User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: Education, It All Depends on What You Do With It

"Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Defend."

Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Education, It All Depends on What You Do With It

When I write I don't do an outline first.  I just go at it.  As a result, when I wrote the last entry, I wrote something worthwhile, but it was not what I set out to write when I started.  So, I thought I'd keep going and write the article I originally planned to write.

An event in my personal life served as the inspiration for this article.  My sister-in-law has two sons, Jimmy and Anthony.  Jimmy in 27 and Anthony is 29 and neither one currently has a job.

Jimmy was the person that the writers of the1960's comedy song "Dropouts' March" had in mind when they wrote the words.  He is the prototypical loser kid.  He dropped out of high school and never got a GED.  He has lived at home with his mother his entire adult life.  The only job he ever had was a part-time position in the produce department at the Acme.  He recently lost the job because of a money-making opportunity he took up with another one of his friends.  He would drive his friend to apartment complexes where they would rifle cars for laptops, navigation systems and other valuables.  Well he got arrested in Pennsylvania.  While in jail, the police investigated further and found a series of similar break-ins on this side of the river.  He confessed to the New Jersey car burglaries and got charged with them as well.

As the song goes, "You won't find us in the school halls, look in the pool halls or in jail."

Anthony is the family high achiever.  He joined the Navy after high school.  I spoke to him before he went to the recruiter and told him to find out what jobs he qualifies for and to speak with me first before choosing a training program.  Well, he does everything on his own with minimal information and input.  He didn't listen and signed right up.  I asked him what he was going to train for.  It turned out he didn't select any training and spent the next four years painting the ship while working for the boat's deck department.  "Swab the deck ye maties."  and "If the Navy owns it, paint it grey." would be perfect mottos for his Navy career.

He got to sail the world of course, but didn't get to learn anything useful during his time in there.  Never fear.  He qualified for the GI Bill.  His father wanted him to take something mechanical.  He talked his son into signing up at Mercer Community College for the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning program.  I asked him what research he done and said he was going to be a plumber.  He told me that I was wrong, he was going to be an air conditioning technician and would have an easy life making $50,000 per year putting Freon in air conditioners.  I told him he was mistaken, that he would start at more like $15 per hour and would have to clean out drains, install boilers and fix leaky faucets in between work on air conditioners.
Of course I was all wrong, he said.

Well, he finished his 2-year associates degree in four years and he found out he basically took up plumbing.  He took a few jobs in the field, and found the work too hard and dirty for his tastes. (What would you expect plumbing to be, clean?).  He went to Harris School of Business to take classes in medical coding.  I told him that he was nuts.  I said he was going to be working with the girls in the front of some doctor's office.  This time he figured out I was right and promptly dropped out.

Here's where the last article comes in.  He should have seen a psychologist that specializes in career counseling even before he went to HVAC school.  He probably would have found out he was more suited to office or sales work and would have taken up something else.

So much for wasted educations and burned up taxpayers dollars.  (Perhaps if Christie really wants to save tax dollars he should look at the failure rate in higher education rather than picking on public employees who usually make modest paychecks already.)

There are a few things to remember in order to keep from becoming the next victim of the training mill scam.

First, education as job training is only useful for gaining entree into a career if you complete the program, if you learn enough enough about the job to get an entry level position, and if the job is actually what you imagined it to be.  In other words, will you actually like or be at least willing to tolerate the work.  Are there enough job openings in the field for you to find work.  Will the job pay enough so you can support yourself and pay the student loans.

Americans tend to see education as a panacea.  To most people formal higher education is seen as something essential that their children will need to find suitable work after high school.  Sad but true, popular perceptions have altered the world we live in to make it so that some kind of education beyond high school is probably needed for most people to succeed today.  The real issue is what type is best.

I understand my nephew spent a lot of time learning about Ohms Law and the physics of heater and air conditioner operation.  While this may be useful for a plumber sizing a system or for an engineer designing one, it is not something particularly useful for an entry level plumber.  They should be exposed to real-world work tasks such as learning how to solder a copper pipe, how to properly slope a pipeline, or how to assemble leaded cast iron and PVC pipes.  Classroom instruction should be supplemented with real world employment as a plumber's helper.  This is basically the way union apprenticeship programs work and they are very successful in producing competent plumbers on graduation.  We should expect no less from community colleges or proprietary schools.

