kitchen table math, the sequel: tired and overpaid

Saturday, May 7, 2011

tired and overpaid

patentlawyer, Bonnie, and Steve H on careers in computer science and manufacturing--

We read this story every few months but most of these "manufacturers" aren't telling the whole truth.

They aren't talking about how they gutted their own training programs in the 80's and 90's, because someone @ the WSJ/Harvard Business School told them to get lean, downsize, rightsize, or out source.

They aren't talking about how automation has really decimated their bread and butter parts and they have to move up to small runs of specialized parts @ high margins to make the money they're used to making.

They aren't talking about how most of their want ads require years of experience and often times a degree.

They aren't talking about how boring it is to work on a lathe for 8 hour stretches.

The reality is that they want experienced people, but they do not want to spend the money to train and retain their employees.

At least in Houston, there are more than enough people that can read blue prints, calculate sin/cos/tang/hyp if necessary. That area of Houston they're talking about is about 10 miles away from NASA and the aerospace/defense contractor hub in Clear Lake City.

We shouldn't have any sympathy for short sighted companies. Nor should we think that the US is in some kind of STEM bind.

There are plenty of out of work born in America engineers now, and plenty of would-be-engineers creamed by grade curves and weed out courses. If you head over to any of the comp sci/it/science/engineering fora, you'll see just how vast and deep the pool is.
Actually, in CS, enrollments have plummeted in the last few years, to the extent that CS departments are being closed. However, I agree with you on the role of companies. The reason students chose not to major in CS is that they saw their parents laid off from their tech jobs, forced to train their replacements in India (and I know several people personally that had to do that, including my husband). Companies refuse to invest in training or education for their technical employees, instead figuring they can be replaced once their 10 year technical lifespan has expired. Kids saw this happen, and decided that they would rather major in finance, where they can actually be paid well. 
Steve H:
I agree with patentlawyer. I've seen this argument before, and once again, it's not clearly defined. I deal with many companies that bring in computer-aided design and CNC technology. There is more demand than supply. Companies don't like to train because they see these people move on to better paying jobs. Why pay to train someone in SolidWorks who will immediately leave? Just demand that education provide them ready to go. But what, exactly, are these skills? It's not trigonometry.

"Manufacturers say the U.S. education system doesn't produce enough students strong in math, science and engineering."

People with science, math, or engineering degrees won't fill these positions, and companies can train bright high school graduates to meet this demand.

Let's say that a company buys a CNC cutting machine and it comes with a program that nests geometry and generates the G-code to drive the machine. Is this taught in school? Also, where does this geometry come from, a 2D CAD drawing program, a 3D solid modeling program, or a surface modeling program like Rhino? Do they teach these programs in school? You don't learn this in high school geometry. Do schools teach the issues of geometry transfer that cost companies so much time and money?

Look at the skills that companies have in their job ads. Do they say "trigonometry"? Do they ask for people who have critical thinking skills? No. They want specialized skills that are rarely taught in schools. That's why our local vocational school (which offers college degrees) is so popular. They teach these applications and skills. Companies should ask for more vocational schools.

How many job ads say that they are looking for those who had good grades in trig and that they will train. No, you see ads with very specific software or machine skills required, loaded with all sorts of product names (like MasterCAM) and acronyms. Companies might want critical thinking skills, but what they have in the ads are specific product skills. That's why older workers are vulnerable. Companies don't care about general educational background. They care about the latest products and skills. It doesn't matter how experienced you are if that experience is with DEC's VMS. If you don't manage your career carefully, you will end up on a legacy path where the company will not pay for training. One company where my wife worked made a comment about how people over 40 are tired, overpaid, and don't know the latest technology.


Bonnie said...

Steve H isn't really talking about careers in computer science, but he is talking about a similar problem in manufacturing careers

ChemProf said...

The issue of job ads and finding work at an entry-level is a huge one right now. Any advertised job expects multiple years of experience, so it is tough for new grads. I spend a lot of time advising grads how to find positions (look for companies doing lots of hiring - they have entry level jobs even if they don't advertise - and look at temp agencies, which are increasingly the only way to find entry-level positions). This is in chemistry, mostly biotech/pharmeceutical, but the general problem of companies not being willing to train is a huge one. I can teach the general principles of HPLC, but have had students lose positions because the company wanted them to have experience with a particular brand and model of instrument, and that colleges can't do.

Glen said...

Re: 5% of our college grads getting engineering degrees vs. 20% in Asia, NBER says we have more kids wanting to major in engineering than we realize, and they're willing to do the hard work.

But their dreams of a STEM career apparently die when they reach college and discover that the K-12 STEM classes they did so well in weren't preparing them to actually DO it but had other objectives, such as teaching them to think critically, save the planet, and not widen the achievement gap.

TIMSS says American kids rank near the top in liking math, yet only 5% major in STEM. This study shows one reason, the trauma of parents having their jobs outsourced is probably another, and there are probably other issues I haven't noticed.

