Archives For education

minimalist office

Generally the informal rule around Weird Things is not to persue the same topic two days in a row, but there are always exceptions, especially in the case of hard data that brings the points discussed the day before into better focus. So while yesterday we talked about the mismatch in what science advisers recommend to the government about the job prospects of STEM grads and what really happens, today we’ll peek at the other side of the debate. As noted previously, one of the reasons why companies today claim they can’t find qualified employees is because they believe that the only qualified employee is one who has done the exact job the position for which they’re hiring entails and anything other than that is an unwarranted gamble. But they’re also very down on colleges overall, with more than half saying that they have trouble finding an applicant pool worthy of their time and dinging the grads’ communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a way that makes it sound as if colleges hand diplomas to anyone.

And yet, amazingly enough, some 93% say that college graduates work out well and make fair and good employees, with the good employee designation being awarded to college graduates more than twice as much as fair to boot. Likewise, more than half believe that a college degree, especially the four year kind, is just as important as it was five years ago, if not more, and about two thirds will refuse to wave any educational requirement before reading a resume. So to sum all of this up, colleges are churning out barely literate, functionally useless candidates who can’t find their way out of a paper bag and are way over their heads when applying for a job, and yet they become good employees and college education is an extremely important qualifier during the hiring process. Wow, and the companies that took this survey criticize college students for a startling inability to communicate since these results are completely contradictory when taken at face value. But you see, there’s an underlying thought that clears up these odd results.

One of the more frequently cited complaints by companies is that college graduates can’t jump into a new job and hit the ground running. Now, this would make sense since colleges teach the theory, the basics, and the science behind something, not necessarily how to do a specific job function, and argue that it’s not their job to do so and never has been. To companies who don’t want to spend money on training, internships, and long term commitments to their employees to mold their workforce over years rather than the quarterly reports, this is unacceptable. They do want college graduates and they do want the colleges to give them the basics, but they’re also looking for colleges to become high end vocational schools. The graduate they want to hire out of school doesn’t just have good grades but can plop behind a desk and use industry standard tools when shown to his or her cube. So when a newly minted computer science grad can’t get into a chair, load up, say Visual Studio, and start weaving a UI with jQuery and Knockout, they think that colleges have come up short in their duty to produce qualified workers.

We can go back and forth about all the issues in higher education today. We can talk about all the useless degree programs, the high profile terrible advice given to young students, the fact that not everybody needs to go to college, and that the current college system can actually stall your career if you don’t balance your degrees and work history just right, and we should try to address the downright predatory and unfair system of student lending in place today. But even though these discussions need to be held to fix the problems we’re facing in colleges, perhaps the most important discussions we need first and foremost are negotiations between academics and companies that hire their students. Certainly colleges do fail some graduates and I’ve seen perfectly bright and intelligent students left years behind the industry despite going to schools with good names and reputations, given unrealistic expectations of what their degrees would do in the real world. At the same time, for companies to force students and parents to pick up a big tab for specific job training and turn professors into underpaid corporate trainers is absurd.

We need to move past nebulous qualitatives and settle some real requirements for what we’re trying to expect from a college education, honestly aware that the system cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be a balance between learning the theory and learning a job. And if we can accomplish that, students will have an easier time deciding their majors, paying on the loans they took out to go to school, and then getting jobs after they’re done. Maybe companies will have more realistic expectations of what colleges can do for them and start training people, just like they did in the good old days, when employees were a lot less disposable than they are today and new hires were expected to grow with the company and expand their skill sets instead of performing the required units of work to then move elsewhere. A good way to start this sort of debates would be to think through the system from the viewpoint of a student rather than how to hit a macro metric that could easily be changed by the powers that be…

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mass media advice

Nature recently published a thorough look at Norman Augustine, an engineer who now advises political bigwigs on how to allocate research and development dollars for scientific ventues. A lot of his recommendations are praised as overdue, common sense, and essential. But there’s one nagging criticism that emerges every time. Augustine argues that the United States needs to get more STEM students from around the world because the United States can’t compete with entire armies of new engineers and scientists emerging from China and India. Sounds like good advice as well because science is fundamentally a collaborative process and the more ideas germinate and can be tested, the faster we can advance the task of acquiring and applying the brand new knowledge universities and research labs are supposed to produce. Unfortunately the data that lies under this recommendation appears to be fundamentally flawed…

The first version of the report ended up including at least one major exaggeration: that China graduated nearly ten times more engineers than the United States (600,000 versus 70,000) — a comparison used to argue for increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. But the Chinese data probably included two-year technical degrees whereas the US figure did not. The error “contributed to the alarm quality of the report”, says Michael Teitelbaum, an economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York… “I don’t know of any serious analyst with an open mind who has concluded there are shortages in the science and technology workforce,” he says. In fact, many US scientists and engineers were struggling to find high-quality jobs in academia and industry, a trend that continues today.

