Consider a career in the growing STEM field

Are you considering a career in the growing STEM field? If so, LMFAO you stupid n00b.

The semantics matter. STEM is an almost meaningless umbrella category for a bunch of disparate lines of work. It’s even more meaningless when it’s marketed to middle and high school students as the hot new career track. Teenagers rarely know jack shit about what sort of career they’d like to pursue, and even when they think they know they’re often clueless. STEM is a bunch of sciencey-sounding stuff for the sort of callow young things who attend “science class.” It must sound better than encouraging one’s daughter to take training in cosmetology, or, as it used to be known, hairdressing. Then again, “cosmetologist” sounds sort of like “Cosmonaut,” and it probably isn’t an accident. There are boys of a somewhat younger age who sincerely think that the Pinewood Derby is a serious experiment in aerodynamics and a credible prelude to a career in automotive engineering. Worse, there are parents who encourage them in this belief. Most high school science lab work isn’t a hell of a lot more advanced than that. If you’re doing original master’s- or doctoral-level research in the hard sciences in high school, bully for you, because you’re probably an idiot savant. If you can recall the last time you used the term “science class,” or if you don’t snicker when uttering “cosmetology,” congratulations: you aren’t that idiot savant. You’re in the n00b army now, kid.

I mention these things because the NBC affiliate in Albany has been carrying on about STEM mentorship and career development in its public service announcements lately, and it smells fishy. The slogan is “STEM: Making good minds great.” It sounds really fucking daft, so I have to wonder why they’re making such a big deal about it. It’s probably a question of whether they’re idiotic or ulterior in this campaign, and I have to guess the latter.

There are at least two plausible ulterior motives for this campaign. One is that the shitbirds among the captains of industry want high school students to pile into vocational training programs so that they can exploit a surplus reserve technician army without having to train anyone. The other is that the servile ultilitarian fuckwits are shitting on the liberal arts again, but this time they’re doing so subtly and indirectly by proposing what they consider a more pragmatic alternative.

The assumption here is that the liberal arts are vocationally useless, and in fact that is exactly what they tend to be, but it’s beside the point. The United States is a wealthy enough country that academics should not be a zero-sum game for students who show a modicum of promise. The only reason an American high school student or undergraduate, say, couldn’t simultaneously study math, hard sciences, and the liberal arts is that American education has been taken over by crooks and charlatans who want to run schools on the cheap. Not the athletic programs or their own salaries, mind you, just the academic parts. There are some programs (law, medicine, engineering, various PhD programs) whose workloads leave students with no time or energy to study anything else, but this is a spurious objection for most undergraduate curricula and almost all high school curricula. But oh noes, kids these days are so uninterested in sciencey stuff that the study of these important subjects must be pedantically (and a bit condescendingly) encouraged on the telescreen. There’s a TV campaign in Albany to encourage young people to study STEM, but not one to encourage them to study history, say, as a way of not tragically repeating the mistakes of earlier generation, or civics, as a way to get a clue of how to engage in self-government.

There’s a serious problem with this utilitarian line of thinking, and it doesn’t have to do with the sanctity of the academy or some such highminded ivory tower sentimentality. The problem is that people who have good reasons to study the humanities are being annoyed and guilted into going into narrow technical fields, with little, if any, concern for their interests or aptitudes. The idea is that they should be able to do something professionally with their degrees. That’s the positive gloss. The corollary negative gloss is that liberal arts majors are jackoffs. Useless eaters. It’s really a hostile attitude, a managerial-class social control that no self-respecting citizenry would tolerate politely. There was obviously a lot of dipshittery in the funemployed graduate cohort of the Occupy movement, but the stridency of this cohort must have been exacerbated by the anti-intellectual and generally antisocial stridency of so many on the right wing. It may be a bit shrill, exaggerated, or self-serving of the liberal arts failures-to-lauch in the Occupy crowd to protray themselves as guardians of higher values staring down the well-dressed barbarians at the gates, but it isn’t exactly a false protrayal.

This standoff is of course inextricably entangled with the student loan clusterfuck. The grievances of unemployed and underemployed liberal arts graduates simply cannot be resolved without radically reforming student lending practices, including the management of outstanding loans.

