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Career Chase

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #84, 2008.

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Mary Pride


“What career can our children go into that will still be there for them in 10 or 20 years?”

This is a question that most of our own parents never had to worry about. Until 10 years ago, most people didn’t even know what “outsourcing” was.

People who graduated college in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and even Nineties could assume that plenty of good-paying jobs were available. They could assume that, if a young man went into a particular career field and worked hard, salary increases and promotions would come his way. As more career fields opened up, young women made the same assumptions about their career options. (Feminists of this period still worry about “glass ceilings,” not about job retention.)

The Bearish Job Market

Now, in just a few short years, the world has changed. Thanks to changes in U.S. visa law, hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled workers are being imported from other countries every year to take American jobs at lower wages. Meanwhile, millions of unskilled workers are swarming across the border illegally to take away jobs at the lower end of the wage spectrum. At the same time, thanks to the Internet, any job that is based on customer service or paperwork can be literally emailed to India or some other outsourcing country. If the job involves programming, accounting, tech support, or even examining CAT scans and X-rays, it can and in many cases has been shipped overseas. (Though so far the outsourcing of radiology work to India is extremely minor, since physicians have to have American board certification to read outsourced scans, it would only take one small rules change to send all American radiology overseas, where doctors charge far less.)

The fear of having their jobs outsourced is why the best and brightest American students have been avoiding math, science, and engineering for the past decade, choosing instead to go into financial services. Now the financial sector is melting down, so tens of thousands of those jobs are disappearing as well. A September 23 article reported, “Since August, the financial services business has chopped 102,000 jobs.” The news since then is even worse.

You’d think that high-paying hands-on occupations, such as health care, would be safe. You can’t email sick people to India. But as the booming $2.2 billion Indian medical tourism business shows, you can certainly fly people needing expensive elective surgery to India . . . or Thailand, or Brazil, or Costa Rica . . . And fans of a national healthcare system should be aware that Britain saves pennies in its own nationalized health service by importing low-wage nurses from Nigeria and the Philippines. So high wages for physicians and nurses are certainly not guaranteed down the road.

Government jobs used to be the safest bet of all. But if property taxes and sales taxes plummet, even government workforces can be cut. As the October 4 Detroit News reported, Detroit Public Schools just laid off “more than 300 employees, including social workers, psychologists, custodians and bus attendants who assist special needs students.” So even school jobs are no longer sacred.

What Now?

Many others have researched how we arrived at this point. Our concern as parents is what to do about it.

Paying tens or hundreds of dollars for a college degree that might leave your son high and dry just when he has a mortgage and a family to support does not strike many of us as a winning proposition. Kids don’t feel much better about the thought of assuming tens of thousands of dollars of student debt they might never be able to repay.

In this environment, it becomes critical to pick the right college major or technical career.

Since your ability to get accepted to various college programs depends on what courses you take in high school, the early teen years are not too soon to start considering a child’s future vocation.

With nine children of my own currently in college, about to enter college, or who have recently graduated college, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this question and to research options.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Entrepreneurship and Business

In today’s climate, what yesterday was “high risk” may actually be the lowest risk.

I’m talking about starting your own business.

What if instead of going to college, those of your children with “business minds” start their own businesses?

This option makes sense if (1) the teen in question has a strong vision, (2) the teen already has practical business experience (e.g., in the family business), and (3) some money is on hand to finance the startup.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot of money. A service business can be started with a few tools and grow from there. A web business can be started with just the home computer. My own business started for less than $30 (the cost of renting an electric typewriter for two weeks, way back in 1985)!

You can’t be fired from your own business. Only the entire economy can fire you. And if one business isn’t working out, a savvy entrepreneur can switch to another, because business skills are useful in any business.

College-bound kids should consider adding a business or entrepreneurship minor to their majors. A college graduate with a fashion major is just another kid looking for a job. A college grad with a fashion major and a business minor, or a double major in fashion and business, is a much stronger job candidate and is in much better position to someday start his or her own business once some job experience has been gained.

This option is not for everyone. Not everyone has a business mind. People with business minds are organized and good with numbers. They don’t mind selling and reasonable risk-taking. They are also persuasive and good communicators. If the adjectives “dynamic,” “sensible,” and “self-starter” also describe your teen, the business path may be the way to go.