Whoops. True, the "serious analyst with an open mind" part sounds a lot like a fallacy because there are analysts who disagree that there are enough STEM grads in the United States, but the problem of scientists and engineers being unable to find jobs is very real. We churn them out in significant numbers but companies don’t want to hire them because they’re too busy looking for perfect fits into their exact jobs, not transferable skills, and severe budgets cuts in higher ed can leave PhDs on food stamps. Which brings us to the real dilemma in American STEM disciplines today. Students often take on huge debts, study for 6 to 8 years for a shot at a $35,000 a year post-doc by professors who believe that it’s not their duty to prepare them for jobs, then with an immense debt burden and little pay face companies who refuse to hire them because they want someone with three years of very particular experience for an entry level position or prefer to offshore the positions to save money up front despite the often mixed results.

Augustine’s voice joining major tech companies who support massive offshoring and H1-B visas, which are dominated by a small clutch of Indian consulting companies, only makes the problem worse for the STEM grads. Now not only can they not find work, but they’re being told that we’re not graduating enough scientists and engineers and need to import them from abroad. What an incredibly cruel, mixed message! We have the best universities in the world. Only they don’t get enough STEM grads through the system and those they do are apparently unfit for work, while a technical college half a world away apparently churns out a surplus of the STEM grads we want those being produced by the world’s best colleges to be? Now, it is just me or does this make no sense whatsoever? Do the people who advocate this line of debate really research the quality of the data they use? Or do they simply brush it aside and assume that the complains about a lack of properly qualified STEM workers is the honest truth of companies with no ulterior motives?

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overheated mouse

As an old expression teaches us, when you have a hammer, all your problems look like nails, so it’s no surprise that Silicon Valley bigwigs interested in improving education quickly turn to coding and training kids for future computer science jobs. Really, that’s pretty much all they know and they were very successful, so surely the answer to our nation’s economic and educational woes can be solved by teaching everyone how to code, from toddlers to marketing executives, right? According to the brothers behind the Code.org project, computer science classes would remove the need for tax hikes and spending cuts currently being debated into oblivion on Capitol Hill, as well as make countless workers immune to outsourcing. Just so you know how seriously they’re taking the need for coding in schools, here’s a money quote from the article that details exactly how they plan to fix schools and reclaim economic prosperity with programming classes…

[Hadi Partovi] told me “It’s a challenge that our country needs to face.” Some of these gaps are because schools don’t treat computer science the way it should, and they don’t recognize coding as an essential skill, like reading and writing is. Partovi has taken this on as his personal goal, as well as the goal of Code.org.

How can I put this delicately? You need to be able to write your name to function in society. You need to be able to read signs to get anywhere on your own. You don’t need to know how to write recursive JavaScript functions to get a mortgage or apply for a credit card. You don’t need to be able to write an implementation of Djikstra’s algorithm in Python to find your way around town. I’d say it would be great if you could and more power to you if you enjoy working with graph theory as it applies to the real world, but we have GPS devices for that, and they’re already built to find the most efficient and practical routes to your destination. We also have maps and street signs, which require that you know how to read rather than how to code. Schools don’t see coding as a critical life skill because it’s not. It’s an essential skill for programmers, but for some odd reason, some members of my profession in Silicon Valley tend to forget that not everyone out there is a programmer, and not everyone wanted to be a programmer since childhood.

When basing essential skills on one’s own career, we could argue that plumbing, woodworking, accounting, or electrical engineering should rank just as highly as basic literacy. Pipes leak and taxes need to get done, not to mention that homes can have bad wiring and people need some furniture around the house, and you can definitely make a living doing any of these things as a full time professional. But when was the last time you had to lay new pipes in your home? Or the last time you had to fix the wiring in your office? Or built your own furniture? It’s impossible to be skilled in everything and every useful job can lay the same exact claims made by the Partovis as to why they should be given outsize attention and resources in schools. But hold it a minute, say the Partovis, by 2020 there will be a million IT jobs with no one to fill them. Imagine the benefit to our economy if we found a million high paying jobs for computer science students immune to all outsourcing, trained for their first day of professional coding code since grade school.

