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The White Collar Blues

When the employment-robot-futurist-dystopian people start their rants about the modern economy, they usually point to traditional blue collar jobs that are falling behind. Farmers are suicidal. Desperate coal miners vote for Trump. There are sobs for the steel workers, the automakers, and electricians.

Actually, there’s a huge need for talent blue collar workers. And I’ve been hearing more and more middle class parents who are willing to explore those options for their kids. It’s probably because they all know people with white collar jobs who are having a hard time making today.

At least once a week, there’s a new story about a desperate adjunct. The Wall Street Journal has a book review today about a new book, The Adjunct Underclass. And the New Republic has a fabulous article about the adjunct-equivalent in journalism, the freelance writer.

What do adjuncts and freelance writers have in common? Well, they are highly skilled jobs that require major education and investments of time to do well. They pay really poorly. They are high status and not well understood. They are white collar jobs. And I’ve done/do both. Ha!

Those jobs take advantage of primary parents who need 1/2 jobs and of highly optimistic and stubborn individuals who keep hoping and hoping that things will pan out. They never do.

If we want to teach our kids employment skills that they’ll need today, flexibility is probably important. Not because robots are stealing jobs, but because other forces at work that are making intellectual work irrelevant. They should know that paying dues, aka doing low paid, grunt work, is fine for a very, very short period of time. After that, if there isn’t respect and proper paycheck on the table, they should walk away.

About twenty years ago, Steve sent out job applications for assistant European History professorships around the country. When the colleges bothered to reply, they told him that he was one of hundreds of applicants. So, he got a temp job on Wall Street as an administrative assistant and then stayed.

It was the smartest thing, we did. He could have been like my friends, tying together one crappy job after another, until it was too hard to do something else. And Steve was a champ for walking away from a vocation to simply do a job.

I think high schools and colleges should be straight up with students about where they can find work after graduation. They should be some guidance about the cheapest and fastest education path to those jobs. Of course, there are no guarantees, but every student in a journalism program today should read that New Republic article. Every student entering a graduate program in English literature should be presented with the numbers and that adjunct article. There should be complete transparency.

We’ve cracked down on shady for-profit colleges for hiding employment figures. I think every educational institution should be held equally accountable.

UPDATE: I should say that I get paid a lot more per article than the New Republic guy.

Computers Are Stealing Your Jobs

Nobody bowls alone in my town unless they just want to sit in their living room binge-watching HBO series, chain-smoking, and passing twenty bucks to the pizza delivery guy on a Friday night. Not that I’m judging. That’s Alternative Universe Laura.

In fact, I do take advantage of many social functions in the town. I’m in a running club and a special needs parent group. I’ll probably start taking classes at the art school soon, though I’m holding the line on excessively time-consuming civic mindedness and refusing to run for political office.

Our school district offers frequent talks to the parents and people in the community on various topics. I go to them all. It’s work-related. I like to know what educators think are the hot topics. It’s funny. It’s totally different from what the education writers in the major new outlets think is important. It’s different worlds.

A popular theme in many of these talks is: “OMG, the computers are stealing all the jobs and our children are screwed.”

I’m not joking. I went to one talk last month, where the presenter showed a slide of his three-year old in a backpack and said something like, “This is my son. What am I going to telling him?! What kind of a job will he ever have?! [Long pause. Sniff.]”

Then he showed a YouTube video of a tree harvester (what is the right word?) in Oregon who was replacing his lumberjacks with robots, which he though would save lives and save him a lot of money. Next was a YouTube video of some random talking head on a cable news show, who said the computers were going to replace journalists.


The conclusion of these talks is that we have to teach students to be flexible and adaptable, but pretty much they’re screwed. I don’t understand why the conclusion of those talks isn’t that we should start teach children to code computers in kindergarten. Or another lesson might be that we should teach children to kill and skin their own dinner.

Now, some jobs are just bad these days. I would not recommend that anybody become a journalist or go to graduate school these days. But the problem with journalism isn’t that computers are writing the op-eds for the New York Times. It’s much more complicated, but it’s still not good.

I do think that things are shifting, but not to the dystopian levels that these hysterical school speakers believe. For example, while the career landscape for journalism is really bad, the PR field is thriving. My niece will probably leverage her Instagram and Snapchat skills into a job in corporate communications. She’ll do great.

There are places for writers, just not the traditional ones. Just as there will be work for others with education and good life skills. I think it will take some research to make good choices, but people will figure it out soon.