If your kid wants to pursue an academic educational program, perhaps the best thing for most fields is a strong liberal arts background.  Regardless what your child takes up, he or she should take lots of classes in courses like English, history, literature and economics.  I know many people think this is a waste of time if somebody is going to school to be an accountant or computer programmer or some other specific job.  Why?  partly because students often get the same experience in their chosen field as my nephew got in plumbing.  The professional classes are long on theory and very short on skills useful on entry-level jobs.  Take chemistry and learn lots about physical chemistry and electron shells and very little about performing analysis with instruments such as a gas chormotgaph, scintillation counter or high pressure liquid chromatograph.  I should know because I took some chemistry classes at Iowa State University and didn't really understand what went on in a lab until I took work study jobs in the labs.  I got to run all that cool stuff you see in the lab on CSI, of course my equipment was ancient compared to what they have now.

I went to college and double majored in Farm Operation and Agronomy.  In case you are wondering, Agronomy is plant and soil science.  Iowa State University is where George Washington Carver got his BS degree in Agronomy.  That was the only earned degree Carver ever got or needed to become famous in his field.

I wasn't so lucky.  You pretty much need a master's degree to get a job in agricultural research.  With a BS, you are pretty much limited to jobs in sales, farm business management (grain elevators, farm supply stores, cattle-buying services, etc) or farm management.  I didn't have the work-a-day knowledge to get one of these jobs in Iowa and came back to New Jersey.

While in the Garden State, I spent about the first 10 years of my working life doing things like running a painting business, selling real estate and working in factories.  When I would go on interviews, I would get comments like "you have a very specialized degree and we really don't have any openings in your area of expertise."  The personnel managers thought I should be out with the cattle, not working in their company.

Persistence paid off.  Because nobody would hire me at first, I developed my own jobs.  By selling houses I got contacts with other agents which needed work done on properties so they could pass building inspections....Things like plumbing, electrical and painting work.  That's how the painting business got started.  You don't need an employer to buy a truck and ladders, take out ads in the Trenton Times and phone book then go out and sell jobs and swing a brush.  You just need a little cash and a lot of determination.  I also bought a rental property with $1,500 down that I saved from my high school paper route.  By fixing the house, I learned a lot about home improvements and developed my skills to the point they were commercially viable in my handyman business.

Eventually I met my future wife and she had a friend who worked the Labor Department's personnel office.  I got a part-time temporary job processing unemployment claims.  From there, I parlayed it into my present position.

The bottom line....The education that mattered the most for me was not technical courses in farming, chemistry or botany.  It was the liberal arts classes which teach you how to think and also give you the basic skills needed to learn the details of what is necessary to know to function in a business office.  For instance, when I started in my present job, I never ran a computer.  My boss handed me a Macintosh Classic computer and told me to do the mouse tutorial.  From there I learned how to do Microsoft Access database program writing and how to run the X12 seasonal adjustment program written in DOS by Royal Statistics Canada and modified by the US Census Bureau.  Bottom line...If you got it, you got it.  If given a chance you can learn practically anything from scratch on the job.  Technical coursework is just window dressing to gain entree to the workplace.

Yes, technical coursework is good.  It may even be necessary in most cases to get that first job.  But really, don't expect it to teach you how to do the job.  While it would be nice if the training was actually worthwhile, many times it is useless.  But having the same name on your degree that is in the job title of the position you are applying for just might get you past the personnel officers and onto the job.

What is more useful is the liberal arts coursework.  Somewhere after several years of reading Descartes and Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills, the light bulb just might come on in your head and you will develop some practical problem solving skills.  It worked for me and for countless others, even if the approach sounds a little asinine.

Another family antidote.  My father grew up in Trenton and was raised by unschooled Lithuanian peasants who moved here and found work in the potteries.  My dad went to St. Hedwig's elementary school and dropped out of the sixth grade to get a job at the Polish Falcons club as a bowling pin setter.  (The Brunswick Automatic Pin Setter which made modern bowling alleys possible didn't come along until over a decade later).  He eventually got a job at American Standard as a pottery worker and retired from there.  When he retired in 1988 he made over $40,000 a year as an unskilled product packer on the assembly line.  Even though he was a grade school dropout and a drunk he knew enough to hang out in taverns and meet people who could serve as useful contacts.  He knew enough to learn how to do his job well and do what was expected at work which was show up every day and do the job right.  He knew enough to get a job at the dominant firm in the bathroom fixtures business, a place where workers were represented by a strong union.  That made him an educated man, because he mastered all the skills he needed to thrive in the world in which he lived.

He taught me something.  It doesn't matter what it says on your degree.  It doesn't really matter if you have a degree at all.  What matters is who you know, what you know and what you do with it.

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