Disruptive Technology: Can the computer and tech crowd disrupt higher education?

ABCs in ordinary objects in a school

Last summer, I got a desperate email from the guidance counselor at Ian’s high school. The elective that he signed up for was cancelled, so she needed to find another elective for him pronto. The only opening was an Advanced Photography class.

I wasn’t totally pleased. He had never shown an interest in photography and hadn’t taken the Beginning Photography class. But I wanted to be a good sport, so I said okay.

And then I totally forgot about that class. I would ask him about it from time to time and he would say great, but I didn’t hear anything more, and I didn’t ask anymore questions.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we visited the school to see his percussion ensemble and was surprised to see his artwork pasted up on the hallway to the band room. There was one project where he combined three faces into one composite fictional face. And another one where he made a mock-up of a magazine cover. It looked fabulous.

And then on Wednesday, his photography teacher sent us an email saying that Ian was spectacular at Photoshop, the best in the class. He suggested that he take a video effects class next where he would learn to do Game of Thrones types of special effects. Burning castles in the background and dragons in the sky. He wants to write Ian’s college recommendation. Nice, right?

Ian can spend 18 hours a day working on his projects at home. And has endless patience for manipulating pixels and music notes. Some of his electronic songs on YouTube have gotten tens of thousands of hits, but he hasn’t posted anything online in years, because of weirdos on the Internet.

I know nothing about special effects and art technology, so I spent hours googling information over the past few days. What local colleges offer degrees in that program? What skills do employers look for? Are there jobs on the East Coast? Are there places that employ people with poor social skills? (Yes.)

The gossip on places like Reddit is that these skills are so new that colleges haven’t really set up degree programs yet. And the geeks that run these companies don’t trust college classes anyway. They said that portfolios that come from college programs are often group projects, so it’s unclear which students really completed the work. They prefer self-taught workers who have a solid portfolio of projects that they create themselves. They will even hire people who have taught themselves these skills through YouTube videos.

We were talking about alternatives to college a few days ago in the comment section. Has credentialism gone too far? Do people have to get degrees in fields that are totally unnecessary, which end up filtering out people with irrelevant learning disabilities or financial difficulties? Well, it seems that at least in computer/tech fields, at this moment in time, a college degree is unnecessary.

I wonder if that ethos will carry over into other fields. Do accountants really need a full liberal arts education with Introduction to Sociology and Philosophy 101? Don’t they really just need to add up columns of numbers and manipulate formulas on Excel? Does a stock broker need those classes? I mean it’s probably a good thing for all people to take those classes and broaden their horizons, but should it be mandatory?

The computer and tech crowd has tried to disrupt higher education before (hello MOOCs!) and hasn’t gotten anywhere, so some doubt is warranted. But, still, it’s interesting.

63 thoughts on “Disruptive Technology: Can the computer and tech crowd disrupt higher education?

  1. Ian’s work is amazing (and I’ve seen high school photography recently.) (btw, his name isn’t scratched out on the Instagram link of his work on the right side of this web page. —>.)

    Computer tech people can check to see if someone can do the work. They can easily check to see if someone understands what they’re saying about a tech tool or software programming. No degree will rescue a stupid statement.

    But, I would say that a kid who can do the programming and might want to be a manager or lead a company some day would do well to get a college degree. Communications skills are essential. The ability to give a speech to investors can be essential. The ability to understand when soft persuasion skills are being used on you is essential.


  2. Yes on Ian’s work. When you posted it on your social media, I didn’t link the name properly and thought you were posting the work of one of his HS cousins. What a lucky accident that a wrong placement (advanced class for something he hadn’t taken the beginning class for) worked out so well. The alphabet poster is pretty great and the other work you describe seems cool as well. When I realized the work was Ian’s, I was reminded of the stick figure picture you posted many years ago, which were also amazing — I can’t remember what the project was supposed to be (was it prediction? or social skills?), but Ian had finished stick figure prompts with true creativity.


  3. I was having a conversation yesterday with my kiddo about how we value certain skills (say, a big vocabulary or the ability to analyze literary text or to solve certain kinds of calculus problems) above their actual weight in completing projects over what I believe they really contribute to society (or work). I think we overvalue those skills because of the school academic setting in which they are taught and measured as a measure of success. And that’s not to say that I don’t think those skills should be valued, because they are both fulfilling and useful. But, my kiddo and I were discussing, because she said she was getting repeated compliments for being smart (and not obnoxious) — presumably with smart being synonymous for facility with language and math, measured by performance and tests. The other kids were hugely multi-talented (in art, fashion design, and acting), but they felt the burden of not being academically supersmart (mind you, they are all still very capable) in the environment of a highly academic high school.