Yeah, about those million jobs. This assumes a straighline projection in which computer science jobs grow at twice the national average without a hiccup for seven years and that none of them could be outsourced. It could be possible that IT jobs will keep exploding, but considering that a few Indian firms have an enormous IT consulting footprint and has convinced many a CEO and CIO to ship countless programming jobs overseas or hire their coders, the idea that these jobs are here to stay isn’t a given. If anything, fewer projected workers would give them an incentive to crank up outsourcing rather than invest into education at home. Why? Because it’s cheaper on paper, despite many a well justified warning about the unreliable quality of code that comes back. It would also be a good idea to keep in mind that schools are now being graded mostly by high-stakes testing, and while teachers are being told to teach their students how to take all the mandatory tests and score well enough on them not to defund the schools, they’re probably not going to be all that keen on incorporating computer science into the curriculum.

Likewise, the assumption that colleges will continue to churn out the same number of comp sci grads over the next seven years doesn’t seem plausible to me. In late summer and early fall, as colleges were getting ready to start a new academic year, hardly a week went by without e-mails and Facebook messages asking what I thought about computer science as a major, referring to some friend or cousin who has an IT job and seems to be doing very well. People are well aware that computer science is a lucrative field with a lot of demand. But the truth of the matter is that not everyone can be a programmer and that not everyone wants to be. Trying to create armies of coders by going out of our way to show how supposedly easy and fun it is doesn’t mean that more people will choose it and if the only reason why they’re going into the field is for the size of their expected paychecks, they’re not going to like the field and either quit or be ran out of their city’s IT companies in a hurry. Better education for the nation begins with reigning in testing for the sake of testing, and with more time to explore and study science, not by plopping kids down in front of a computer and telling them how programming is a crucial life skill when it’s not.

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new world order

A while ago, a seemingly harmless opinion article about digital currency on a current events site provoked a flood of conspiracy theorists claiming that digital money was a tool for the New World Order to track down those they didn’t like, or that it was one of the signs of the End Times which were described in Revelations. Considering that the Illuminati probably don’t care about how you spend your time and money while planning global domination and whatnot, the odds that digital money was going to make you a target for the NWO seem rather slim. But there’s another news-making Mark of The Beast out there, according to a Texan high school student, an RFID tag to track attendance and make sure that a certain district gets its daily allotment per student. When she refused to wear it, the school suspended her and told her parents she should either wear a tag or find a new school. The parents were quite obviously furious about what they see as major violations of their freedom of religious expression and the legal manure soon hit the fan.

Considering that equating the mark of a demonic creature most historians say serves as a rather heavy-handed metaphor for Roman emperors, with an RFID tag in a badge seems hyperbolic at best, there is a very valid issue in all this. There’s significant potential for abuse if you can track the movement of every student at will and if the webcam case in Pennsylvania is any indication, administrators will abuse their privilege and law enforcement will decline to punish them, which really makes the mind boggle because the administrators in question took hundreds of candid pictures of students involved in various stages of undress and the FBI would’ve had a very solid child pornography case on its hands, one they should’ve made and prosecuted. What will RFID tags reveal about students’ habits and will administrators drunk with newfound power abuse this information to met punishments that cross the line? As the above-mentioned case shows, the only way to prevent that is not to give the administrators this information in the first place.

I suppose one could argue that millions of adults wear RFID tags in their ID badges for work and seem no worse off for it. But adults choose to work at a place that tracks their movements. High school students have very little say or choice in the matter and for many, moving to new districts may not be an option and if it is, an unfair one at that. For conspiracy theorists who ran with this story in InfoWars, this disregard for students’ rights is just the latest reminder that schools exist as brainwashing factories for the powers that be, an long held idea that both left wing and right wing conspiracy theorists believe. But the real issue we need to address is why this idea was not vetted with the public before it was implemented and what it says about how schools view how to educate their students. Are the kids and teenagers entrusted to them merely id numbers, exam and standardized test scores, and fund sources? How quickly the administrators wanted to tag their students and how they reacted when one said no seems to say an awful lot about how that school district views education and its students, and what it says is not encouraging.

