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I’m not an unhappy robot

January 16, 2012

Georgetown University recently released a report on the average pay and average unemployment of various college majors. This article recently complained about these surveys focusing too much on pay of college majors. Since this is something I talk about a lot (articles touting fantastic engineering pay or that invent a shortage of engineers that isn’t really there) I find the reaction very interesting. Some bits I agree with:

We get it, Georgetown, English majors are poor. But instead of accepting that people like teachers and journalists get paid shitty salaries, how about re-evaluating why we give those professions the shaft?

Totally get it. Agree teachers and journalists should be paid more. So should cops and firefighters. But why are teachers paid so poorly despite a job requiring a bachelor’s degree? State governments are able to, much like corporations, keep wages artificially low. What about journalists? Is it because it doesn’t require a specific degree and a lot of students graduating college have dreams of going into journalism? But the author seems to think there’s only two options here:

A future of unhappy robots is pretty bleak. It’s well-documented that a good salary alone can’t make you happy. That’s doubly true if the job isn’t suited to your talents. Doing away with arts or humanities, whether in kindergarten or college, gives credence to those horrible parents in movies who crow that “singing doesn’t put food on the table” before their kid turns out to be Lauryn Hill.

You know what? I did give up my first love of music in order to find something with a paycheck in it. I knew there tons of musicians and very few jobs in it. Unfortunately, I thought pursuing my “passion” in a liberal arts degree would be different. It wasn’t.

I’m an engineer. I love it. I think the problem is too many people think they can only be happy writing or painting or something. But really now that I’m in the working world I can find I can be happy doing a lot of different things. But a solid career (like engineering) provides a stable middle class lifestyle. Which when you’ve spent four years and potentially spent tens of thousands of dollars is kind of nice.

I don’t think we should tell everyone to go be an engineer. If you read my blog at all you know I constantly complain about the fact that first corporations and now the media are perpetuating this STEM shortage myth. Now I really enjoyed my liberal arts education. I wish it was valued and taught alongside job-specific education as a means of enriching society. But I do think it’s pretty foolish to tell your kid to major in their passion and let them believe a college degree, any degree, is the key to a middle class lifestyle when that’s no longer true. Many college bound students don’t really understand this. We don’t teach economics as well as we should in high school and many will come from households where parents are doing okay with no degree or with unrelated degrees. It’s hard for them to grasp the fact that the world has changed. That simply staying in middle class is a new struggle.

In the end we need people to do everything. We need engineers, scientists, even business majors. Just maybe not as many liberal arts graduates as we’ve had. Or at least make sure we’ve been honest with them about their possible pay and employment just like the survey does a good job of doing. Just today there’s a story on NPR about how law schools might be inflating the employment and pay data to lure in new students. I think a bit of honesty, as well as the truth about how important a satisfying income can be to one’s hopes and dreams, is essential. Not to mention there are many happy engineers, accountants, doctors, etc. And accusing people in those professions of not being creative enough is really short sighted.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2012 2:58 pm

    FrauTech, so true! I also changed from musical theatre to marketing when I realized that I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t have the talent to perform. What would I do with a BA in musical theatre?!? Nothing!! So, now I enjoy my money-making marketing career, and sing in my spare time. Win-win and realism right there 🙂

  2. January 18, 2012 9:33 am

    These are wise words.

    One issue the worries me: we infantilize our young people into early adulthood but then expect them, when they’re way too young, to decide what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. Few 18-year-olds who have been cloistered in institutions all their lives are in any position to decide what lifelong career will a) keep them out of the nuthouse and b) return a decent rate of pay.

    In my son’s generation (he’s probably about your age: early 30s?), this meant a raft of bright men and women graduating from college with unmarketable degrees and no idea what they wanted to do when they grew up. My son’s degree in international political economics led him to a job he hates, trying to get through math and chemistry courses and prep for the GRE to gain entry to a voc-ed type of master’s degree, far afield from his undergraduate training.

    For women in my own generation (who were largely barred from careers outside of teaching or nursing), it meant drifting into a major for lack of anything better. At 16, I signed up to study French because my adviser was the departmental chair and, by way of snaring a new major, agreed to waive the two-year undergraduate language requirement (I was already fluent) if I would declare myself a French major. At the graduate level switched to English when I discovered the university in the town where my new husband lived didn’t offer a doctorate in French. Either way — French or English — there was little or no hope of getting a real, long-term, decently paying job. The doctorate just made me a variety of trophy wife.

    Today, if I had it to do over, I would major in business with a minor in accountancy; get the CPA; and go on for a doctorate in business management, which doesn’t require too much math. Universities ARE hiring in business, and they pay business Ph.D.’s one helluvalot better than professors of English.

  3. January 21, 2012 1:03 pm

    FT-
    I was wondering if you could recommend a couple of good career books for women. I enjoy your perspective.
    Thanks,

  4. frautech permalink*
    January 22, 2012 11:13 am

    Ashley- That’s how I feel. Usually having a stable salary is more important than absolutely loving every minute of your job. Plus, like you’ve learned, we are flexible and can be happy doing many things!

    Funny- Really appreciated your perspective, both on yourself and your son. I wonder too what I’d suggest anyone do today and I like the idea of business and accounting because I think while that isn’t necessarily a high demand job it’s still a job where you probably don’t end up with too many prospective employees greatly outnumbering the number of positions available. I still know so many people younger than me who are certain a career in academia is for them, if only they could hear your story and know what a tough field it is!

    Savvy- Great question, you’ve inspired me to turn it into a post. Stay tuned.

  5. ferd permalink
    January 31, 2012 8:38 am

    Articles like Georgetown’s that analyze potential pay and career vs. type of college degree always irk me. First, they are biased to sell the writer’s product (in this case, Georgetown’s college degrees). Second, they forecast job needs based upon guesses from company managers who inflate their numbers in order to make their companies and industries look healthy. The only real indicators of “is college worth it” and viability of any career choice is to investigate employed/underemployed/unemployed numbers for each of those jobs, and compare that to what can be agreed as necessary income levels over the whole working lifespan of a middle class citizen. Those indicate that the “STEM shortage” is indeed a myth. The stability of engineering as a career is another myth – it is too easy to be cast out (as too old or stale, when the real reason is salary and benefits level) way before the mortgage is paid and the kids are through school. Many engineers who remain employed get moved out of actual engineering and into management, where office politics is more important than technical skill.

    It is true that if you become an unhappy robot salary won’t fix the problem. But we are not able to just do anything we want – we need to find gainful employment, and that requires compromise. There is no shame to regulate your passion to hobby status, if you do not have the talent and circumstances to turn it into a career. But that is not the same as how many parents to herd their kids to college, where they hope to kick off a lucrative career. Students without passion for their coursework may graduate, but they’re unlikely to ever enjoy a career that’s more than mediocre at best.

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