    I hope we’ll keep pushing to let the talents (Ian’s art and facility with digital manipulation) flower and shine and grow and produce economic value. I have kids who are made for school (highly academic, discussion based classrooms) — that is where their talents shine, but I do not think those talents alone make for a vibrant world or a vibrant economy. We have to fight the hyper-credentialism that makes one set of talents a gatekeeper for all the others.


  4. “Well, it seems that at least in computer/tech fields, at this moment in time, a college degree is unnecessary”

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that is really true, because relying on college credentialing can still be easier than evaluating a candidate yourself. There’s a aphorism out there for different fields where people say something like you’ll never get in trouble for hiring [Cravath, Deloitte, McKinsey, . . . ] for something. Tech people face the same issue, at Google & Microsoft & Facebook. It’s easier to hire the credentialed kid.

    The route around that reliance is to create something of value yourself (which the company can evaluate and get the credentialing of likes & views). Potentially Ian needs to get back on the networks with his work (while he gets help with the creeps)?


    1. bj said,

      “It’s easier to hire the credentialed kid.”

      Plus, in case of disaster, it provides some insurance against blame. Wasn’t there a recent disaster involving a head of online security who had a music degree? She might be perfectly qualified, but it could still look bad.


    2. I would say that allowing people to hire credentialed incompetents to avoid blame is a sign of a dysfunctional institution.

      However, although Google, Microsoft and Facebook are massive enterprises, it does NOT seem that they insist on college degrees. From a quick internet search:

      From a posting for a “consultant” post at Google: BA/BS degree in a technical field, or equivalent practical experience.

      From a Facebook career posting at Instagram: B.S. or M.S. Computer Science or 3+ years in software development experience

      From a Microsoft software engineer posting: BA/BS or MS Degree in Computer Science or equivalent experience.

      I would argue that you do not need to rely on the credential of a college degree if it is easy for the people doing the hiring to ascertain your technical competence. Friends’ children applying for positions at tech firms as programmers report their children were asked to solve problems on the spot, during the interview.

      The interesting thing I would like to know is, how many tech companies (not just Google, Microsoft and Facebook) are using AI algorithms to sort through resumes, rather than human HR employees?

      Such as: https://www.pymetrics.com/employers/

      That looks like a disruptive technology.


      1. “From a posting for a “consultant” post at Google: BA/BS degree in a technical field, or equivalent practical experience.”

        In the movie Booksmart (about 2 HS girls who work hard and get into great colleges, only to find our that their classmates who were having fun also got into great colleges, so they decide on the night before graduation to go to a big party–much better movie than it sounds, fwiw), one of the skateboarding kids got a job at Google right out of HS.

        “The interesting thing I would like to know is, how many tech companies (not just Google, Microsoft and Facebook) are using AI algorithms to sort through resumes, rather than human HR employees?”

        When my husband was reorg-ed out of a job 2 years ago, a friend told me about a local Job Club group. The guy who runs it believes that HR is essentially broken for this reason, and he helps people navigate this problem. Additional datapoint: a friend of mine is looking for some sort of medical/science research job and applied to a bunch of jobs. For some reason, she followed up one with a phone call (maybe she knew a person there), and she found out that they had never seen her resume; the HR system algorithm thingie never showed it to the hiring committee. They (the people, not the algorithm) booked her for an interview by the end of the day.


      2. “The guy who runs it believes that HR is essentially broken for this reason, and he helps people navigate this problem.”

        Tell me more about this, if you can. In my recent job search, which lasted almost a year, I had the feeling that I was not getting past the algorithms.

        When I did get an interview for a position as a translator for one of the federal ministries (Education and Research, i.e., the Ministry of Magic), after passing a test that was pretty darn hard, they essentially opened the interview by saying that my resume was “unorthodox” (and I quote) for a translator.

        That strengthened my suspicion that I was not getting past the algorithms at other places, but on the other hand, confirmation bias.


      3. Unfortunately, I don’t have much more info. This is what I remember from my husband telling me about it, and if I ask him, he won’t remember.


  5. I think it is socially beneficial if our accountants and architects–and computer graphics designers for that matter–have some knowledge of humanities and social sciences. The problem is that no one seems to have an idea of how that might be accomplished for less than $250K. (Forget the calls for more public funding–that just means that the state is paying an extra $250K for each “well-rounded” architect or tech person.)


    1. Fewer climbing walls would help. “Has credentialism gone too far? Do people have to get degrees in fields that are totally unnecessary, which end up filtering out people with irrelevant learning disabilities or financial difficulties? Well, it seems that at least in computer/tech fields, at this moment in time, a college degree is unnecessary. ”
      It seems to me it used to be true that a college degree indicated a certain understanding of Western civilization, and that that common knowledge was helpful for engaged and successful citizens. Now that you can get a college degree in Grievance Studies, I am less confident.