What changes have people here noticed in the thinking of undergrads regarding majors?

Allison said...

--If you don't manage your career carefully, you will end up on a legacy path where the company will not pay for training.

But this is true in any field, not just engineering or manufacturing. There's no entitlement to a job or a career path.

The reason it is true is because the majority of companies have pyramid employee structures for good reason. If you can't figure out how to rise into the smaller pool, move elsewhere.

It's absurd for a company to keep a 40+ programmer VI or higher on their payroll. They are too expensive. Such a person may not want to move into management, but given their wages are now maxed out, they need to offer more than doing the same job they've always done. They need to be in a position where they are now mentoring the cheaper and less experienced folk, running projects, applying their expertise in new ways as architect, something. Not everyone is cut out for that, but when engineers want to do the same job that someone else can do for half or less the cost, it's a no brainer that the company should use someone cheaper who might be willing to put in 70 hours a week on salary instead of 60, and who does know the latest tech.

Likewise, in this recession, there's no reason to hire a newly graduated person lack specific product skills--there are plenty of people with those skills out there already. And companies have always shot the moon in ads, asking for skills and education incommensurate with the salary they offer. They are just fishing. And smart potential new hires apply for those jobs even though they are "underqualified" because often the company is going to settle for the cheaper candidate anyway.

Companies gutted their training programs because it wasn't worth it to the bottom line. It was determined it was illegal to make indentured servants out of their employees, so they couldn't be sure they'd recoup the costs of most training programs. What should they have done--run their operation more expensively than their competitors did? How is that going to work? The consumer never says "oh, look, this TV came from a company that trained its employees, so I'm going to pay $100 more for it than the other one."

SteveH said...

"But this is true in any field..."

My point is that some fields are worse than others. In technology fields, the knowledge base changes much faster. When your boss starts talking about putting you on a particular project, you have to evaluate how that project will or will not develop your skills. This is not about critical thinking or whether you have a nice trig background. That was the whole point of the article. My point is that it's all about your skill set.

Many tech companies spend a lot on training, but they won't hire you with the assumption that you will need a lot of training to do the job. They will, however, spend money to keep many of their employees up with the latest technology. You best keep yourself on that list.

"I can teach the general principles of HPLC, but have had students lose positions because the company wanted them to have experience with a particular brand and model of instrument, and that colleges can't do."

This is what I'm talking about. Businesses claim that they want people who can think critically and have good math skills, but the reality is different. I remember (long ago) writing my resume to be filled with all of the successful projects I completed and how I was self-motivated. No. What they wanted to see was my list of skills. Companies spent the most time asking me how much I really did know about C++ or if I ever used a particular computer or operating system. I remember being very surprised. They were doing a keyword match between the job description and my resume.

ChemProf said...

When my husband was in programming, he actually had a section on his resume labeled "buzzwords" where he'd list all of the programming languages and other skills he'd picked up. For just those keyword searches.

Similarly, I teach my students in writing resumes to include a "familiar with" section where they list every lab instrument they've ever touched.

Anonymous said...


Yikes! This statement surely reflects what employers think, however short sited. Why can't people be paid for the 40 - 60 hours they work? If employers were forced to pay for the work that people did, then all employees would work less. Is it good for America or the individual family if dad or mom is gone 80+ hours a week when you figure in commuting? Who says 40+ers make too much? Real wages haven't increased in 10 years even though improvements in productivity (which usually tracks wages) has increased significantly. The plan you are advocating for leaves us all in a much worse place as a country and as individual families. Corporations are not the zenith of life nor the arbitors of "what should be".

Bringing this all back to the math...If mom and dad have to work as endentured servants to corporations, when will kids get the attentions they require to learn?

Every activity or choice has a cost.

Bonnie said...

Steve H's comments on what goes into a resume in the tech filed are completely true. I had to do a job search back in 2007. At that point, I had years of experience at a software company, with lots of successful projects under my belt. I thought that companies would be interested in my projects, and in what I had done. Wrong-o! In many cases, when I was brought in for an interview, the session would consist of nothing more than a series of quiz questions on arcane aspects of Technology XYZ, v. 3.2. I realized that the interviewers had typically never even read my resume and had no interest in what I had done at my last company. Companies may claim they are interested in soft skills such as bringing projects to completion, teamwork, reasoning skills, etc - but when it comes down to hiring, they want a bunch of monkeys who know Technology XYZ, version 3.2.

And be careful about telling your students to include any technology they have ever touched. If it is listed on the resume, the interviewers will test the applicant on it. If your students are consistently blowing the test because they didn't know the technology all that well, the company will stop interviewing your students.

SteveH said...

"And be careful about telling your students to include any technology they have ever touched."

