August 19, 2012
Useful WorkBy Jim Yardley
Lately we've been hearing a lot of talk about how expensive a college education is, how hard it will be for the little darlings ensconced in the sheltered halls of academe to repay the loans that they've taken to "invest" in their educations, and how unfair it is that jobs that pay well are so hard for them to find once they graduate.
Often, the students doing the most complaining are not majoring in a field that most people would classify as "useful" work. And while they don't see it that way, their opinion really has no value in determining if what they have spent years learning has any market value.
Labor, like all other factors of production (as economists so colorfully put it), is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Extraordinarily skilled physicians are always in demand. Skilled programmers are sought after. Engineers of all types are always in short supply.
For instance, skimming the list of available majors at UCLA, one finds these fields that probably don't have hundreds or thousands of employers panting to get their hands on recent graduates:
African and Middle Eastern Studies (B.A.)
Afro-American Studies (B.A.)
American Indian Studies (B.A.)
Art History (B.A.)
Asian Religions (B.A.)
Central and East European Languages and Cultures (B.A.)
Chicana and Chicano Studies (B.A.)
Classical Civilization (B.A.)
Cognitive Science (B.S.)
Communication Studies (B.A.)
Comparative Literature (B.A.)
Computational and Systems Biology (B.S.)
Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution (B.S.)
Environmental Science (B.S.)
French and Linguistics (B.A.)
Gender Studies (B.A.) (formerly Women's Studies)
Global Studies (B.A.)
Human Biology and Society (B.S.)
International Development Studies (B.A.)
Iranian Studies (B.A.)
Jewish Studies (B.A.)
Latin American Studies (B.A.)
Linguistics and Scandinavian Languages (B.A.)
Mathematics for Teaching (B.S.)
Mathematics of Computation (B.S.)
Middle Eastern Studies (B.A.)
Music History (B.A.)
Religion, Study of (B.A.)
Scandinavian Languages and Cultures (B.A.)
To be clear, I am not implying that any of these fields of study is useless or a waste of the student's efforts. I'm simply pointing out that if there are an excessive number of graduates in these majors, many will find that their first jobs involve the phrase "Do you want fries with that?"
No matter how passionate these young graduates are about their chosen field and no matter how knowledgeable they became in the four or five years that they attended college, if there is no market for that knowledge, they won't find work. At least they won't find it in that field.
When my son graduated from high school and was trying to decide on a college major, I was able to help him reorient his priorities. Being the financial controller for a manufacturing firm, I was able to take what I'm sure the Occupy Wall Street folks would consider scandalous advantage of my position and was able to get my son a summer job in the factory. He was thrilled that he was going to get some real-world experience. Or so he said. I personally think his excitement was more likely generated by the prospect of snagging a reasonable paycheck every week when so many of his classmates were stuck for what to do with themselves between high school and college.
He wasn't nearly so thrilled when he found out that I had spoken to the plant superintendent and arranged for him to have the dirtiest, smelliest, and most physically demanding job that could be found.
And then to commute to and from the plant with his dad, who spent the summer reminding him that what he was doing was the same thing he would be doing for the rest of his life if he (a) goofed off in college and (b) picked a useless major, was just salt in the wound as far as he was concerned.
But he did decide to major in business/economics, and he is now the vice president of marketing for a growing consumer package goods firm.
I could be wrong, but I am completely convinced that there was a causal relationship between that summer and his choice of majors.
I offer this anecdote only as a suggestion to those who have children, or even grandchildren who are beginning to look at what college to attend. If you have the position, or if you have friends or family members who can help you arrange the same sort of "working scholastic experience," I would highly recommend it. Especially if your young high school graduate is talking about majoring in interpretive finger-painting or the history of Scandinavian folk music.
Just remember that getting the kids this kind of job isn't enough. They need to be reminded that no matter how unpleasant what they are doing is today, it will be worse when they're 35 or 40. And they will be doing something similar if they pick a useless major.
And they will still be paying off their student loans.
Jim Yardley is a retired financial controller for a variety of manufacturing firms, a Vietnam veteran, and an independent voter. Jim blogs at http://jimyardley.wordpress.com, or he can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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