      1. ds said, “It seems to me it used to be true that a college degree indicated a certain understanding of Western civilization, and that that common knowledge was helpful for engaged and successful citizens.”

        Some thoughts:

        –Isn’t K-12 a better place to get the basics down? After all, there’s more time, less distraction, and more people do K-12 than do college.
        –If at all possible (and I know it’s often not), it makes more sense to do general education in K-12 and then let college be more (but not entirely) vocational.
        –That said, even if college isn’t the best place to start teaching fair play, words not violence, willingness to hear out the other side, tolerance, equality under the law, and the importance of not choosing procedures best on desired outcomes (not to mention some other excellent things!), college should at least not undermine those principles, and it’s a good place to get some adult-level practice in those principles.

        By the way, I see Oberlin just lost a case!


        An Oberlin dean was acting as the ringleader of a group of students claiming racial profiling by a small family-owned bakery and who managed to crush the bakery financially. This was touched off by the arrest of three students who had in fact been shoplifting…


      2. Seriously, getting rid of climbing walls wouldn’t help lower the cost of education at all. It’s pretty much a marker for a non-serious discussion of the subject of college costs. Maybe you should put it in quotes: “climbing wall”. Then you could use it as a short hand for all the things you think are non-academic luxuries colleges provide to students in order to induce them to come (though I’d be inclined to include football teams in that category).


      3. Given the modern world and an increasingly global workforce, I’m guessing whatever you are calling “grievance” studies might turn out to be a lot more useful than whatever you are calling the “western” canon.


      4. Gee, the women’s studies course I took was interesting, but I can’t say it has been particularly helpful in managing a diverse work force. The conservative/religious women think all that stuff is nonsense, and none of the liberal women has read Marilyn Frye or Gayle Rubin: they get their politics from the New York Times, which doesn’t exactly require a high level of intellectual sophistication. It’s important to remember that the people you meet in the real world skew very different from college professors, so college isn’t particularly helpful in dealing with them. (I mean, I suppose I could operate on the theory that the conservative/religious women haven’t engaged in the feminist praxis of consciousness-raising, a la Catharine MacKinnon, but I don’t see how that would be useful.)


      5. ““Western Civ” is a pretty good way to prepare students for the 20th century.”
        Hah. But, not sure I’d give that to you.


  6. Students have always been happy to go to college, even if the course work isn’t necessary for their future careers, because, let’s face it, college is a lot of fun. You get to live away from your family and drink a lot. Parents have supported those plans because of tradition and prestige and to get awful teenagers out of the house. Employers like college, because it’s a good filter for weirdos. Very, very few people go to college and get a liberal arts education because they really want to read Plato. I wanted to read Plato, but I’m a freak.

    So, now we have a new equation. College is super expensive and time consuming and increasingly stressful (mental health issues are skyrocketing on college campuses). Is four years of fun really worth it?

    It’s certainly not for someone like Ian who would hate all the dorm stupidity and be completely flummoxed by the social life scene. If there’s a way to avoid college with him, that would be best. But what about typical kids? If they had a choice of two years of cheap training and then straight to the workforce with no student loans and no hassle, would they do it?


    1. “But what about typical kids? If they had a choice of two years of cheap training and then straight to the workforce with no student loans and no hassle, would they do it?”

      A lot of kids do. The ones that go to vocational school are doing that. There are kids going to coding camp and getting jobs. What I think you’re really asking is would UMC kids do it? That depends on their parents since UMC kids are very parent driven.


    2. At today’s prices, I think lots of kids would opt out of college if there were another route to the middle class.

      The idea of college as a universal precursor of UMC life is relatively recent phenomenon, and maybe it will pass. I have often thought, with respect to my daughter, that given her interests and personality (and if she were a boy), no one would have dreamed of sending her to college in 1830. She would have gone to work for a merchant at age 16 and then set up in business when she was in her 20s.


    3. As I said, my kids are academic oriented, have wide interests, and might like it if they could just stay in school/learning/researching/teaching all their lives (as was I, spouse, my parents, and my dad’s grandfather, with the latter three with differing access to education). So I’m not trying to figure out the non-college path personally.

      I do think there are people who are going through the motions with formal education, especially a broad formal education who might benefit from a direct track or a focal track.

      But I think we have to be careful. Yup, maybe Facebook, Amazon, and Google don’t require college degrees, but about 80% of the employees at those companies (don’t know who they are counting as employees) have bachelors degrees or above. And, apparently, 16% of Google’s workforce has PhDs.



