Friday, April 26, 2013

No, Prospects are Not Golden for Science Graduates

A long-asserted position, that there are not enough American graduates in what has lately been referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), got new press time this week.  This is not an old viewpoint, coming from the vocational versus mind-furnishing university debates of the late 1970s, the 1950s competition with the Soviets, and even before. 

It makes intuitive sense.  There is always intense work on science and engineering in companies and government agencies across the country, which require know-how most people, regardless of intelligence or even aptitude, simply don’t have.  From iPods to bridges, we can see the effects scientific work has on our lives, and we know lots of money is being spent and earned.  The liberal arts fields have little to match that, as Americans have known for a long time that jobs which directly use knowledge in the likes of sociology or foreign literature are much less common.  At the same time, when we learn the names of the highest STEM achievers, they are often Chinese, Indian, or Near Eastern, making it even more logical to think we don’t have enough qualified people here otherwise.  College undergraduates will consistently tell you that scientific coursework is usually more difficult than that in the humanities.  If we need yet another explanation, hard science graduates are often seen as being smarter, more diligent, and clearer at thinking than others. 

There is only one problem with that viewpoint.  It is false.  As I wrote in Choosing a Lasting Career: 

Another disagreement I have with other things you may read is on science-related opportunities. Some score high in the chapters to come, but the field is hardly the wide-open hiring area implied by those who say American universities do not produce enough science graduates.  Many want to work in academia, but as of 2009, only 14% of new degree holders in the life sciences were able to get university positions teaching or researching within five years, a share shrinking steadily since 1979, and reports published in 2010 and 2011 show that private industry has not hired enough science doctorates to make the degrees financially worthwhile.  For one example, between 2000 and 2012, American drug companies cut 300,000 jobs, many formerly providing work for Ph.D.’s in chemistry.  As a result of poor opportunities, many scientists with doctoral degrees in various disciplines have now been working as low-paid postdoctoral fellows, customarily one- to two-year apprenticeships of sorts, for as long as ten.

A new Economic Policy Institute study, mentioned Wednesday in Slate and The Washington Post, confirmed the true situation.  It said that although there were relatively few American STEM graduates, they often had poor career prospects, with about half not finding jobs anywhere in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.  The findings implied that foreigners with these credentials were given temporary work visas because of this perceived shortage.  Such workers are paid an average of 20% less than native Americans, which could explain, even before considering real or imagined differences in their work, their popularity. 

Another long-standing issue with vocational scientific positions has been cyclical supply and demand.  For decades, engineering and information technology have gone through a predictable, easily understandable pattern.  To start it, news stories appear about worker shortages in one of these fields.  Next, high school and college career offices, along with the students themselves, spread the word, and more and more people major in these subjects.  As a result, years later, more graduates in these fields reach the job market than can be hired.  From there, word spreads that opportunities are poor, so fewer people start studying these subjects.  With the reduced number of new graduates, and technological progress marching on, there is a scarcity of qualified people again.  Then, back to the beginning.  Former students from years before who did not find work in their specialty do not help much, as they often have moved on to other fields, and their knowledge sets have suffered from disuse and obsolescence. 

Two facts are clear from this misunderstanding.  First, completing a scientific or technical major has never been a guarantee of top job prospects.  Second, such graduates are not rare.  So can we do away with the idea that Americans are somehow deficient for choosing less demanding fields of study?  We all choose the paths life makes available to us, and even if others “should” be better, we are entitled to know when they are not.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Americans Don’t Understand Each Other

Three issues have been in the press this week – American income inequality, a need for companies to raise wages, and the failure of gun control bills in the U.S. Senate.  What do they have in common?

Since long before the United States was a country, Americans have differed greatly in the amount of money they earn.  The national spirit of hard work, when combined with a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, personal abilities and inclinations, and lifestyle choices, has fashioned an unusually heterogeneous society.  As I have commented many times, inequality only becomes perceived as an issue when large numbers of people cannot achieve what they see as a minimum acceptable prosperity level for themselves.  In the 1890s, a time of rail barons and urban poverty, there was much less concern, as there was plenty of work available.  In the early 1980s and early 2000s, when the Gates’s and Zuckerbergs were national news, likewise.  Yet yesterday in there was a column by Robert Reich, who has shown himself to be outstandingly aware of the permanent nature of the jobs crisis, regretting that Americans have not been as unified in making incomes more equal as they were in confronting the Boston bombing. 