The salient point here is not that a foolish or lazy cohort of graduate debtors pursued bullshit wankery majors instead of studying something substantive and useful, or that students were living beyond their means, or that universities were diverting the proceeds of student loans from academics to the frivolous renovation of dormitories from their proper antecedent squalor into opulence. The crisis of higher education financing reliably brings asshats out of the woodwork to intone that back when they were your age, they lived in drafty dorms with dank communal bathrooms and had to walk through five miles of snow to get to and from the academic quad, uphill both ways. Now that they’re getting a bit long in the tooth, they’re stewing with resentment of students today for living in housing that exceeds building codes, rather than falling short, and usually in equal resentment of the youngsters’ sexual freedom. This does a lot to explain Fox News.

No, the problem is that the lenders deliberately failed to do due diligence in approving loans on the rising side of the student loan bubble because they could make more money by being lax, and now they’re freaking out because they got caught short when the bubble burst. They were collateral parties to a suite of pump-and-dump scams, but they didn’t dump soon enough (some of them, like the fools who got opine about eternally rising real estate prices, probably assumed that they’d never have to dump), and now that they’re left holding the bag, they’re screaming bloody murder and demanding to be bailed out for their reckless lending decisions, even if a rising generation of young adults has to be destroyed in the process. These are some of the most dishonorable and ruthless lenders in the United States, as witnessed by their having purchased an exemption from American laws on personal bankruptcy, which are generally quite lenient towards debtors. Many of them engaged in deliberately fraudulent and predatory lending practices, especially in loans for students at for-profit diploma mills.

STEM gets injected into this debate as a way to argue that arts and humanities students were foolish to pursue subjects with such poor job prospects when businesses in the hard sciences were so desperate for talent. It doesn’t matter that many students who remain deeply in debt for arts or humanities degrees got into debt at a time when the job market for graduates in their fields was healthy and now find themselves in one that is anemic, even comatose. This sort of utilitarian Pollyanna chiding comes from people who suffer from survivor bias, or else are shilling for those who have survivor bias. As a rule of thumb, student loans are much more serviceable by graduates who studied math or the hard sciences than by graduates in other subjects, especially at the bachelor’s level, but it’s just that: a rule of thumb. Medicine is an amalgam of hard sciences, and recent medical graduates are notoriously debt-plagued. Computer scientists and engineers in various specialties have no guarantee that they won’t be shut out of the job market by antisocial corporate executives engaging in fraudulent recruiting practices to justify hiring bargain-basement temp labor on H-1B visas.

Let’s get personal. I’m a bachelor’s-level STEM graduate, and a BS in geology hasn’t done a hell of a lot for me professionally. I graduated in 2006, and it took me six months of active searching to get a job offer in environmental consulting, which I immediately accepted. Within a month and a half of starting the job, I was getting burned out: internal training protocols were a mess (my boss was alarmed by how badly I had been trained by junior employees when she gave me remedial field training), colleagues with seniority or supervisory authority rarely did anything to put the office bullies in line, one of these bullies (the morbidly obese bitch) was terrorizing most of our service line from her position in sales and line management, I was acquiring a reputation as a bumbling fuckup, twenty-year industry veterans were having midlife crises in slow motion right before my eyes, and throughout it there was this menacing background noise to the effect that this was a career, not a job, so I had better not quit in my first year or irrevocably fuck up. By the one-month mark, if I recall correctly, I had seen a colleague formally resign in order to care for his ill wife but actually resign in order to take a new job. By the time I was fired, six months in, my boss had backdated a bogus three-month new hire evaluation, I assume because some asshat above her at the regional mother ship in Piscataway was giving her grief and suggesting that her job might be next on the chopping block. And I’m not kidding when I say that this seemed to be one of the more ethical and well-run environmental consulting firms in the Mid-Atlantic. I personally interviewed at two firms that were clearly much worse.

None of the work I was doing required a geology or environmental science degree. I wasn’t a professional geologist, nor were two thirds or so of the employees in my service line. The only college geology courses that were regularly of any use to me were contaminant hydrogeology and sedimentology. Anyone who is physically fit, attentive, and not idiotic could be trained on the job to do that work. I knew people in the industry who had done exactly the same work without a bachelor’s degree, including a driller; you have to realize that everyone in my service line who expressed an opinion on the matter held drillers to be drooling, subnormal vulgarians. Basically, I was earning an extra $3.50 or $5.75 an hour for having a BS. It was great to have the extra money, to be sure sure, but not good enough to justify a private college education as an investment in my future earning capacity.

STEM: makes good minds GREAT!