    4. I don’t think the desirability of college is growing less, especially if you include the global market. Lots of other countries are buying into the American/English model of college, as a place where you spend your transition years, and one in which you have a lot of fun. There’s a popular chinese drama set at a fictional university (Meteor Garden) that borrows many of the tropes of American University (including cliques, romances, independence, economic mobility — including by making a good marriage).

      It’s interesting to look at what has happened to the Thiel fellows (under 20 year olds who are given 100K not to go to college): https://www.businessinsider.com/where-are-they-now-peter-thiel-fellowship-2017-3 (that’s about half of the 20, who seem to be doing entrepreneurial things).


  7. In our family, it was not us (the parents) who told our kids they had to go to college (except for the one who was obviously suited for it) It was the high school guidance counselors, who were all about college for every singly senior. This created an atmosphere where kids were afraid to consider anything else. Pretty much every kid who didn’t go into the military at least applied to CC, whether they ever enrolled or not. One of ours did go, bombed out (twice) and then got an Accounting degree at age 38. Another went for 1 semester, bombed out, and has never gone back and refuses to consider it, despite her way above average language skills (and not-good math skills). On the other hand, we are not UMC, more like MC.


    1. I wrote an article about this two months ago. The editor is sitting on it for some reason. I should probably check on it, but they paid me already, so I’m not sure I care.


  8. I’ve been meaning to tell you about Stairway to STEM, in case you haven’t heard about it yet:

    Resources for autistic students / students on the autism spectrum transitioning from high school to college, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields

    There may be some interesting material there for you.


  9. On the other hand, I hear these ads for recruiting companies all the time that promise to whittle down the application stack, and one of the quickest and dirtiest way to do that is via required credentials. If that’s what they’re doing, I kind of understand, because their process is going to inevitably generate a whole stack of candidates.

    That could be a good piece, come to think of it–the impact of automated recruiting gatekeepers on hiring outcomes.


    1. It’s be a bit difficult to get an idea of whether it improves outcomes or not. Pymetrics claims it improves diversity in hiring. Interesting WSJ article: https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-unilevers-radical-hiring-experiment-resumes-are-out-algorithms-are-in-1498478400.

      It does get the companies away from visiting a small number of colleges in person. Unilever says hiring has become faster and more accurate—80% of applicants who make it to the final round now get job offers, and a similar number accept—and saved on recruiting costs, too, though Mr. Clementi wouldn’t say how much. Applicants hailed from more than 2,600 colleges for positions in the U.S. and Canada, tripling the numbers of schools in its previous applicant pool.

      It would be a good thing to get away from biases for or against certain colleges. If they’re really using Artificial Intelligence, there could be some interesting patterns the machines see, that people don’t. According to their online self-description, the AI compares applicants’ results from their proprietary online games to current employees in their client companies. So it is anything but “hire this sort of person for this category of job.”


      1. AI is not a solution to bias. This article is a good summary of how bias creeps into AI (and data analysis): https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612876/this-is-how-ai-bias-really-happensand-why-its-so-hard-to-fix/

        An example from Amazon’s use, which was ignoring female candidates “The second case is precisely what happened when Amazon discovered that its internal recruiting tool was dismissing female candidates. Because it was trained on historical hiring decisions, which favored men over women, it learned to do the same.”

        Roughly AI might be able to avoid learned bias, but it doesn’t (and sometimes can exacerbate) the bias that’s present in society already.


  10. . If they’re really using Artificial Intelligence, there could be some interesting patterns the machines see, that people don’t.

    Or conversely, are not “seeing” things that people do. Like the blind musical auditions–after the carpeting was installed, female musicians got higher ratings because the evaluators couldn’t hear the click of high heels across the carpeting that subconsciously signaled ‘woman’. We receive and evaluate a plethora of subtle cues subconsciously—some to our benefit (see Gavin DeBecker’s “The Gift of Fear” or Antonio Damasio’s “Descartes’ Error”), and others to our detriment (see: any random bigotry of your choice). It is challenging to add that type of programming to AI (and not just because of the hard time of getting the human programmers to agree about what is or is not valuable to add), and if we did successfully manage it we’d just be going after the same flawed assessments we can already receive from humans—the AI would just cost more.

    Color me skeptical. The potential of “disruptive technology” is still taking place in a musical chairs economy, in which the majority of jobs offer poverty wages and no benefits. Even in the disruptive technology jobs, the applicants are still giving non-job-performance-related cues every bit as ‘visible’ as the high-heel clicks in the blind auditions—with the same end results (“sorry…not good enough”).

    It never fails to amaze me the lengths to which the UMC will go to game the system and find work-arounds for their kids…anything! in order to avoid taking the thumb off the scale. Want less stress for yourself and your kids as they move into adulthood? We need more chairs.