In the Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson wrote Tuesday on low-paying service jobs.  Wal-Mart was the villain, guilty not only of “crummy, low-wage jobs” but for “slashing their workforce.”  He also named a similar situation with McDonalds, and documented recent service and logistical problems, caused by a lack of employees, at both companies.  Yet businesses are fully able to decide when downsizing goes too far, as it did for many in the late 1990s, and they will judge accordingly. 

That brings us to gun control.  A set of seven bills restricting firearm ownership in some form were voted upon in the Senate, and all failed.  Newspaper editorials blasted that result, with even the Chicago Tribune, no stranger to expressing conservative views, calling it “shameful,” “a vote for violence” and saying that senators were choosing between “listening to the public or to the gun lobby.” 

So what is happening here?  Is income inequality, on the top as well as the bottom, in dire need of correction?  Is Wal-Mart immoral for not hiring more people and paying them more?  Is the result of a recent set of Senate votes “shameful?”

That depends on where you stand.  Tens of millions of good, reasonably-thinking Americans would take views opposite to the above.  Income inequality, they would say, is not a problem in itself, though poverty and a lack of jobs may be.  Wal-Mart and McDonalds have helped poorer Americans at least as much as government programs by providing food and other goods at ever-lower constant-dollar prices, and by creating over a million jobs popular enough that it would be a losing business decision for workers’ pay to be increased.  Gun control is not only a slippery-slope danger to personal freedom, but has the heaviest burden on the exact people who are no threat.

What do I think?  I happen to see more merit in the statements in the previous paragraph than in the items above them, but that is not the point.  The idea is that perspectives vary.  Political debate is an old tradition in this country, and political debate requires conflicting political views.  Having thoughts different from yours on gun control, the economy, immigration, foreign involvements, or any other issue does not make people crazy, ill-informed, thoughtless, or traitors;  most likely, they just see things another way.  Opposing opinions must be taken seriously. 

We have one thing in common – we are all Americans.  Make that two – we are dealing with crises for which we have no clear solutions, and whatever our politics, we consistently want the best for our country.  Only when we respect what others think, and at least partially try it on for size ourselves, will we accomplish that.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Work’s New Age Blog – One Year and Counting!

A year ago Tuesday I started this blog.  Thank you for reading it!

Here are 26 opinions and observations prompted by events of the past year.  I would be surprised if anyone else on the planet agrees, or for that matter disagrees, with all of them.   

First, the jobs crisis is as permanent as ever. 

Second, once again, our politicians have put the jobs crisis on the back burner.

Third, unemployment has improved slowly, but once we get another recession we will clearly understand that 2012 and early 2013 were relatively good times, not bad.

Fourth, Barack Obama has talked a moderate-to-conservative game on jobs, but has not emphasized them in his actions, at all.

Fifth, Congress is so polarized that almost any ideas from the other party will be resisted, even if they are ideologically fine otherwise.

Sixth, more and more people are leaving the work force, and that trend is just gathering steam. 

Seventh, inequality is not the problem – ordinary people not being able to sell their labor for a decent living, regardless of how much Joe Moneybags down the street has, is.

Eighth, Americans have more mutual problems than ever before, but keep being pulled apart by efforts, especially academic and journalistic, to get them to see their issues, and identities, in terms of race, sex, and sexual orientation.

Ninth, differing achievement levels do not in themselves constitute racism, sexism, or other discrimination.

Tenth, given that racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in general are well-entrenched human behaviors, the progress made on them over the past 60 years is staggering – and it is continuing.

Eleventh, there are two types of feminism:  power feminism, or advocacy of equal rights; and victim feminism, or seeing women and what they do as needing special protection.  They are opposites.   

Twelfth, Americans in general do a poor job of comprehending why their countrymen with different political views think as they do.  

Thirteenth, almost all of the time, the opposite opinion has a lot of validity too.