This credential-whoring only makes the dog-eat-dog nightmare of the American professional workplace worse. Instead of hey, yo, we need this shit done hella soon, it’s “where do you see yourself in five years?” Questions like that have nothing to do with the scope of work or the ability of an applicant to do the work. One dipshit actually asked me in an interview, “One final question: If you could be any type of fruit, what type of fruit would you be?” I was floored, literally dumbfounded for several seconds. It was too fucking bizarre to believe. That should have been the last straw, since he clearly was too much of an ass-clown to be taken seriously in any professional setting, but I was too earnest and eager to get a job. Even so, I was rather relieved when I got the rejection letter, and more relieved after I met the line manager who ultimately hired me. I had dodged a clusterfuck of a sausage fest. Poor cultural fit, I guess.

The mere conception of these semi-skilled grunt jobs as “careers” brings out the grandiose worst in management. I have a cousin who has basically been morally poisoned by a decade in the Bay Area tech industry. He’s really a sweet fellow, but he’s always had a real edge about him when talking to me about my failure to launch, and I’m sure the asshattery of SoMa is responsible for most of his brash condescension towards me for being a chronic fuckup. He has survivor bias, and he’s surrounded by other people from the four corners of the country and the world who have survivor bias. It’s all the smarty-pants in one place. He’s a small part of a true civic nightmare. What’s weird about his professional history is that he has no technical background from college that I’m aware of, and by his own description he’s out of his own league in this job, but he’s hired MBA’s and been a team head for product development projects for Adobe. When I was still in college and really keen on studying languages, he very enthusiastically encouraged me to study Mandarin so that I could do cross-cultural bullshit artistry by way of interpretation at business meetings. He swore that I’d have no real need to understand a thing about the products or services under discussion.

At least my cousin gets paid for his bullshit, or whatever it is that he does. I have to admit that I have a certain awe for people who are able to make a killing by worming their way into positions like that without relevant training. It’s possible to get screwed over by STEM grads at much lower pay grades, too, and it sucks. For three days in 2013, I worked under Ryan Hannaford, the field manager for Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola Hills, a bit northwest of Salem. I didn’t know who the hell he was at the time, except that he was an Australian named Ryan; I only figured it out by looking him up. I’m still amazed by how many work and housing situations I’ve gotten into where I’ve been introduced to supervisors or building managers or other key people in professional relationships without being told their last names. In some cases, these people go by nicknames that have a loose, unexpected relationship to their family names. It can be really shady. Anyway, this Ryan Hannaford character got into a snit with me on the third day because some treacherous Mexicans on the crew had ratted me out as a fuckup. He berated me for pulling leaves: “This is a leaf–leaf–leaf–leaf….Look, I’ve studied this stuff!” Before I left for the day, he made equivocal comments to the effect that I didn’t have to come back again (“if you come back tomorrow”), but that if I did he’d have to supervise me more closely (no shit, he put me out there on ten or fifteen minutes’ field training). I told him that I’d come back, but I ended up pulling a no-call no-show because I was exhausted and sick of him.

The last straw was when he told me to have a happy Fourth of July and have some beers. Well bugger me under the fucking billabong, you bastard. Here he was in my country, haphazardly communicating in pidgin Spanish with non-English-speaking Mexican peasants and disingenuously encouraging me to have fun celebrating my country’s national holiday seconds after suggesting that I was halfway fired. I wanted to ask him if he was a naturalized US citizen, and in retrospect I wish that I had. I would never say shit like that to a Canadian subordinate on Canada Day, no matter how badly he’d fucked up a job. It was just beyond the pale, especially when Ryan was dogging on me on the basis of God knows what sort of gossip the treacherous Mexicans had fed him. I was damn near of a mind to tell him to go back to Australia, and the only reasons I didn’t was that I wanted to stay in good graces with the labor contractor that had placed me at Seven Springs, not ashame anyone at the company, and hopefully get more assignments (I ended up not getting any more work, but in fairness I didn’t really follow up.) If I’d said some kind of backhanded patriotic fighting words to a Canadian grunt on Canada Day and been told to go back to America you Yankee-ass motherfucker, I’d figure that it’s an auspicious time to return to the homeland for purposes of maintaining eligibility for permanent residency and not chronically wearing out my welcome with the locals by being an asshole as a guest in their country. I’d be ashamed to act all fuck you, I can hire refugees to do the work better than you, you lazy, hamfisted Canucks. You know, shanda fur die goyim.