    1. lubiddu said,

      “It never fails to amaze me the lengths to which the UMC will go to game the system and find work-arounds for their kids…anything! in order to avoid taking the thumb off the scale. Want less stress for yourself and your kids as they move into adulthood? We need more chairs.”

      Aren’t the trades (and a lot of the blue collar world including police and firefighters) pretty nepotistic?

      The reason for the UMC freakout about kids’ futures is that the UMC world is less nepotistic–if you are a wage-earning UMC person, you can’t easily create a job for your kid, in the way that a contractor could create a job for his kid.


      1. Another thing, don’t Western European countries traditionally have much higher unemployment than the US, especially youth unemployment?


        I wasn’t able to read the whole article (firewall) and I’m not positive how they define youth unemployment (under 25?), but it opens with a scary chart showing Spanish and Italian youth unemployment over the last 15 years–they’re both over 30% and there have been times in the last decade where Spanish youth unemployment exceeded 50%.


        There’s a handful of Western European countries that are keeping it in single digits (Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Denmark) but you get into really ugly double digits really fast (Sweden 17% and France 20%). The EU average youth unemployment is almost 15%.

        The US’s youth unemployment is about 8%–not as good as Germany or the Netherlands, but as good or better than anybody else in Western Europe.


        Under those circumstances, we might ask ourselves, how easy is it to “create more chairs”? If it is so easy, and why aren’t our Western European cousins doing it?


  11. Regarding Google and Amazon: I actually have a lot of 20-something techie friends, partly because our church has a large component of young Asians, partly because my friends who are my contemporaries have high-powered children. Everyone I have ever met who works at a prestigious tech company has a degree from an Ivy (or Ivy equivalent, like MIT). I’m very skeptical of those companies’ claim that they are hiring on other than the traditional “best grades in relevant majors from best schools” basis. If anything, the financial services companies seem more open to liberal arts majors.


    1. There may be a NE vs. West Coast cultural difference. Or do you have West Coast techie contacts?


    2. Unless you are specifically asking people where they went to college, there’s the possibility of a selective reporting bias (i.e. people who went to MIT report but people who went to UT Austin only answer when asked). And this data collection can be conflated with people who report only when they share a school or something else in common (i.e. you report you went to MIT when someone says they went to Harvard because you have Cambridge in common, or, more amusingly, when someone says they went to “a school in Cambridge”.). Also possible is that NY Tech hires are skewed differently than the top tech companies hires in their states of origin.


      1. Well, just to clarify what a superficial person I am, it’s very rare that I meet anyone, certainly not anyone under 35, without finding out what schools they went to.


      2. y81 said,

        “Well, just to clarify what a superficial person I am, it’s very rare that I meet anyone, certainly not anyone under 35, without finding out what schools they went to.”


        I deplore your manners in this instance, but it is informative.


      3. Well, just to clarify what a superficial person I am, it’s very rare that I meet anyone, certainly not anyone under 35, without finding out what schools they went to.

        To what end?

        And when you find out that they went to Yale (for instance), do you then do the extra work of interrogating them as to whether they were hard working strivers (about a 2/3 probability) or a bubble-headed legacy (the other 1/3)? Because they are really two different groups of people.


      4. Heard a DC transplant to the Pacific Northwest mention this very behavior — that in DC, that was a question that was always asked. And then, he said he’s never been asked here. I think that felt like an exaggeration. But, it is the case that it is not a casual question here (as in, Isn’t the weather hot today? And where did you go to college?). Since I presume that Y81 is someone who reflects the standards of his community and not a socially out of step conversant (who, for example, would ask who someone voted for), I’m guessing that we are seeing differences in social standards.

        I have, for example, recently learned that a number of people went to the school my kiddo will be attending next year (i.e. the sharing something in common).


    3. Paysa analysis: U Washington, CMU, Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC, San Jose State, U MIchigan, U Texas Austin, Georgia Tech, U Illinois Urbana, MIT, UCLA as top schools for tech company hires. The first actual Ivy is Cornell. The list is skewed by number and probably by location (the tech companies are in Seattle, Bay area).

      This list fits with the decision making I’m seeing by tech interested seniors who are choosing some of the public CS options over schools that rank higher in US News (say, as an example, UC Berkeley over Dartmouth). Some of those who chose higher ranked schools over CS schools are thinking of business options with their tech (i.e. are more entrepreneurial, want to start their own companies or work in investment).


      Note that UW, CMU, UC Berkeley all have direct admit programs to CS that are very selective, so you can’t chose CS after starting, but have to apply to the program to start.


  12. Laura, pleeease try to do a piece on AI recruiting and hiring!

    I bet you could easily find a home for it!


