kitchen table math, the sequel: Does anyone want a STEM career anymore?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Does anyone want a STEM career anymore?

As the self-described 99% show the country what a wasteland a liberal arts education is, the current administration says STEM careers will transform (or is it save) America. But there's been a number of articles in the last few days about why American students today aren't choosing STEM careers.
in today's WSJ, Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay, the article opens with this:
Biyan Zhou wanted to major in engineering. Her mother and her academic adviser also wanted her to major in it, given the apparent career opportunities for engineers in a tough job market. But during her sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Zhou switched her major from electrical and computer engineering to a double major in psychology and policy management. Workers who majored in psychology have median earnings that are $38,000 below those of computer engineering majors, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Georgetown University.

"My ability level was just not there," says Ms. Zhou of her decision. She now plans to look for jobs in public relations or human resources.

The NYT had this article, "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)" (pointed out by Glen a few days ago.)
it states:
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

Why the attrition? Some are the usual suspects: from the WSJ piece again:

For 22-year-old Ms. Zhou, from Miami, the last straw was a project for one of her second-year courses that kept her and her partner in the lab well past midnight for several days. Their task was to program a soda machine. Though she and her partner managed to make it dispense the right items, they couldn't get it to give the correct change.

Such unpreparedness in part explains this (from NYT piece): "Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors." But so does the burnout factor from the death march through calculus, as illustrated by "MATTHEW MONIZ bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year...He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering....But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’

They quote Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who says it isn't just weak K-12 prep that causes this washout.
"You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

His argument seems to be that the kids at Cal are better prepared than the kids at CSU, so more of them should succeed, if the issue was really k-12 prep. I don't think that gets to the heart of the prep matter though. The kids at Cal, Notre Dame and the like are Used to Succeeding, and they aren't succeeding. This is a huge blow to them, at the same time that the intro courses are often seen as the drudgework to get to the electives, a point made in the NYT article. It feels better to get As in psych than B-s in EE.

Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.

“We’re in a worldwide competition, and we’ve got to retain as many of our students as we can,” Dean Kilpatrick says. “But we’re not doing kids a favor if we’re not teaching them good life and study skills.

So many fall off. And what about the ones who make it?

You work harder for lower grades than your peers, and the payoff is either a) a career path where your employer is constantly lobbying the govt to drive down your pay by increasing immigration, or b) a career path where you front load all of your risk onto a low probability lottery ticket to the world of academia just as the higher ed bubble is bursting.

Not depressing enough? Read Arnold Kling's "What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?" Kling suggests high unemployment now is structural, coming from a new phase of an economic transition away from plentiful high paying white collar jobs, just as prior restructuring moved away from plentiful high paying blue collar jobs.
Using the latest Census Bureau data, Matthew Slaughter found that from 2000 to 2010 the real earnings of college graduates (with no advanced degree) fell by more in percentage terms than the earnings of high school graduates. In fact, over this period the only education category to show an increase in earnings was those with advanced degrees.
The outlook for mid-skill jobs would not appear to be bright. Communication technology and computer intelligence continue to improve, putting more occupations at risk.

For example, many people earn a living as drivers, including trucks and taxicabs. However, the age of driver-less vehicles appears to be moving closer.

Another example is in the field of education. In the fall of 2011, an experiment with an online course in artificial intelligence conducted by two Stanford professors drew tens of thousands of registrants. This increases the student-teacher ratio by a factor of close to a thousand. Imagine the number of teaching jobs that might be eliminated if this could be done for calculus, economics, chemistry, and so on.

So much for that lottery ticket to academia...but what about the private sector? Kling says:
...the main work consists of destroying someone else's job. Garett Jones has pointed out that the typical worker today does not produce widgets but instead builds organizational capital. The problem is that building organizational capital in one company serves to depreciate the organizational capital somewhere else. Blockbuster video adversely affected the capital of movie theaters, Netflix adversely affected the capital of Blockbuster, and the combination of faster Internet speeds and tablet devices may depreciate the organizational capital of Netflix.

The second challenge is the nature of the emerging skills mismatch. People who are self-directed and cognitively capable can keep adding to their advantages. People who lack those traits cannot simply be exhorted into obtaining them. The new jobs that emerge may not produce a middle class. Instead, if the trend documented by Autor for the period 1999-2007 were to continue, most of the new jobs would be low-end service jobs, for which competition will tend to keep wages low.

He goes on to posit some possible futures. He's not optimistic.

update: Kling link fixed. Thanks, ChemProf!