Oh, but I studied viticulture at university! Cool story, mate. I’d been working with grape vines for years by the time I heard of him. I came across this blurb about Ryan Hannaford, describing him as a “Vineyard Manager & Bad Ass” (WTF?), and this one noting that he grew up on a citrus farm, which makes him a hereditary colleague of all these asshat big growers in California who won’t hire Americans because Mexicans are cheaper and more servile and because Americans who weren’t raised on the farm just don’t understand or have what it takes to do farm work. These growers are a fucking scourge. They’re always on the radio or in the paper or going before Congress to complain about how it’s so hard to find a good Mexican workman these days in the absence of “immigration reform,” while their decent colleagues are actually publishing help wanted ads in that old-time English. Maybe Spanish, too. Whatever. This is going to sound really bad, but some of my best colleagues and supervisors have been Mexicans. So have some of the bottomfeeding worst.

Bugger me under the billabong. The way to not get your reputation managed in these pages is to treat me decently and aboveboard. “Have a happy, unemployed Independence Day” is not the key to release this magnanimity. I’ve worked for people who went to college (for STEM, too!–I think) but who don’t use their education as a way to pull rank and humiliate their employees. I don’t mention their names in these pages because, let’s face it, some of this stuff is pretty weird, but I cherish them above rubies. There should be more people like them in American business, but that would be a buzzkill for all the asshats.

Let’s get even dumber with STEM: Making Good Minds Grrrrrrrr-EAT! A decade or so ago, all these teenage girls started telling people that they wanted to become forensic pathologists. These were girls who could hardly complete their high school chemistry homework. The reason for this interest in forensic pathology, of course, was that stupid crime show Bones. These girls weren’t actually interested in forensic pathology, which is le hard; they were interested in being strong, confident women who date handsome FBI agents. They have a point, insofar as Booth is really cute and not a weird skin case or a wrinkly junkyard dog like so many TV cops, and he dresses better and acts more decently than many of them, but it’s a fucking crime drama. It isn’t even “Locked Up: Extended Stay” or “Police Women of Cincinnati.”

Forensic pathology isn’t anything like that. We have a family friend who’s a pathologist at Madigan Army Medical Center, and I’ve mentioned him before, but since we’re on the subject, let’s christen him as Major Bones. He’s a neuropathologist, not a forensic pathologist like that cute chick with the cute colleague-boyfriend on the TV, but it’s close enough. You know what he has to deal with at work, in the goddamn Army? A few weeks ago, some private at JBLM fell into terminal rage and despair over a dispute with his sergeant and decided to end it all by driving into a wall at a hundred miles an hour. Major Bones had to cover for another pathologist and do follow-up work on this private’s body splatter. He said it stank to hell. It was nearly unbearable, but he had to deal with it because it was his job and he’s in the goddamn Army.

Sure, sweetheart, if you become a forensic pathologist you, too, will be all pretty and have a trim figure and spend your workdays with a tall, handsome FBI agent. And I’m J. Edgar Hoover. Care to see my dress collection? It’s quite fabulous.

STEM is some kind of ridiculous talisman promising rising wages at a time of downward wage pressure on account of factory closures, automation, and unbridled aggression by management. It’s less controversial than calling for the resurrection of the labor unions, but that doesn’t make it any less pathetic. It’s a cheap trick to avoid dealing with structural problems for a while because MOAR TRAINING. It allows policymakers to kick the can down the road. It helps people ignore the thoroughgoing greed that drives haut bourgeois and overclass politics in favor of cheap morality plays about how the losers didn’t choose the right major. (This is topical.) The idea is that you should get training to be an aerospace engineer or the new Turing or Poisson or a science teacher or lab grunt or maybe a Pinewood Derby technician instead of doing something petulant like asking for a pay raise as a field hand or hotel maid. It would be a shame to demand the money without the prestige; much better to have the prestige without the money.

Science: the thing that one fucking loves.


One thought on “Consider a career in the growing STEM field

  1. I love that question about the fruit, because no one has been able to give me an answer to it. Not only that, but im glad to hear that it brings people into a rage similar to the question “If we evolved from apes, how are there still apes?”

    My answer would be a lemon, because I’m seen as sour, but I am actually versatile and can improve anything I am added to. It’s not about what fruit you pick, but how you describe said fruit.

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