Companies definitely check this, but it's OK (up to a point) if you are completely honest at the interview. However, you don't want to put those keywords first. You also don't want to leave ancient technology on your resume. My wife long ago took off the "early years". It makes you look less old and out of date. Forget the fact that she has enormous experience and can trace computer problems in a very short time.

Bonnie said...

A friend of mine just sent me a link which is totally relevant to this discussion:
This talks about the ways in which technical interviews are ineffective.

Anonymous said...

I would like to offer a counterpoint to the resume discussion.

Not all companies only hire based on narrow technical skills.

The one I currently work for, for example, tends not to do this (at least not in the software groups that I deal with and have worked for).

As an example ... ten years ago we were looking to hire a bunch of programmers to write Java code for us. We were willing to hire people without Java skills *IF* they had any other object-oriented language experience: C++, Smalltalk, Eiffel. Our position was (and still is, I think) that learning Java is pretty straightforward if one already has experience with O-O design and implementation.

We also *do* care about what projects you have worked on, how well things worked out, and whether the product shipped.

Not all companies are total idiots when it comes to hiring.

But ... there are some skills for which we are reluctant to try to provide training to new hires. C++ is one of these, because our experience is that it can easily take one full year for a newbie to learn to manage all the dangerous corners of this language. We will (and did) train current employees in this years ago, but just can't justify a one year training program for a new hire.

Things can change fast, though, so one of the things we are looking for in more senior engineers is some sense that they are trying to stay current. A 35 year old engineer applicant who hasn't learned anything that was introduced in the last ten years would be at a disadvantage compared to either a younger kid (cheaper, more enthusiastic) or a similar engineer with some more current skills. Even if those more current skills were a class or a project done on his/her own time. We like to see initiative.

There are some companies looking for actual depth from their candidates. But you won't find engineers grumbling about them on Slashdot :-)

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

Bonnie - we talk about that too, especially being honest in the interview, but it is better to GET to an interview and when asked about experience say "I used it in these labs for these classes" than it is not to even get to the hiring manager because he told HR he needed HPLC experience and they don't see HPLC on the resume anyplace!

Remember, too, that I'm thinking in terms of chem/biotech, where there are about half-a-dozen major pieces of equipment that a graduating student is likely to have used and that employers are likely to be looking for, not a zillion "technology xyz 3.2's" that you run into in CS.

Allison said...

Steve said:
Businesses claim that they want people who can think critically and have good math skills, but the reality is different.

and Bonnie said:
" Companies may claim they are interested in soft skills such as bringing projects to completion, teamwork, reasoning skills, etc -"

Where are you hearing these claims that this is what businesses want?

In a WSJ journal article where the reporter claims that is what the company said? Because that's a far cry from what a company actually says.

I have never read a job req on monster that said "we want critical thinking skills". You can do the search yourself; maybe you'll find one. Where is this myth from?

Of course tech companies want people with good math skills. But good math skills don't exist in a vacuum anymore than "critical thinking skills" exist free of content. You need to have good math skills that apply to doing the job they need done.

Allison said...

--That was the whole point of the article. My point is that it's all about your skill set.

Well, that just sounds like the article is the issue--is this just another Murray Gell Mann phenomenon?

No one 40 or under working in the tech world has ever known anything but a keyword-search-friendly resume when they were looking for an engineering job. That's what it took to get past HR. That doesn't mean that teams don't want depth, but that the gatekeepers are algorithms matching terms.

That companies want depth but don't know how to interview for it is a different problem. it's a human problem, because humans don't make rational choices as often as we wish, and humans use proxies for good fit in the world world that are about as well correlated with success as their proxies are in education.

Now, if you decide you want to move into management, things change--skills become less important on your resume, and showing how much revenue you made or saved your company with your tech product mgt becomes important.

Still, it might be more true in eng and tech than other fields, but compared to what? Finance has a faster rate of obsolescence; in law you have to find your own clients, and your firm may go under anyway; in media, well, the whole field is in turmoil. The public sector is different, yes, but the places where private sector jobs are require you to continually add value or go away. I don't think anyone is really saying otherwise, though maybe journalists are obviously in their own bad predicament for failing to recognize this in the world.

SteveH said...

"Where are you hearing these claims that this is what businesses want?"

Journalists don't make this up, but you won't find it in the job ads. It comes from educators and business people when they talk about education. You hear it when they talk about 21st century skills. It's used as justification for many things that educators want to do. It's not really the Murray Gell Man amnesia effect, but some sort of educational propaganda effect.

Bonnie said...

Corporate people often serve on advisory boards or in some other advisory capacity at universities. They also come to the CS and health informatics education conferences. Those are the people who are talking about critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills. The people who sit on advisory boards are often pretty high up in their organizations, and have a different mindset from the technical manager who is actually interviewing for the jobs. I suspect that is where a lot of the disconnect occurs.

And sorry, I do think tech is different. You don't see finance people or lawyers training their replacements in India, and furthermore, they are paid a lot more than tech people are.