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unemployed lego clone trooper

Say you’re an employer in today’s economy and you’ve reached a point when you need to hire more people to meet customer demand. Considering the high unemployment rates and the most educated workforce on a quest to either get hired or advance their careers, the absolutely last thing you could complain about would be a lack of potential employees, right? Surely there must be plenty of people you can hire, many of them with the kind of skills you can use and out of a job through no fault of their own. And yet, the biggest complaint that some 52% of businesses constantly voice is a supposed lack of employable candidates with the right skills, and this complaint sent many a politician and activist looking for a solution to an educational crisis. But a new book by Peter Cappelli, an expert in management at one of the nation’s top business schools, lays out a case that it’s not the potential employees that are the problem, it’s the employers’ unrealistic expectations and a stunning lack of vision and imagination that are to blame for their hiring shortfalls. And it’s a strong case…

We all know people who have impossibly high standards for a romantic partner. We’ve all met the guy whose insistence that he will only date professional, doe-eyed underwear models with doctorates in particle physics from an Ivy League institution had us rolling our eyes. And we’ve all heard the girl whose dreams of a perfect, tall but not too tall and handsome but not too handsome modern day knight in shining armor made us doubt she’d ever even manage to have a relationship. Cappelli argues that from what he’s seen, many companies today behave just like those characters, seeking only the perfect employee and refusing to either train a new generation of workers, or raise the wages to attract the employees of their dreams. And since they either want an employee who’s been doing the exact job for which they’re hiring for at least three years at a competitor, or will train someone overseas how to do the same job for half the pay, they either end up competing over a very small number of people working for their competitors or hiring for the short term while plowing cash into new overseas ventures that can quickly become a massive liability due to many, many factors. This is not a gap in skills or a deficiency in education on the workers’ part, concludes Cappelli. It’s bad management.

And there’s more. There’s an ongoing boom in vocational schools and medical and tech related fields, so the supposed massive shortage of STEM workers may well be overblown, and we actually do have just enough scientists and engineers out there. However, employers are refusing to pay them adequately and expect them to have not just work experience in the field, but a very specific kind of work experience. Forget the much talked about “transferrable skills” from past careers. No one wants to hear about them. Even worse, while you might be the golden candidate now because you’re applying for the same job at company after company, you’ll have trouble moving up the career ladder because those hiring you want you to keep doing the same job that you’re doing now, not advance into new roles. Or your job could fall out of favor and you’ll find yourself unemployed in short order, and you’re likely to stay unemployed because employers are now often discarding resumes from those who lost their jobs, often assuming that if you were a good employee, you would still have your job, and if you don’t, this means that you simply weren’t valuable or good enough to keep. How do you combat such an obsessive, all-consuming myopia? And why do we allow the employers who refuse to hire anyone but dream candidates get away with blaming the workers for not living up to their wildest hopes and dreams?

What if we were to continue to follow this game of musical jobs? Employment wouldn’t grow much without an occasional economic bubble to prop up job creation, workers would constantly have to change careers in the attempt to keep up with the latest fad, amassing degree after degree and mountains of debt gambling on the latest major they undertake paying off into a job, wages would remain stagnant, and employers would still be complaining about a lack of qualified candidates, using the term “qualified” as a synonym for “perfect in every single way.” They’ll keep outsourcing, creating economic bubbles elsewhere and spending billions on efforts to manage the liabilities of sending work thousands of miles away to a group of people they barely know, in a country that will more often than not employ protectionist measures that allow former subcontractors to build their own versions of the companies that once employed them with their bosses-turned-competitors footing the bill for their creation and growth. This is an unstable, unsustainable trajectory, but unfortunately, it seems to be the trajectory we’re following, assuming that the market knows best even when it never did…

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After years of warnings about low graduation rates in STEM disciplines from tech companies and DARPA, the call for more enrollments in scientific and engineering programs, and better, more science-centered primary schooling is being echoed across the media. It seems that the United States has been lagging behind and a new influx of chemists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, and engineers is urgently needed to drive the economy and keep the nation from falling farther into the economic doldrums. To aid in that goal, the Bad Astronomer is writing inspirational paeans to experimental learning, and everyone is being urged to learn how to write code for the sake of our future. What’s so bad about outreach meant to inspire kids to put on lab coats or tinker with robots so when they grow up, they can quite literally build and grow our future? Ordinarily, I would say "not a damn thing" because the more people study how to apply the scientific method, the more we can inject rational debates into our currently badly suffering and appallingly hysterical civil discourse. But if we encourage them to peruse a scientific career without any changes to the system, things may end badly.