Anonymous said...

I love the argument-fodder that these anecdotes provide: Matthew Moniz wanted more real life engineering projects in his sophomore year (like, maybe programming a soda machine?). Biyan Zhou was turned away by a sophomore-engineering project.

More real world projects! Just as long as they aren't hard.

ChemProf said...

The Arnold Kling link is broken. It should be:

The issue of future jobs is the big one -- if business is easier (and most of my failed majors end up in economics, where their iffy math skills put them at the top of the pack) and is seen as offering more career options, why wouldn't students switch.

C T said...

On the subject of Americans not becoming engineers in great enough numbers, the Sacramento Bee just published this HR poll report complaining of skills gaps in job applicants:

"Fifty-two percent of respondents said their organizations were having a difficult time recruiting for specific jobs. High-tech companies (71 percent) and manufacturers (68 percent) were more likely to be having difficulty than financial firms (49 percent). Professional services (59 percent), and construction, mining, oil and gas companies (51 percent) reported a harder time than state and local governments (33 percent) and the federal government (31 percent).

"American businesses are facing a paradox — high unemployment and the inability to fill key jobs in their organizations," said Mark Schmit, vice president for research at SHRM. "Our research shows that gaps between unemployed American workers' skills and those required for open jobs in the United States are a major reason for this seemingly unlikely contradiction. It follows logically that if key jobs cannot be filled in organizations, then other less critical jobs requiring less skill cannot be created either because the organizations' growth potential is stunted. Thus, the cycle of low or no job growth continues."

"What are the most difficult jobs to fill? The organizations that reported difficulty recruiting said: Engineers (with 88 percent of those respondents saying the position was somewhat or very difficult to fill); high-skilled medical positions (86 percent); high-skilled technical positions (85 percent); scientists (83 percent); and managers and executives (78 percent)."

Read more:

SteveH said...

Oh boy! Lot's of interesting things to talk about. However, I don't think you can approach it from the general idea that nobody wants a STEM career anymore. I think you have to look at specific questions.

I can argue against a STEM career, but my vantage point is not the same as those of students making their own choices. They are not making sound long term decisions based on trends in the economy.

My colleagues at the University of Michigan see many students switch out of engineering after the first year. It's a big problem. In general, the kids are not prepared for the level of math and the hard work. A SAT math score is really not a great indicator. Even if you do well in calculus in high school, this is just the start. Some might realize that they just don't like it that much.

Programming in college always weeds out those who can't deal with a high level of detail. It's better to figure that out sooner than later. Back when I taught CS, I has students who just didn't like programming. I don't know what they thought their career would be like.

The statics and kinetics course probably does a better job of weeding out engineering students than the math classes. It's one thing to understand what moment of inertia means, but quite another to calculate it for a complex structure, even with a program. Only certain people can handle details. I remember one 40 page homework assignment where we had to calculate the moment of inertia, shear, and bending moment for a complex beam-like structure. You need something more than critical thinking and understanding to deal with that. The same is true for programming.

[Barry will remember the old North University Building at UofM and how most of us used punched cards and FORTRAN. I have a distinct memory of watching my job status on the monitor at 12:30am and seeing it go backwards on the queue because others had a higher priority level. This was just to see if the program would compile.]

In that sense, it's hard to believe that the demand for STEM careers is really reduced from those days. Maybe more people are giving it a try due to PR and then finding that it's not for them. What are the numbers for the total STEM graduates over the years? Are they really going down?

SteveH said...

"Kling suggests high unemployment now is structural, coming from a new phase of an economic transition away from plentiful high paying white collar jobs, just as prior restructuring moved away from plentiful high paying blue collar jobs."

This relates more to a view from my vantage point. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it almost seems that for STEM careers, there is an odd combination of high demand, but few opportunities. You can have extraordinary technical skills, but they are so narrow that the opportunities are few. The companies that want you, really, really want you, but you can end up stuck in a very narrow technological niche. The pay may be good, but the job security is not there. If you have to get another job, the demand for your niche could be gone. It doesn't matter if you have a general engineering degree if you have to be retrained. Companies won't pay your price to do that. They will do that with a younger engineer who has a lower salary. And yes, it's

"... a career path where your employer is constantly lobbying the govt to drive down your pay by increasing immigration.."

It can also be a career path that will chew you up and then spit you out when you hit 45.

Yesterday, I told someone that my son would either go into music or physics. Her reaction was that it was obvious that physics was the more logical choice. I told her that I wasn't convinced of that. In music, my son can focus and build himself as his own product. The money might be less, but the control will be greater, and the long term satisfaction might be much greater.

