by Mariam Williams
It’s the secret all those colleges and universities who flood job expos will never tell you: The well-educated are among those living life laid off, and they might be doing it longer than those with less education.
I had to address this after hearing Wednesday’s Talk of the Nation. Gustavo Arellano elaborated on his recent op-ed for the LA Times in which he stated that his parents’ generation of Mexican immigrants who “came to this country with nothing” and remained in the unskilled labor force all their lives is, “in many ways better positioned to weather this recession than the sons and daughters they encouraged to educate themselves and aspire to better lives.”
I heard a similar opinion four days before hearing this one. The first opinion came from Pietra Rivoli, an economics professor at Georgetown University. She was on NPR’s This American Life addressing economic and business correspondent Adam Gibson’s concern about DJ, his 25-year-old cousin who decided to drop out of college. Angered over his cousin’s decision, Gibson said, “There is one thing I have learned with absolute certainty, and that’s that the competitive advantage of the United States and our citizens, the way we will succeed in this global economy going forward is through skills, education, knowledge. In other words, stay in school, get a college degree and you’ll be in a much better position … in the global economy. And if you drop out of college, then you have basically consciously decided not to participate in the economic growth and possibilities in the coming decades.”
Gibson expected Rivoli to agree with him. She didn’t.
She described the jobs in DJ’s work history as “non-tradable.” Unlike the positions of people who went straight from high school to factories, then were laid off after 20+ years on the job when their work was shipped to China or Mexico, DJ’s jobs – laying telecom lines, carpentry, truck driving, etc. – aren’t going anywhere. DJ was primed for a life of body aches, but for a good life nonetheless. The segment concluded with the experts noting that the educated classes are more stressed about the recession and about their lives in general.
I was as surprised as Gibson when I heard Rivoli say this, but hearing it again has left me feeling taken aback, in disbelief, disturbed, concerned, and maybe even a little alarmed. Actually, the best word might be unhinged. Although I noticed years ago that a college degree didn’t guarantee success, riches, or even a job, I’ve always thought it better than the alternative. A college degree would shield me from having to be a domestic, work in a fast food restaurant the rest of my life, drive a bus, work temp jobs, and whatever else women whose highest education level is a high school diploma do.
A degree goes beyond the concrete circumstances I wanted to avoid. To roam the halls of academia and imbibe the wisdom of some of the great scholars and thinkers of our time; to dialogue with and live among students from different cultures and countries, to etch your way into adulthood away from the comforts of home and to be entrusted to establish your independence are privileges not extended to the majority of the world. And as a descendant of people who were whipped or whose eyes were gouged or burned out for learning to read; a member of the gender still denied education in many parts of the world; and a self-described nerd, to stop my education at high school never occurred to me.
It also never occurred to me that I – or my country – might one day be unable to use my education.
The 44th President of the United States is a Harvard Law School graduate. Those of us baffled by the two elections of a blubbering imbecile and the vice presidential candidacy of another have delighted in the return of oratory excellence and critical thought to the nation’s highest office. President Obama fought throughout his campaign to appeal to the “Average Joes” and “Joe Six-packs” of the heartland. And yet, the people who should be most excited about the immediate effects that his stimulus plan will have in their respective states are highly specialized engineers, construction workers, or ditch diggers. That’s DJ’s current job.
As I’ve said before, I have accepted that it could be a while before people like me come back into demand. I also know that there’s a positive correlation between adult enrollment in higher education courses and unemployment, and when my state made the top 15 in unemployment numbers, graduate study began to look more attractive. But to hear Arellano admit that he has a master’s degree but can’t afford a house and knows that his journalism prospects will continue to remain in jeopardy, it hurts.
It hurts because I want to be an advocate for higher education. I’ve been helping with a college fair for the past several weeks that focuses on getting more minority students to graduate from high school and enroll in college by showing them that success is possible for them and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed. Now, I don’t believe college is for everyone. I’m thankful for the DJs of the world; they do respectable, honest work that’s possibly more essential than anything I’m capable of, and I know they can make a good living doing it. I also know that Bill Gates’s degree is honorary. I know Steve Jobs dropped out of college. I know that in Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki advises people who want to be rich to learn a little about a lot and not get more and more specialized in higher education. He saw his very well-educated father teach for pennies and eventually have to leave his home because he couldn’t afford the property taxes. I know that some people who want to play basketball or sing or dance or rap or act or write or direct professionally actually get to do it without giving college much thought, and that a few of them can make about a tenth of what Bernie Madoff stole. But I feel that to advise minority students to go after that instead of higher education is to raise a collective middle finger to history and stain our own hands with our ancestors’ blood, even in this economy. Yet these conversations have me wondering, what is the goal of college? To get a job? If so, am I helping to lead these students down the right path? Are they better off without the “privilege” of a good education?
DJ and Arellano’s parents have an advantage because they aren’t “unskilled”; they’re adaptable. They’re good at working with their hands, they learn how to do the work quickly, and they’re not too spoiled to do it.
It wasn’t having classes outside on the perfectly manicured quad, the imported tulips that lined the sidewalks every spring, the Starbucks coffee in every eatery, or even Angie, the kind housekeeper who mopped and vacuumed the floors in my suite twice a week my sophomore year, that spoiled me. It was the diligence I put into studying, the faithfulness in anticipation of a reward that did it. To not only not receive the reward, but to also still be paying off the loan I took out to do the hard work to gain the reward as I face the fact that I might have to – again – do something that has nothing to do with the hard work, is a cruel joke.
I’m trying to be humble and flexible, but I have some quirks that make some of the most obvious options unrealistic. I vowed several years ago that I would never go back to retail, not clothes, not cars, not furniture. I can work with teenagers in certain settings, but Starbucks isn’t one of them. Teaching or tutoring children of other ages-or trying to-convinced me not to do it again. I was great at math and science ten years ago, but I just don’t like them that much, and I don’t remember enough of those crucial subjects to become an engineer who can come up with green energy solutions. My germaphobic tendencies, lack of natural caregiver instincts, and disdain for blood and human smells nix nursing. I guess I could go for non-retail sales, but what exactly are people buying right now? And even though manual labor jobs aren’t traditionally filled by women anyway, I’m just not cut out for them.
So what happens when business owners who have more letters after their name than I do lose their shirts and can’t even draw unemployment because they were business owners? What do I do if my own hard work turns out to be useless for finding a job, and so for all present intents and purposes, meaningless? At that point, I will rationalize my disappointment by remembering the words of another writer who discovered that everything really is meaningless, and I focus on all the important parts of life outside of whatever job consumes most of my days. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I have been: praying for guidance, exploring options, applying for jobs I want, networking, and reinventing myself while honing in on the gifts and talents that are blossoming. I also give myself one good “that’s not fair” tantrum and then remember that while some are better equipped than others to weather the economic storm, all storms eventually pass.
Some links and things to make you think:
© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.