Here’s the dilemma. We value scientific education and expertise but we don’t seem to want to pay for it. When you go through the occupational reports and projections by the BLS, you can optimistically gather somewhere around a million scientific jobs if you don’t restrict yourself to only the occupations requiring a PhD. How could that be? What about all the colleges and large companies with R&D departments? Well, colleges don’t need hundreds of physics professors per department, they only need a small handful. Big companies also need a handful of researchers at best and many can’t afford them or aren’t willing to boost their R&D budgets since a department which doesn’t consistently produce a reliable stream of profits by its very definition looks less like an asset than a necessary evil on a quarterly report and elicit grumbles from impatient investors. A handful in this college and a handful in that lab and a handful in a few companies only makes a few handfuls. So with a lot of scientific jobs being few and far between, it’s insanely difficult to land one and when you do, you have to fight to keep it or you’ll be quickly pushed out because without constant breakthroughs or popular papers, a department chair or executive will want to give another of the thousand applicants for your job a shot.

On top of that, while compensation for PhDs in STEM fields reaches between $70,000 and $110,000 per year depending on their profession and experience, most post-docs have to make do with $35,000 a year at most and assistant jobs are not exactly the best paying scientific ventures. In fact, the only STEM fields that’ll reward graduates are computer science and engineering, but only because there are many companies in need of an engineer or a programmer on a constant basis and they’re highly unlikely to do any sort of R&D while they are employed. As I mentioned before, the market for professional IT workers is approaching 1.5 million jobs and the market for computer scientists is approaching 35,000 in the same time frames. So we’ll inspire all those young, eager, new STEM graduates into what exactly? Tiny job markets, 1 in 1,000 odds of being hired, and a career unlikely to last past their late 40s or early 50s? Who would want to subject themselves to it? Yes, there are a lot of people who just want to do what they love and aren’t worried about becoming millionaires. I really, really do get that. Unfortunately, love doesn’t pay the bills and we’re not talking about not being able to go on a luxury tour of Europe in a hypersonic train, or whatever it is that’s all the rage among millionaires these days. I was talking about paying the rent and paying down those often downright predatory college loans.

Just like we’re finally discussing that a college degree is no guarantee of financial stability despite being very aggressively pitched as such for more than two decades, and that far too many undergraduates have little in terms of income and too much in terms of debt while there are PhDs subsisting on food stamps, we really need to get realistic about the effects of a STEM boom based on little more than supportive rhetoric. Is minting more scientists a noble pursuit? Absolutely. But to insist on educating them through test-based droning, then send them through as many as eight years of grad school to throw them into a market with endless demand for cheap and highly educated assistants but room for only a small handful of researchers and experts, would be a huge disservice to the kids we’re now trying to inspire to peruse STEM fields. We have to change how we educate kids and refuse to allow testing as a crutch for politicians to pretend they’re actually doing something to improve schools. We have to fund more scientific pursuits and treat grants and productive research not as an expense but an asset. We have to create more jobs for PhDs and provide incentives to invest in research, whether it’s with tax breaks or credits, or by offering government competitions for contracts the way NASA has been doing with its COTS program. Yes, we need more STEM grads. But we need to treat them well too.

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When living and working in the modern post-industrial world, you need to be computer literate, despite what a few people with whom I worked in the past may think. I’m sure you know the people in question; those whose day includes printing all their e-mails to read and make notes on them, then handing their comments off to an assistant to retype in electronic format, and who say things like "just let the young people handle all this tech stuff, it’s not for me." This is simply no longer a choice and even the oldest, most grizzled executive in a highly conservative and slow-moving industry has to know some basics of how his computer works and how to surf the internet safely or face being labeled a dinosaur and quickly pushed aside. While many tehnophobes may loudly bemoan this development, there’s an opposite extreme starting to emerge, one that advocates that we need to teach as many people as possible to code to at least give an appreciation for computing. Could it be a good idea? Maybe. But how useful would trying to teach everyone some Javascript and Ruby really be?

We did cover some of those exhortations to learn programming before from writers who once used to code, powerful government agencies which need STEM experts of all stripes, and even those who want to teach preschoolers how to code before they can really read in the hope of somehow giving them a jump start in a competitive, high tech world of the future. Some proponents of the everyone-should-learn-coding camp go as far as offering practical coding solutions for fashion photographers as part of their argument, trying to show how useful knowing code can be when you’re faced with a tedious and mundane task in which errors are very likely to crop up if they would be done by hand. And then look, they continue, you could also do all that stuff as soon as you have the app we just showed you up and running because since you’ve started, why not see how far the rabbit hole really goes, right? But how many photographers could be bothered? They already work very long and crazy hours and spend many more trying to network and get new gigs. You also want them to code a utility, debug it, maintain it, and custom create something they can already do in Photoshop? Why? That’s not part of computer literacy for the typical user, and what it will actually accomplish is questionable.