NOTE: Encouraging your child to spend his teen and young adult years working in your family business is not necessarily the best way to go. As someone who has operated a family business for several decades, I know it’s tempting to keep the home-grown workforce around. But unless the business is (1) extremely profitable (able to provide amply for multiple families) and (2) expandable, leaving room for the child to add his or her own areas of contribution, this can lead to a “Prince Charles” situation where the child never actually gets to take over. Girls who rusticate at home may find themselves unmarried in their thirties. Also, in this economy having all the extended family’s eggs in just one basket might not be the smartest move. Just a thought!

Excellence

“So what do you propose for all those kids who aren’t Type A dynamic go-getters or who hate the idea of ever selling anything to anyone?”

So glad you asked.

I propose excellence.

As Proverbs 22:29 (NIV) says, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.”

There are always jobs at the top. If you’re the best of the best, it won’t matter if 90 percent of the jobs in your profession get outsourced. Yours won’t be. And if it is, you’ll quickly find employment elsewhere.

To go this route, follow the advice we keep preaching in PHS.

  • Take tough subjects in high school, especially math and lab science.
  • Take accelerated, honors, and advanced courses-e.g., Advanced Placement or dual-credit.
  • Write a lot.
  • Learn to love research.
  • Get into a top college, and take tough courses there.
  • Impress your professors. Start developing a reputation. Get a mentor.
  • Do undergraduate research. Publish something.
  • Do internships and summer jobs in the field.

Once you’re in the job market, don’t assume that having a good reputation in the company is enough. Be known outside the company. Join your industry association. Write for their journal. Join a committee. Do community service.

The above advice is especially important for “nerd” types. (I love nerds, by the way!)

I have read at least a half-dozen articles and interviews that say the American engineer of the future can save his job by basically becoming a manager of foreign engineers. “Open to travel, a good communicator, willing to learn another language, and develop management skills” is the usual way it’s phrased.

This means you don’t get to actually be an engineer, of course! They want you to be someone called an “engineer” who actually is a business guy. In other words, they want you to become the “pointy-haired boss” in a Dilbert comic-except that now all the employees are named “Asok.”

Nobody goes into engineering or computer science to become the pointy-haired boss. So this supposedly “new wave” route for future engineers is actually another way of discouraging true engineer and computer science types from even entering the profession.

I submit to you that it’s easier and better for a “nerd” type to stretch a bit socially (in their local and professional community) than to become a full-fledged “business” type. And trust me, it’s a lot harder for a company to fire one worker who has a respected national or international reputation than it is for them to fire hundreds of good workers who keep their heads down and are unknown in the community.

The reason all those millions of I.T. (information technology) jobs were outsourced so easily is because I.T. workers are natural loners. Lack of communication, lack of networking, and lack of solidarity allowed companies to dump entire divisions of American I.T. workers with less flack than if they had published one cartoon disparaging an easily agitated religious group.

So keep your lovable nerd side, but make a few more friends. Especially some business majors, as one solution to the problem of heartless, trigger-happy employers is to start your own business. Which you can do with your ideas and brains and the business savvy and fund-raising ability of the business guys.

Consider a Trade

“My kid isn’t a hard-charging business type, but he isn’t a superstar academic nerd, either. He’s [or she] is more hands-on.”

Fine. There are still some good jobs out there for kids who don’t want to go the entire four-year-college route.

Doing research for another article, I ran across this list of “10 Best Jobs for Workers with a Two-Year Degree” by Anthony Balderrama of Careerbuilder.com:

  • Computer specialist (installing and maintaining software and networks)
  • Dental hygienist
  • Fashion designer
  • Registered nurse
  • Environmental engineering technician (the guy who fixes and installs your A/C and heater)
  • Radiologic technologists and technicians (the folks who operate the X-ray and MRI at the hospital or clinic)
  • Industrial engineering technicians
  • Paralegals and legal assistants
  • Occupational therapist assistants
  • Computer support specialist

These professions all earn $40K or more and can be entered with just a two-year degree from a community college. But most still require basic college math and science courses.

Less academically-oriented trades often taught in community colleges include cosmetology (hair dressing and other “beauty” services), culinary arts, hotel and restaurant management, and more. An excellent book by Andrew Morkes, They Teach That in Community College?, lists dozens of exciting majors, many of which are decidedly hands-on. Since many of these majors are little-known or brand new, these fields are unlikely to be overrun with low-wage competition, at least initially. The book is available Here.