  13. Reading the articles, it seems to me that the writer doesn’t know anything about the algorithms at work, as they’re proprietary. It certainly could be that the algorithms crystallize current, biased thinking. Except if the algorithms are widening the hiring funnel, evidence would seem to indicate that that’s not what’s inside the black box.

    Of course, if software allows a company to virtually consider more applicants, then that company will perforce turn down more applicants, as the number of jobs to fill does not increase. So, paradoxically, the companies using it could be hiring a different array of workers, but producing more people who believe they’ve been harmed by the process.

    I was thinking of this sort of AI: https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/robots/a19445627/the-hilarious-and-terrifying-ways-algorithms-have-outsmarted-their-creators/

    It could be a strict sorting process of automating HR processes, such as looking for college degrees from approved schools. Or, it could be an AI putting people who like cats and listen to jazz at the top of the pile for a job, because the best performers in that job at that company like cats and listed to jazz.

    There is the problem of the entry-level job. Many job postings require experience in a field. If that is cast in stone through a computer program, it gets more difficult to get that first step on the ladder. It seems to me that all the internships are the UMC essentially purchasing that advantage for their children.


    1. There’s quite a bit of discussion among the woke folk who do deep learning (i.e. not learning deeply, but what the current brand of AI is called, “deep learning”, and in more technical terms, statistical learning) about what biases their machine learning algorithms (which is the preferred term to AI) develop. So one can find more informative analyses of the theory behind the learning and its effects than what I can read in the Boston Globe article.


  14. Amy P: The trades have a reputation for being nepotistic. But it’s a seriously outdated one. For the past 20-40 years (depending on where you are), most apprenticeship classes have been composed of people who have no one else in their family in the trade (like me—my only relatives in the trade married in *after* I got in. One of my aunts married a guy from another Local, and I believe I have a second cousin married to a guy from that Local also). Trade apprenticeships are governed under both the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor, and are under strict scrutiny. We can’t ‘fudge’ qualifications or blur the lines like nonunion arenas. Out here in the rust belt, most tradespeople are strongly discouraging their own kids from the trades because of the difficulty of finding adequate work—it’s really hard to have a family and be in the trades (that’s a whole ‘nother conversation).

    And yeah, I know the UMC freak out about their kids’ futures, because they don’t want their kids to end up like our kids. But they are copasetic and cool about our kids having negative futures. In the all-or-nothing economy, the UMC is the set positioned for the “all”, and those like me positioned for the “nothing”. And frankly, both political parties have created and followed economic policies designed to destroy any middle. That has already had some interesting repercussions, and it only gets worse from here.

    Re: Europe. Can we stop talking about the unemployment rate, and start talking about the underemployment rate?! If you can’t make basic ends meet with your job, if you have to go begging for a combination of public and private charity to be able to live because what you are paid is too low…..you effectively don’t have a job. Almost all the “growing jobs” are those that don’t pay worth a fuck. Period. This is a problem. The anger is growing, because the previous generation made ends meet when the rug was snatched from under them by borrowing against what they owned, and getting a small inheritance if their parents died young enough (which working class people tend to do). This generation doesn’t own anything, and neither do their parents. That’s going to make the future look a lot different from the recent past. Politically, the landscape is going to look a lot different from the mild-mannered electoral apathy of the past.


    1. Lubbidu, One thing I see here on the East Coast is a lot of contractors’, electricians’ and plumbers’ kids whose dads seem to have the weekend off (and the disposable income) to take their kids to baseball games, to GoKarting, to Six Flags etc. The dads also coach all the sports; my male relatives were machinists and were home every day by 4pm. Is the problem combining work and family a midwest/coastal divide or is there something else at work? The big question in our school district is: if you are interested in earning a comfortable living but want to avoid screwing other people over (hence law and Wall Street are out), will your kid be a pharmacist, nurse, physical therapist, accountant or tradesperson? So I am interested in why folks are discouraging their own children not to do a trade.


      1. Cristiana, there is a deep divide between conditions for the trades in the thriving economies of the coasts, and that of the midwest and south. In the midwest (non-right-to-work states), we have decent wages and working conditions, but not enough work to go around (thus my perpetual use of “musical chairs” to describe it). At any given time, anywhere from a third to half of the journeymen in my Local are on the road. If we’re lucky, we get a job within driving distance of home in another Local (read: anywhere from two to four hours of unpaid driving back-and-forth). If we’re not lucky, we have to live in a motel for a year or two until something opens up back home that’s going to last long enough to be worth going home for (meaning, a job that will last longer than a couple of months).

        So we go home for a few months. And then back on the road for a couple of years. It’s very expensive to live on the road—you have to get enough working hours to be able to pay for it. And now, we can’t even deduct those expenses on our taxes. Our divorce rate is high, because it’s hard to sustain a marriage when you aren’t physically present the majority of the time. It’s impossible to be a parent in any meaningful sense of the term.