In the Soviet Union, it was considered that playing chess would make kids smarter and parents would send a lot of kids to chess academies to learn how to play. The overwhelming majority did not grow up to be serious players or chess masters, but at least they expanded their minds, right? Their minds could’ve been expanded by a wide variety of stimuli requiring a lot of logic and forward thinking and chess was not necessarily it. And if you think that they have a better appreciation of the game because for a year or two their parents pushed them to play, your opinion needs some real evidence to support it. Likewise, what would someone who decides to write a few lines of Javascript gain? Computing is a huge field requiring years or study. Having someone take a couple of Code Academy lessons is like taking a novice to a leisure pool, asking her to do a couple of laps, and declaring that she now has an appreciation for the training and challenges Olympic swimmers would go through before a major competition. No she doesn’t. My ability to swim in a lap pool won’t let me compare my freestyle with that of Michael Phelps. He’s a professional who goes through a diet and exercise regiment that someone like me wouldn’t. And that’s ok because I don’t need to be a professional swimmer.

And that’s a summary of the opposing view on the coding for everyone movement; that programmers need to know how to write code and weave solutions from their code but if your work has nothing to do with coding, you shouldn’t force yourself to study a programming language. You just won’t get all that much out of it. I didn’t need to really learn how to code for years. I started when I was 13 and started getting comfortable with it, but a few years after that in an episode of the a classic boy-doesn’t-want-to-follow-the-family-business scenario, I’d avoid programming as much as possible. It was only in my 20s that I started coding again, this time because it was necessary to find new work and this time, I found freedom and enjoyment in it. Solving particularly hard logical puzzles with code excites me and by studying AI and software architecture, I found that I could really be creative in what I do, far more creative than I thought programming could be. For some people, it just flows as they start coding, like some people just have a feel for music and start playing guitar, or some just have a very easy time with drawing and become artists and designers. You can’t force it or fall for peer pressure which is busy portraying an optional skill as an almost obligatory part of computer literacy. Hey, people like me exist so you don’t have to think about loops, variables, hash maps, or compiler optimizations. We got this.

And very importantly, we got this because we like what we do. We wouldn’t subject ourselves to the insanity of the constant education, experimentation, and bouts of frustration, brain farts, and coder’s block (yes, it’s pretty much exactly the same thing as writer’s block but when you’re trying to figure out how a method will work) this profession requires. You won’t get all this from Code Academy or TryRuby any more than I would get an idea of what it’s like to be an auto mechanic from a WikiHow tutorial on how to change my oil. Now if you’re really a person who’s excited about creating something with computers and wants to learn how to make a box of little transistors, plastic, and metal do your bidding to achieve something, by all means, follow the links to the code tutorial sites and get to it! You might also want to look into Python, Haskell, and Lua, and if you want to build a massive framework to tackle things like parallelization, distributed computing, and design patterns, consider learning C# or Java, which can start out as being very easy to learn, but can go in directions which have a very steep learning curve to master. But if all of that sounds like a lot of work and you don’t see a need to learn any of this, seriously, don’t worry about it. In your situation, it wouldn’t do a whole lot for you anyway…

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If you’re gainfully employed for all intents and purposes, and one day find yourself off work sick because while your boss wants you at work he or she isn’t interested in your germs also being in the office, you might give in and turn on some of that horrifying daytime TV. And between all the shoestring budget game and talk shows, the latter of which tend to exploit human misery and ignorance for ratings, you’ll be bombarded with countless ads for colleges. Hey you there on the couch, these ads say, fed up not having work or only working part time, always struggling to make ends meet? Got to college and not only will you get a job, you’ll make a real salary, the kind that will make your parents stop calling you a bum! We’ll help you go to college too! Just log on, sign up, and start going to classes next week to be on your way to a  rewarding career! These ads have be on for a number of years now and it’s become firmly entrenched in the mindset of those underemployed but both very ambitious and very determined, that college is the key to a better life and that graduating will bring them jobs, cars, houses, savings accounts, and all the other things they want, just like the college recruiter told them.

