Friday, December 26, 2008

The specific and the general

I would be remiss if I didn't follow up on the post I wrote about the Chicago Tribune story that used one Karl Buschmann as an example of how someone with a great deal of education finds himself working very hard to make ends meet. Ron May, who I wrote about here, left a comment with some specific observations about Mr. Buschmann, a man he knows slightly. The impression I get from Mr. May's comments is that Mr. Buschmann doesn't fit the mold of the "hale fellow well met," and that his experience may be somewhat limited in a way that might curtail his current opportunities.

I don't know Mr. Buschmann, of course, and whatever twists and turns he may have experienced on the way to his current situation are unknown to me. However, I didn't pick him as the subject of a feature story, the eighth (or so, who knows today) largest newspaper in the country did. Is he the exemplar of a trend, or an outlier? Don't know.

What I do know is that it is a trend. I haven't cleared the relating of some stories with the people involved, so I can't be too specific, but I know quite a few people who are in similar straits as Mr. Buschmann. In general, these are people who were well-respected in their positions, who performed well, who had credentials and experience, and are in no way "odd ducks." They may not have been tireless self-promoters, but they certainly added value to their organizations - and they're now underemployed, forced to take jobs outside of their fields of proven expertise.

Some can argue that that's just the way the cookie crumbles, and maybe it is. Maybe these are simply people who got caught up by a trend external to themselves, and they need to understand that and accept that. And, you know what, they've done just that. They may still be looking for work in their chosen fields, but they're also doing what they have to.

Perhaps this country doesn't need as many software engineers and electrical engineers and project managers as it used to, no matter what the "experts" say. But that is the crux of the matter, isn't it?

Those who choose to read this blog as a tribute to inefficiency or an immature desire to the world as it can never again be, I would suggest that they have not read it at all closely. What I have said is that there are costs to the business-friendly policies we've adopted, costs that are being increasingly borne by people who are already exposed to a great deal of risk. I have written that there are risks to any nation that farms out vital activities to other countries, and doesn't wish to realize the full implications of those risks. And I have stated that the CEOs and the college presidents and the pundits who go on talk shows and insist that our children need to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields have an equal obligation to point out where they think the jobs will come from.

No guarantees, there never are any - but then I am not the one being certain, am I? I'm not the one telling the audience that we need x number of people to go into these fields in order to remain competitive, when the vast majority of these jobs have been lost solely on the basis of price. After all, it costs the CEO nothing if 5,000 young people major in EE because he's talking it up, then end up working at Starbucks. (In fact, he has a perverse reason for doing just that, in that the higher supply will lower the price of whatever engineers he does need to hire in this country.)

So we can pick through the specifics of one case, trust that the system has worked to expose one man's flaws and put him in the position he "deserves," without regard to what he has achieved. We can assume that the 50-year-old guy working at Best Buy is there, not because of rampant age discrimination, but because of some character defect that somehow went undetected in the 25 years he spent earning patents and missing school plays for the good of his company.

But, in the end, we're left to square the conflicting messages. We can't have it both ways: we can't cast out the Karl Buschmann's and all the others with varying amounts of oddness, then insist that our future will be built on an ever-increasing supply of people with those same credentials (unless we assume that our educational system is somehow optimzed to cast out that oddness). My complaint is not with reality, things are what things are. It's with those who insist the system works properly because they're too myopic to admit that luck or fate has just as much to do with picking the winners and losers. And, while I don't ask for guaranteed outcomes, I do ask that the people who are given a forum, those who might just possibly influence behavior, not lie to us about the truth of the matter.

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