        Back in the day, opportunities to earn a living at the trades were spread out geographically. You could live in Illinois and reasonably expect to work most if not all of the year, and if not in your home Local, out of one within a doable driving distance. Now….there are only a few areas of the country that have enough work to keep their own Locals working.

        I know what you’re thinking: “just move”. But if everyone “just moved”….all we would be doing is changing the location of our problem. Deindustrialization had a cost, and those costs aren’t borne by the UMC. They are borne by those of us left behind. A career is a forty year span. I know there are people reading this comment thinking “but the trades have always been boom-and-bust”. Not like this they haven’t. You can liken this to climate change—the economic gaps have become starker and more volatile. The busts are longer and the booms are shorter-lived and less “boomier” for those of us scrambling for work. There’s a lot of physical space between the areas of where the “booms” are, and where the “busts” are. And the cost for someone moving from a “bust” area to a “boom” area (even temporarily) to find work grow ever more dicey.

        Every now and then you’ll hear about the inability to find workers for a given project. The answer to “why” is simple—those of us with the skills to do the work can’t afford to go there and do it, either because the wage offered is too low, or the cost of housing is too high. There’s a “sweet spot” ratio of pay-to-housing that has to work for those of us traveling, since we don’t want to be homeless (we aren’t working like dogs to never have a home. what the hell would be the point?). So….calls in (mostly) parts of the South or Southwest might go unfilled, because the pay offered isn’t enough to maintain two households (road room and home mortgage) and they aren’t offering per diem*. Or calls in parts of the West Coast aren’t filled because the high wages still aren’t high enough to offset the astronomical cost of housing (in even the most shitbag motel) and again, no per diem. Sometimes calls go unfilled because the job itself is too short—not long enough to make the cost of going there worthwhile. (the goal is always to end up “money ahead”, which is set back to keep you going during the times there isn’t any work to be found, anywhere). Keep that in mind any time you hear the words “skills gap”.

        *(sidenote: good lord the payscale in the south is abysmal. no fucking way. “but the cost of living is so much lower!!” BULL-SHIT. Sell that to someone not from the midwest.)

        People who aren’t in the trades think “I can’t get a person out here to change out a light fixture to a ceiling fan” (or whatever), and use that as their gauge for a rosy outlook on tradeswork. Let me assure you as a person with over 30 years in—there aren’t enough ceiling fan installations to keep my ass employed year round, or even most of the year round. What kept tradespeople of all stripes employed was heavy industry, large utility projects, and large public works projects. And for the most part, those opportunities are gone. What we have now is warehouse work, data center work, and the occasional peaker plant or wind tower project. All installed over Hell’s Half Acre, so subtract the cost of living in Hell’s Half Acre from your pay. Why do we do it?

        Mostly because all our other options suck. Options are something for the UMC. Not us. What the fuck else would I be doing? Especially as a woman? At least the jobs I’m on give me equal pay and equal working conditions, which isn’t nothing. My daughter is grown—she’s a legal adult. I’m working towards my retirement. I feel bad for the younger people doing this. I hope the best for them, but….most of them have a really hard road ahead, and will be making it without the support of family.

        This is a long enough comment. I haven’t even gotten into how our health insurance works (it’s based on hours worked, and we can only bank six months of hours, and…sometimes the other Locals we work from don’t make the same contributions our home Local does, so we end up draining our bank hours despite working). I haven’t even gotten into age discrimination. I haven’t even gotten into the age of retirement (hint: we don’t have it easy like cops and firefighters).

        Cristiana, what you see is what used to exist here. It doesn’t anymore. If it comes back for a critical mass of us, there will be economic and political stability. If it doesn’t—well, buckle up, buttercup. It will be an interesting ride.


      2. Cristiana, there is a deep divide between conditions for the trades in the thriving economies of the coasts, and that of the midwest and south.

        This is more a reflection on the relative economies and less on the conditions for the trades. There is just as much a dearth of “UMC” opportunities where you are, if not more, as there is a lack of opportunities for meaningful blue collar work. And in my east coast blue state, construction and home building/repair is thriving and the trades are certainly a viable career path.

        That’s not to say that I don’t have reservations about the trades as a career path for my kids, but that’s mostly because of my concerns about the tolls that most of those jobs take on people’s bodies. The one huge advantage that a job like mine conveys is that it hasn’t saddled me with work-related injuries and health issues.

        Aside from that, though, if my kids wanted to be a mechanic or a plumber or an electrician and their interests and skills took them that way as opposed to college, I’d support that. And there is no shortage of viable apprentice opportunities and work.

