I was recently listening to a lecture by David Cay Johnston, How Government Creates Inequality. It was brilliant as usual. Imagine if we had another hundred or thousand journalists like him! But anyway, he mentioned that when he got started working the 1960s and 1970s, people like him had no trouble finding work. But now college graduates really do have to worry. And in the world that Johnston was talking about, it wasn’t just college graduates who were at such an advantage. My father had no education to speak of. He was certainly smart and hard working, but at that time he was given a chance. What chance would he be given today? Stocking shelves at Walmart?
I was thinking about this with regard to some work I did a while back for my main client. She had sent me an article written by a young writer of hers. She said she didn’t like it and couldn’t say why. I read it and told her that there were many problems with it and that there were two options: I could fix it or mark it up for the writer. I suggested the second idea because I felt that the writer had potential. She agreed, and so I wrote about twice as much in notes as the writer wrote for his article. She and the owner of the company were thrilled with my notes.
Understand: I could almost be the grandfather of this young writer. And maybe I came off as nasty or like I knew it all or whatever. I thought I had been very nice. What’s more, I wrote to the writer as a peer — just a younger and less experienced one. But the writer returned a barely edited version of article — integrating at most one-tenth of my suggestions. And then he quit. What’s interesting is that about a month later, I was reading an article, and I told my editor, “This is great! Who wrote it?” And she told me it was the same guy.
The point is not the quitting. I’ve had to do a whole lot of work on this guy’s half finished articles, and I really wish he were still around. For one thing, his politics are very much mine. For another things, he is very talented. I know that if he sticks with it, he will at least become a fine writer — maybe even a great one. If he were around, I could be part of that process. But the point is that this company is willing to pay me to work with writers. The company understands that you don’t get exactly the workers that you want or need. You as the company or manager must invest in the workers.
This is sadly not the way things mostly work in the modern world. And that’s especially true in the high tech world. It used to aggravate me when I was a programmer and a company would be looking for something really specific. For example, they had to have a Java programmer — a C++ programmer wouldn’t do, even though there is no real difference. Or a C++ programmer would have to have MFC experience. These are indications of companies that don’t want to invest anything at all in their workers. An experienced C++ programmer could be up to speed with MFC within a week. Transitioning from C++ to Java probably wouldn’t even take that much time. But the way these companies see workers is the same way they see widgets: plug them in and they should work.
That’s the sad thing about a college education. The truth is that most jobs don’t require a college education. I have spent about half my working life as a programmer, and I’ve never taken a course on computers or programming. But the thing about forcing people to have college degrees is that it is supposed to make them better workers. But it really doesn’t. The specifics of any job will require specialized training. The whole business of college degrees is just a way for the power elite to justify why it is that people don’t have jobs. “Oh, well you need a college degree!” And then, the kids get a college degree, and it doesn’t matter.
I constantly see stories about how companies can’t find the skilled employees that they need. This is what the whole thing about the H1-B visas is about. If an employer finds that it can’t find good help, it has two options. It can pay more or it can find inexperienced people and train them. The problem with both of those solutions is that they cost money. What such stories should actually be saying it, “Employer can’t find help at the wages it wants to pay.” But then it would be only too clear: the employer isn’t doing its job. Or the employer wants an unfair advantage by getting trained workers for less than the going rate. Much better to blame workers. In the 1960s and 1970s, when unions were much stronger, workers had an easier time finding work and (relative to comparable countries) they made more. We’ve given both those things up so that employers can make a lot more money. And as Johnston discusses in the video above: this isn’t an accident; it is due to government policy. We live in an oligarchy, folks.