Fourteenth, both sides are right about gun control – and both sides are wrong.

Fifteenth, on the issue of immigration policy, whatever your viewpoint is you can back it up with data, and good data at that.

Sixteenth, abortion is a philosophical issue, not a political one.

Seventeenth, if the true nature of consciousness is determined (is it from computation, from the brain and replicatible, from the brain and not replicatible, or from some other source?), it will have an almost unimaginably huge effect on where our lives will go.

Eighteenth, when looking at how businesses seem to behave, use Watergate logic: follow the money.  That’s ultimately all businesses want, and that, not malevolence, drives their decisions.

Nineteenth, unions protecting workers from private companies are fundamentally different from those protecting workers from government organizations without any profit motive.

Twentieth, non-career education after high school, which is also highly valuable, will continue to become prohibitively expensive for more and more.

Twenty-first, human diversity is vastly more than differences in skin pigmentation, genital type, and nature of sexual desires.

Twenty-second, you are entitled to personally recognize, or not recognize, any marriage you choose.  A government-issued marriage license is as sacred a covenant as a government-issued roofer’s license.

Twenty-third, straight white men are not the only group with at least some responsibility for their statistical shortcomings.

Twenty-fourth, other people do not always value the same things you do.  That does not always make them wrong, evil, uninformed, or in need of being set straight.

Twenty-fifth, if you think your religion is the only one that is right, a minimum of 80% of other people disagree with you.

Twenty-sixth, good people, which means most people, deal with their opportunities and circumstances as well as they can.  That explains almost all of the differences between generations.

Want more on any of these?  Let me know, and I will provide it.  If you agree with most of them, be sure to keep up with this blog, as they underpin what I write.

Friday, April 5, 2013

March AJSN – Under 21 Million, But Labor Force Shrinks More

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment and unemployment data has arrived, and as usual there is good news and bad news.  The good news is that unemployment is down, with 685,000 more Americans working than in the month before.  The other categories of marginal labor attachment were consistently down as well, with those saying they did not search for work in the previous year, those claiming family responsibilities, and those simply discouraged dropping the most.  Though seasonal differences essentially accounted for the increase in jobs, the country’s labor situation did not get worse in March.

The bad news is contained in one number – those who say they do not want a job.  That increased 826,000 from February to March, and in turn caused a labor force drop of 496,000 and a labor force participation rate fall to a new multi-year low of 63.3%.  Here is the latest American Jobs Shortage Number data:

MARCH 2013
Total Latent Demand % Latent Demand Total
Unemployed 11,815,000 90 10,633,500
Discouraged 803,000 90 722,700
Family Responsibilities 175,000 30 52,500
In School or Training 381,000 50 190,500
Ill Health or Disability 148,000 10 14,800
Other 819,000 30 245,700
Did Not Search for Work In  Previous Year 3,417,000 80 2,733,600
Not Available to Work Now 656,000 30 196,800
Do Not Want a Job 84,084,000 5 4,204,200
Non-Civilian and Institutionalized, 15+ 6,790,804 10 679,080
American Expatriates 6,320,000 20 1,264,000
TOTAL     20,937,380
In other BLS news, the number of unemployed 27 weeks or longer stayed much the same at 4.6 million, but the count of those working part-time for economic reasons improved greatly, dropping over 300,000 to 7.6 million.

So what can we infer from this data?   There are no tremendous changes here, and that is the point.  Though unemployment was not worse in March than in February, we continue to see more and more people deciding they are not going to be in the labor force at all.  Those saying they do not want a job gained over 800,000, and that is a lot.  Labor force participation, which peaked at about 67% in the late 1990s with nearly full employment of women, is returning to the territory from whence it came. 

In short, America is not going back to work.  The reported seasonally adjusted increase of 88,000 on United States payrolls was once again not enough to cover population increase.  We have seen worse, but the trends we have seen especially over the past five years are continuing, and that is not a good thing.  If employment were as easy for the rest of us as it is in western North Dakota, we would have over 20 million more Americans paying taxes and using less in social services.  That is our foremost national problem, and both parties need to address it.