. . . But Maybe Not These Trades

What about the traditional building trades-plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and so forth? These jobs have traditionally offered decent salaries, plus the chance to learn and become a contractor someday with your own business.

I was shocked to hear that these industries are quietly being taken over by contractors using crews of illegal aliens. When the men who showed up to fix my roof-in Missouri!-only spoke Spanish, I asked the contractor what was going on. He claimed they were all legitimate immigrants, and that American kids weren’t willing to do the work for $40K/year.

This sounded a bit dubious, so I paid attention when, after Hurricane Katrina, the story broke nationwide that American-born construction workers, many who lived in the area and had lost jobs due to the hurricane, were quickly ousted from their new jobs because “The Mexicans had arrived.”

According to a Washington Times report of April 10, 2006, “The number of foreign workers who flooded the area after the hurricane has been estimated at more than 30,000. Many of them have been identified by law-enforcement authorities and others as illegal aliens.” The Los Angeles Times, not known for its right-wing politics, drily pointed out in a September 25, 2005, article, “No matter what all the politicians and activists want, African Americans and impoverished white Cajuns will not be first in line to rebuild the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, will. And when they’re done, they’re going to stay, making New Orleans look like Los Angeles.”

The article went on to quote some surprising statistics: “U.S. construction firms have become increasingly reliant on Latino immigrant labor. In 1990, only 3.3% of construction workers were Mexican immigrants. Ten years later, the number was 8.5%. In 2004, 17% of Latino immigrants worked in the business, a higher percentage than in any other industry. Nor is this an exclusively Southwest phenomenon.”

Working from official census and Labor Bureau statistics, the Center for Construction Research and Training came up with these more recent figures in an April 2008 study entitled Immigrant Construction Workers in the US: Safety and Health Implications:

  • Immigrant employment in construction quadrupled in the last decade (while the overall construction workforce increased 54%)
  • 24% of construction workers were foreign-born in 2006
  • 31% of immigrant workers entered the U.S. in recent 6 years
  • About every one of two new construction workers was born in other countries rather than the United States
  • 84% of immigrant construction workers were born in Mexico or other Latin American countries
  • 60% of the foreign-born Hispanic workers cannot speak English very well

More alarming is the increase in accidents and death among those working on such crews. Lack of training and unconcern for workers’ health and safety appears to be rampant.

My feeling is that you should check the situation in your region before getting into one of the construction trades.

The Bottom Line

Princeton economics professor Alan Blinder wrote a lengthy working paper for the Center of Economic Policy Studies in 2007 entitled “Offshoring: Big Deal, or Business as Usual?” His conclusions:

  • The future is likely to see much more offshoring of impersonal services, that is, services that can be delivered electronically from afar with little or no degradation of quality.
  • Thanks to the emergence of China, the former Soviet block, and especially India, there will be a lot more workers available to do these jobs.
  • Rich societies will need to shift sizable portions of their workforces out of impersonal services and manufacturing and into personal services-those that either cannot be delivered electronically (e.g., child care) or that suffer severe degradation of quality when so delivered (e.g., surgery).
  • The societies of the rich countries seem to be completely unprepared for the coming industrial transformation.

Blinder was able to quantify the “offshorability” of 800 jobs. Among other things, he discovered that the mere threat of offshoring-the offshorability of an occupation-was already costing workers in those occupations an estimated 13 percent wage penalty. His advice: “Prepare our kids for the high-end personal service occupations that will not be offshored.” This, in his view, includes both surgeons and carpenters. However, Blinder was exclusively looking at offshoring, not job displacement from low-wage illegals. I think we need to keep both ends of the spectrum in mind.

Neither major political party seems to want to protect our children’s future jobs, as could so easily be done by a drastic rollback of the H-1B and other visa schemes and more stringent checkups on business hiring practices. So we need to pray for wisdom and make the best choices we can.

I hope this article will help you and your students wisely plan and avoid the trap of the “disappearing career.”

Mary Pride is the publisher of Practical Homeschooling and the mother of nine totally homeschooled children, four of whom are currently deciding on college majors.


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