Kind of cruel, isn’t it? After all many of the colleges aggressively advertising to those who believe that a degree will vastly improve their lives are infamous for subsisting almost entirely on government grants, charging all if their students and arm and a leg to attend, widespread fraud on financial aid documents, and after having their students sit through courses accredited by agencies with no standards, they spit these students back out with unsustainable debt, and just as few job prospects as they had before. While what many for-profits do is usually legal, except that fraud on financial documents part, it’s unequivocally unethical and it’s made so much worse by the fact that after they’re done with a student, he can’t continue his education elsewhere or get a regionally accredited degree without having to start from scratch because his for-profit credits count towards squat at a properly accredited university. How is this legal? Well, aggressive lobbying is one reason, and how reverently we view any form of education as being a gateway to a career. Unfortunately, colleges are not magic and those who think that rushing to class will help them get a job should ask themselves who’ll pay their bills for the next three to four years and how they plan to pay off their loans if they won’t find a new job quickly…

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According to what we’re often told, if we work hard, study, get good grades, and go to college, we’ll have good jobs that let us make a steady living and the typically poor college student days will be long behind us as the president of a university hands you your graduate degree. Sure, you may not have the life of plenty but you are definitely clearly of having to go on welfare to feed yourself, right? Actually, maybe not. As it turns out, there’s a disturbing number of PhDs on food stamps working odd jobs after all the schooling and hard work that would make them immune to the trials of the working poor, according to the prevailing societal truisms. Many times, the initial reaction is to say that it’s really not that huge of a problem, especially compared to the millions upon millions of non-PhDs currently out of work and that these situations are almost certainly temporary. Of course one could see why not a whole lot of administrators and pundits would be interested in talking about PhDs on welfare at any length. It really drives home the fact that a lot of long-held American beliefs about education and income can vary widely from reality and that you could do everything right only to end up having to file for aid.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the PhDs who have trouble turning their education into stable incomes. Quite a few undergraduate students are also ending up making a lot less than they may have expected, and while you can say that the compensation premium for a bachelor’s degree hasn’t changed very much even during much of the Great Recession, the worst salaries in decades have effectively made that premium worth far less than it once was. In fact it’s a neat accounting trick that helps for-profit trade schools and college lenders. They can lure in students by showing the relative premium of a college degree but forget to mention that in real dollars, this premium gives graduates far less purchasing power than they had five years ago. Oh and that’s if they do manage to get a job, which may or many not even be in their field. But come on, they did the right thing, they’re obviously on the way to something great, right? After all, they studied hard enough to get into college and after applying themselves earned degrees, exactly as mom, dad, and everyone else around them told them they’ll have to do to get a good job and start a career. How could it be that we send millions of students to college to spend all that time, money, and effort, and have them rewarded by crushing debt and unemployment?

But the sad fact is that this is exactly what we obliviously do while pretending that the system in which we’re working is fundamentally just and seldom fails to reward hard workers and good scholars. All right, why don’t we look at it another way? A lot of the welfare PhDs spend tens of thousands of dollars getting degrees in all sorts of humanities disciplines for which there’s little demand so surely they must be to blame for their bad situations. How many people will be interested in employing someone who wrote a dissertation on the social dynamics portrayed in silent films? Who but a handful of universities need a PhD in theology? This may be a good way to salvage the seeming fairness of the system but it’s fundamentally flawed. Yes, as I’ve said many times myself, you can’t rely on a degree in humanities to pay your bills, but at the same time, the problem isn’t that humanities PhDs are ending up with big loans and empty pockets, it’s that a degree does not guarantee sustainable, full time work. Even the most highly demanded STEM disciplines are subject to the whims of the market and predicting exactly what will be needed in what city and by what companies in four years before you even start your first class, would be an exercise in clairvoyance. Yet we expect college students to perform this feat every year and then fume when they fail to fare any better than a psychic. Of course they can’t do it.