So, is there no longer any security in the job market? Will everyone have to look at themselves as a company with a product to sell? Is that the way to look at it? Capitalism is reducing costs by forcing more risk on the individual?

On Saturday, we were shopping for clothes in Sears (Aaaaaarrrrrgggh!) and ended up spending hudreds of dollars. That's because we never shop. Then, we had to wait 25 minutes in line to check out. There was only one person at the register, but hundreds of dolars were in that line waiting to check out. In spite of several "code 3" calls, help did not come. It struck me that there are plenty of jobs. It's just that companies don't want to fill them. Even at my wife's company (white collar STEM jobs) it takes the authorization of a very high level executive to open up a new job req. Things have to be really bad before anyone in middle management wants to take up that cause. People leave and they don't fill the slot. Did that work go away? No. The rest have to do it. You almost have to not care about your job to keep your sanity.

SteveH said...

For the problem of not being able to fill technical jobs, you need to look at how the jobs are defined. More likely than not, they are very specifically defined and require almost unique qualifications. There aren't a bunch of general jobs for STEM graduates. The ideal company prospect is someone with 3-5 years of experience with very specific technical skills. They may be willing to train, but never from scratch, and, only if you are at the lower end of the pay scale. The supply is there. Companies just don't want to pay the salary and pay for training. It must be that they really don't need to fill those positions.

ChemProf said...

Both SteveH and gwp had good points about the numbers -- NSF has records on how many students graduate with science/engineering degrees since 1966, and there isn't really evidence that the raw numbers are dropping:

In 1990, 329,094 students graduated with S/E majors. In 2008, it was 494,627. From 1966 to 2008, 30-36% of bachelor's degrees were in S/E, and the variation is lower in the last twenty years. So it isn't clear why people think there is a crisis now.

Interestingly, almost all of the total growth is in women going into the field. The number of men getting bachelors in S/E has been pretty flat

I'd also agree with SteveH about companies wanting things that are specific but not being willing to train. Had a really good student graduate last year, and be turned down by a company because she didn't have enough HPLC experience. She found a summer job, then got hired in the fall by the original company because she did have that experience.

Instructivist said...

If you want a good chuckle, read this piece by the NYT's A. Revkin.

Revkin is enourmously impressed by a junior's sophomoric regurgitation of hoary educationist prescriptions and treats them as breathtaking original thought. Another education writer in the making?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'd like to see some hard data that the attrition rate really is much higher for STEM majors than for other majors. It isn't true at my university.

See my post at

Catherine Johnson said...

haven't read the comments yet, but every time this issue comes up commenters point out that jobs are much, much more difficult to come by in STEM careers than we are routinely led to believe -- and may have a shorter lifespan as well

I take strong issue with the notion that unemployment is structural.

Three years ago we had full employment.

Today we have a minor depression.

"Structures" don't change overnight.

TerriW said...

I posted on Katharine's blog on a similarish thread that our local district has what I consider a lethal combination of Project Lead the Way (and a Fab Lab) to get kids who wouldn't already be excited about engineering to be excited about it (let me guess: kids who are not naturally strong in math) AND Everyday Math for their math curriculum.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm thrilled that everyone else thinks our district is totally awesome and our house value is artificially propped up by this ... but, good Lord, this seems like setting kids up for failure.

TerriW said...

Oh, yeah -- Here is Katharine's blog, if you haven't been there before. (I suspect most of you have.)

ChemProf said...

I think one issue is that people talk about "STEM" as if it is one big field. A few years ago, we hired someone in organic chemistry. Organic searches at liberal arts colleges were failing left and right, because most of those getting PhD's in organic were going right into industry at high salaries. I've shocked those in other academic fields (including STEM) when I tell them we only got 30 applicants and of those 10 were worth considering (you get lots of weak applicants who want to come to or stay in the US). We found someone great, but she didn't have the postdoc experience we usually would have wanted. I understand that the market for organic PhD's cooled a lot in the last three years, though, and that those grads are now having trouble finding positions (although I understand that the chemists are still doing better than the biologists).

In physical chemistry, I have colleagues doing searches the same year. They had nearly 100 applicants, most of which were competitive. Similarly, that same year I was on a math department search committee, and they had nearly two hundred applicants, and interviewed 7 of them!

So there are huge differences in different fields, even if the differences between those fields seem small to someone outside of STEM. That can make it really hard to advise a student.