Old School Jobs That Still Work

Toll booth collectors, travel agents, secretaries, stenographers are not exactly growth careers for young people. Technology has made those careers obsolete. Other jobs are no longer useful, because we replace items — rather than repair them — because the cost of the item has become so cheap thanks to globalization. Is anybody a vacuum cleaner repair man anymore?

But there are some old school jobs that seem to be holding strong.

Yesterday, I dropped off two pairs of shoes at the town’s cobbler. An old pair needed a new heel. A new pair needed stretching. Three guys were in the back hammering away in a cluttered space with shoe boxes piled sky high. I paid in cash and was given a red ticket stub to pick up the shoes in two days.

This business seems to be doing well. There are some cobblers in my state who make in six figures, though the average is around $48K. With all the cheap shoes at Target and Kohl’s, why aren’t these guys going the way of vacuum cleaner repairmen?

Wealthy people spend a lot of money on their shoes. Steve said that some guys in his office wear $500 shoes. And everybody hates breaking in new pairs of shoes. I have one pair of shoes that pre-dates my first child; they are so comfortable that I get them reheeled every five years. Also, middle-of-the-road shoes don’t go out of style. A loafer is a loafer.

(More to come)

First Pitch

Ian was asked to throw out the first pitch for the high school baseball team, because it was Autism Awareness Month. The boys had collected donations for autism charities and then asked Ian to do the honors at the game. I was a little worried about my kid being the poster child for autism, but I wanted to support the guys on the team who meant well. In the end, Ian really enjoyed it, so it was all good.

SL 753

Shackleford Island, NC

We had an A+ geeky Sunday with the Avengers and Game of Thrones on tap. I’ve been reading recaps all afternoon.

I have to go to a conference in Baltimore next week. What’s your favorite conference survival tip?

More jobs in PR than journalism these days.

Looks like Nichole Cliff is off Twitter, and now I’m sad. What happened?

The Half Job Compromise

The elementary school bus lets the kids off right in front of my house at 3:25 every day. Even though I don’t have little ones anymore, I’ll sometimes go out to chat with my neighbors as they wait to collect their kids. It’s a mix of women there — some babysitters, some grandmas, some moms.

My favorite twin kindergartners greet me – “HI MISS LAURA!!” And I chat with their mom who is hoisting a two-year old on one hip.

She stopped working a couple of years ago, because she couldn’t manage her accounting job in Manhattan with its 3 hour commute, 60 hours weeks, along with all the parenting work, even with high levels of support from her mother and mother-in-law. Her husband’s accounting job involved lots of travel on top of the major hours. So, she quit. When the two-year is older, she might work part-time from home, but she’ll never be able to manage a major job again.

1-1/2 jobs is the norm around here. The NYT acts like this formula is totally new and radical, but this has been going on for a long time. That’s what Steve and I do.

We’ve fallen into this pattern mostly because of the school schedule. The school bus shows up at 3:25. Little kids need someone home. The big guys stay late at the school for track practice and need a ride home. There are random days off. And don’t get me started on the hassle that is summer.

It’s also because of the kind of work that people do around here. Jobs, like accounting or Steve’s work in finance, are a minimum of 60 hours per week. Workers have little time time during the day to handle emergencies or the list of chores. Because I handle all the crap, he’s been able to move up the ladder. We’re better off, because we work 1-1/2 jobs, rather than 2 jobs.

Friends that do manage 2 full jobs, often have careers in education or work very locally without any commute.

The good side of this family/work dynamic is greater income, the ability to handle family crises and day-to-day nonsense, and usually a hot meal on the table by 7 every day.

The cons are that part-time, flexible jobs in any field kinda suck. Adjunct professors and freelance writers aren’t exactly well respected. A 1/2 job doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hours, because I sometimes put in long hours at weird times, like on weekends and evening.

Is this all a tragedy? Not really. This is working for me. I suppose I’m a bad feminist, but I no longer care about that.

And because the economy does seem to want smart people, there is a way to ramp up when the kids go to college, as long as the 1/2 job is a real job and not being a substitute teacher. One friend just turned her 1/2 job as a Hebrew school teacher into a full-time gig as a Hebrew school principal. I talked with a woman who quit her job in the fashion industry to start a new company making high quality, branded sweat shirts and baseball caps for the local high schools.

Of course, some women are looking at the 1/2 job compromise and are saying “nah.” They’re just not having kids at all.