        For many UMC parents, it’s not so much a lack of respect for this work as a matter of unconsciously steering their kids toward the things they know. I am hopeless at all but the most basic of home repair tasks, so I have to pay someone else to do all my plumbing, carpentry, electrical, and auto repair work and my kids haven’t had a chance to cultivate an interest or aptitude in those areas. On the other hand, I can certainly teach them what they need to know about a white collar tech or academic career.


  15. Y81 said, “Gee, the women’s studies course I took was interesting, but I can’t say it has been particularly helpful in managing a diverse work force.” I am genuinely curious to know if you could identify any other *single* humanities/social science/area studies course (as opposed to the sequence of courses needed for a major or minor) you took at university that *was* helpful in that regard.


    1. For what it’s worth I’ve repeatedly heard from the highly paid MBA holding lending teams at my company that they learned very little in their MBA programs. They all said networking was the purpose of being there.


  16. That is a good (and fair) question. I will have to think about it. If I don’t answer, it means that I am still thinking.


  17. I do think that in the future, school as we practice it will be viewed with horror. I’ve mentioned that despite having a PhD, I hated school. If I was enjoying something, I had to stop and move to another topic just because a bell rang. If I wasn’t enjoying something I still had to do it everyday for a class period. You’re forced to work at everyone else’s pace, whether that is too fast or too slow. You’re forced into social situations that often result in bullying. It’s horrible and none of that prepares you for work. The only part that does that is getting there everyday. So, why do we want to extend it more and more? Ooh, let’s make kids take classes they aren’t interested in, just so we can call them well rounded. Let’s find something better.

    The problem is that teacher’s are drawn from those who were good at school. I don’t mean got good grades (I did that, but I wasn’t good at school), but good at the whole thing – studying, following rules, social. They don’t see anything wrong with it.

    This is a long winded way to get to my point. Forcing more and more kids to go to college is happening because many successful people were good at school and make a connection (which may not be true) to school and success. It may be that school just acts as a proxy (and there is evidence that that is true). So, stop pushing people who aren’t good at school to go.


    1. But there has to be a point at which we expose people to ideas and concepts they might not otherwise be exposed to. I’m not saying school is the only way to do that, but in an attention economy, it seems more important than ever to claim some of the attention somehow.


      1. This is such a mean spirited reading of what I wrote. Where do I say we shouldn’t expose people to new ideas or concepts? Nowhere. I do argue that forcing people to spend just as much time on things they hate as on things they like is cruel and stupid. But, I am not arguing that people shouldn’t learn new things.


      2. I wasn’t trying to be mean-spirited! I’m actually sympathetic to what you’re saying, but I also don’t want to give up the idea of the “well-rounded” education, not because I don’t think it’s some sort of civilizing necessity (cf. E.D. Hirsch) but because I think that it’s kind of easy to avoid things we’re not familiar with and think we won’t like. That’s not the same as what you were saying (i.e., if you don’t like math, then why be forced to keep doing it) but I also know some people think they hate literature classes because the lit they’ve been exposed to sucks (I’m looking at you, Silas Marner and Great Expectations, fight me) but they would actually love literature classes when they find out there are other way more interesting kinds of literature.


  18. I finally finished a rough draft of article 1, so that means I’ll probably be back here tomorrow. Editing is much easier than first draft writing. Article 2 is supposed to an opinion piece on exactly that topic. I keep hearing more and more parents expressing exactly what tulip said. And this is coming from UMC types talking about their own kids.


    1. Laura,

      You’re familiar with Bryan Caplan’s “Case Against Education”?

      I have a lot of issues with it, but it’s parallel to what Tulip was talking about.

      I have discussed it elsewhere, and I think a big part of the problem is treating K-12 and college as the same thing, when they’re not.


      1. But college seems to be becoming more and more like K-12 with more majors requiring very structured approaches. Students must get into engineering right away, there is little or no choice of classes. This has extended to business schools – if someone wants to be in business, they must get admitted to the business school by sophomore year, then they have little choice in classes.


      2. Agree that people who are good at school thinking school is the solution. And, it was, for a certain class of people whose economic mobility critically depended on their ability to do school (most immigrants from Asia, for example). Tulip paints a picture of people who are good at school as being rule followers of some sort or another (and, indeed, they do need to be, to some extent or another). But those who *can* follow rules can also be brilliant, creative, capable, empathetic, etc. And those are the ones who have succeeded at the extravagant levels. Schools built for the masses may going to exclude certain brilliant people, but they don’t exclude all of them, and the ones who can do both are the ones who succeed in a winner-take-all society.

        Also agree that college is becoming more K-12 (or at least more K-12 in the form of what the progressive education folks argue — that public education was built to fill the factories with compliant workers).


Comments are closed.