On the part of the humanities scholars who find themselves out of work and academics who find themselves under attack, some write articles berating modern society for ignoring their passion for crass consumerism. I understand it may be disheartening to know that the world cared more about Twilight than Joyce and I agree, it’s really quite sad. At the time time, people need food, shelter, security, roads, and medicine. It’s not that PhD after PhD is discarded by society for daring not to care about the latest Angry Birds sequel or choose to study the most obscure language in the world to mine it for insights into human culture, but that its immediate and material needs have to take precedence over their academic ones. Society doesn’t tell you to crank out a little metal widget because it needs to print some navel-gazing self-help treatise or load another trite pop bleating on iTunes, but because it needs to fix a road, or develop a new antibiotic, or write some new software to keep important financial transactions secure. It doesn’t want the luxury to plan for its new generations and the best you can do is try to be at the right place, at the right time to find a career close to what you like to do, and when you get there, there may not be a reward for college or good grades and a C- student may be your boss. This is how our world works today and let’s not pretend that there’s some magical combination of degrees, GPAs, and professional credentials that will save you when you find yourself in a really bad economy…

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Ever since my foray into grad school, college education has been a recurring topic here as I struggled how to balance the advice given to me about what to study and how far to keep going, and the practical concerns that would have to be addressed after the degree was finished. Now, having gone through the equivalent of about six years of higher education and balancing my degrees through the workforce while many of my friends went through the same predicaments, I’ve had some time to reflect on the very bizarre landscape of the transition a good deal of Generation Y seems to have to make between education and employment. Of course all this will not be based entirely on my anecdotal data, in fact we’ve already reviewed a massive study on the subject, and if anything, the anecdotes corroborate its findings. But there’s more to it than just whether a student goes to college and gets a job afterwards and while academics and politicians debate what’s broken with colleges and education in general, they miss that the entire system to train teenagers to peruse a career is fraught with dysfunction so focusing on just colleges or just companies or just schools woefully misses the big picture.

That might sound hyperbolic at first blush but unfortunately it’s not. It’s unpleasant to hear that there are huge problems that can’t just be fixed by one or two decisive actions and created by decades of problems that were swept under the rug but in this case, we can’t simply point our finger at a weak link in a chain because there’s no one weak link responsible for all our problems. Colleges certainly have their problems and there’s enough to be said for their shortcomings in guiding students on how to navigate the world outside a campus to fill the nearby library with books on the subject related to every discipline and type of student. But it’s not as if there’s no conflict with companies and parents who make hiring decisions alternatively rejecting college students for having too little or too much education at these companies while pushing their kids to get college degrees as soon as they get back home. And it’s not as if politicians aren’t treating colleges as diploma factories while on the same breath advocating for cutting funds to said colleges and then demanding to know why having more people with degrees doesn’t turn the economy around. On top of that, they also go after scientists who don’t cater to their dogmas and lament that education past the basics for a job is just a waste of time.

Meanwhile, the college loan industry insured against any loss by the government, keeps upping the stakes in this game. Sure, you can take on $50,000 in loans and repay them after you’re done. Choose the right degree and find the right company which thinks you have just enough education to get a job and you can slowly pay it all over the next decade or so. Choose wrong and not only do you have a degree you can’t use and no job, but you now have a crushing debt hanging over your head and the government will be knocking on your door for a payment since the companies who issued the original loan just got paid and took no loss on your default, so can do the same thing again to another student. So overall, what we end up doing is sending 17 and 18 year olds constantly told that they can be anything they put their minds into a position in which they have to gamble that a certain degree from a certain college will hopefully get them an internship somewhere so they could go on to claim some experience in the field when they get a chance to complete with 600 other people for jobs in companies where their parents want industry experience and only a certain amount of education so they don’t have to pay more for a more advanced degree. Meanwhile, these same parents advocate more education for better job prospects and turn their children into each others’ overqualified candidates for entry level jobs.

Rather than set up an orderly system where there are clear paths to peruse different goals and career tracks, we’ve set up something that looks like it, but is in reality a game of Catch-22s and gotchas that no one knows exactly how to navigate. I was lucky to have worked in IT since high school and live in a city where there’s a lot of demand for programmers thanks to its prosperous hub of regional banks, hospitals, and both national and regional insurance companies. Had I not started studying how to design websites my junior year and had no experience with anything IT related, what degree would I have picked to build a career? And what if I went for a field where a graduate degree doesn’t confer more opportunities because there’s enough demand to allow a premium for extra education? I would be yet another late-20-something with two degrees getting rejections as someone would silently decide that I wouldn’t settle for an entry level job with the pay he had in mind even as my salary requirements had dropped to "a cent more than food stamps" long before that point. Just mull this absurdity in your head for a moment. Colleges are cranking out young adults with degrees they’re unlikely to use in their jobs, parents urge them to go to grad school to get a better chance to find jobs, and when they’re indebted and unemployed, and everyone knows it, they’re rejected because the company doesn’t want to pay premiums it wouldn’t have to pay anyway since the applicant just wants a job that pays actual money…

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