment and initial salaries in STEM fields may be higher than in the humanities, putting aside the usual cynicism about success, a real interest in a field confers a comparative advantage that ultimately distinguishes career leaders from job seekers.

So now I encourage my boys not only to find their passion, but also to find a problem or unmet need in that field and develop a niche business around that. In other words, by developing an entrepreneurial mindset along with their chosen field of study, they hopefully will find a strategic improvement over the prior probability of finding employment with a humanities degree. My next door neighbor exemplifies these combined attributes. With dual undergraduate degrees in professional writing and Russian and a MBA, she now runs a very successful business writing & PR company. I know of several other examples similar to hers in which, finding themselves at odds with the reigning view of unemployability, they created their own employment, not just for themselves, but many others.

Entrepreneurship seems to be the missing ingredient in practically all the education and career guidance I see. I'm not sure that we necessarily ought to steer young people toward the fields that are currently the most commercially viable, simply because the demand might not sustain across the time horizon required to prepare for it, not everyone's interests and aptitudes will align with it, and being a job seeker is usually not (by my way of thinking, admittedly) the most fulfilling and productive way to live one's life or contribute significantly to culture. Right now I am convinced that learning to be an entrepreneur in whatever field of interest one has provides the greatest opportunity to overcome those prior limitations. Both STEM and humanities oriented education seem woefully absent of this guidance.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Desperately Diving for Pearls of Great Price

You would be shocked to learn how fast you can make it to the bottom of a lake with a cinder block tied to your leg. I know this rate, by my own empirical investigation, to be thirty feet per second, give or take. If you’re in the mind to disconfirm this experimentally determined value, I will tell you how to repeat this experiment for yourself. First, convince yourself there are freshwater pearls in the mussels that live in your grandfather’s lake…

This is an example of the fresh water pearl mussel.  I never found any. If you aren't careful, you might, too.
Read more here.

(Image obtained from