SteveH said...

Our schools also have the completely clueless educator combination of Everyday Math and Project Lead the Way. That's their solution to STEM, but STEM is an educator word. They define it in their own image. They think the problem is mostly motivation. First, they ruin kids with EM and then claim that all they need is PLTW to inspire them. Even the PLTW web site has to remind kids that they really have to take the AP track math courses. However interesting the PLTW classes might be, those serious about a technical or scientific career in college are way too busy taking the standard math and science classes.

SteveH said...

I agree with ChemProf, educator-defined STEM is too vague. Some of the things I've read lump in vocational school degrees. These ARE (T)echnical, but they are not the same as SEM. There is MIT and then there is our local (well-regarded) vocational school NEIT (New England Institute of Technology). Educators don't (have to) worry about the details. All they know is that a STEM career has a better probability of career success that many other paths.

However, the details do matter. One minute you could be in high demand and the next minute you could be laid off, over-priced, and have too narrow skills. There might be lots of open STEM positions, but they are not for "engineering" or "chemistry". The opening might be for a Unix DBA with Oracle and Peoplesoft experience. Oh yes, you better transition those Unix skills to Windows, because the writing is on the wall. Linux might buy you a few more years, but you might have to be more willing to move. Who would have thought that DEC VMS would ever go away? My wife's company has one legacy VMS system left, and it's not a full-time position. As you get older, your salary goes up and your skills tend to get narrower and less wanted. It's all about your skills. It doesn't matter that you got top grades in engineering school.

My advice to those with technical degrees is to manage their career path. If a company is forcing you into what might be a dead-end technology path, then you have to be willing to leave and go somewhere else. Your skills might be in demand and the job might pay well, but the opening might be on the other side of the country. In the aggregate, there might be a lot of STEM jobs, but your skills might only fit a fraction of them. You have to work to keep that fraction from getting too small.

ChemProf said...

"My advice to those with technical degrees is to manage their career path."

That's good advice. It is also good advice not to get too hung up on the exact degree (which is why I get nervous as I see STEM degrees becoming more and more narrow). I graduated during the early '90s, in another recession when (particularly in LA) the jobs we'd expected to fill disappeared. Almost EVERYONE wound up in computer programming in some area or another, regardless of degree.

Catherine Johnson said...

Love this:

You work harder for lower grades than your peers, and the payoff is either a) a career path where your employer is constantly lobbying the govt to drive down your pay by increasing immigration

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof wrote:

Almost EVERYONE wound up in computer programming in some area or another, regardless of degree.

What happened to older workers who were laid off during that recession?

I'm very skeptical of STEM careers, based **entirely** on comments math people have written over the years. (If you tell me I'm wrong, then I'm wrong - !)

I have the impression that the expiration date on STEM careers is shorter than that on 'verbal' careers.

Again, if that's wrong, I'm happy to be corrected.

ChemProf said...

Here's a description of what happened to the older workers, but in a lot of cases companies instituted hiring freezes, so that while it was tough to be an older aerospace worker, it was impossible to be a young one.

I am not sure that the expiration date on STEM careers is any shorter, exactly. What do those in "verbal" careers do, for the most part? I think that a lot of them start in sales then move into management. I could argue that the same process applies to chemistry folks -- you start in the research department but have to move into management to go past a certain point. The disadvantage for my field is that to go into management, you need a PhD. For now, the advantage is still that, even at companies that mostly hire biochemists, when they want to hire someone to run the lab, they hire a Ph.D. chemist. This is one reason I am a little more positive about career prospects for chemists as opposed to physicists or biologists; there is a long history of industrial employment of PhD's, rather than just academic employment. That said, a classmate of mine from grad school did find his employment prospectives improved a lot when he removed the letters P, H, and D from his resume.

During the tech boom, my husband used to say "do you really have ten years of experience, or do you have the same year ten times?" The days when you could be hired at a company and just keep climbing the ladder without looking for opportunities are long gone for everyone. However, I wouldn't advise someone to go into STEM just because that's where the jobs are. It is too much work for too little payoff if it isn't something you really love to do.

SteveH said...

My wife (long ago) stopped putting in the early years on her resume. It made her look old and out-of-date. STEM careers come down to "What can you do for me now and how much do you cost?" You can't possibly go into a new part of a technical field by offering to be paid less. They just assume that you are desperate and will leave as soon as something better comes along. You can follow a technical specialty and find yourself in a dead end.

There is a shelf life for STEM careers, but it's based on your skill set. You can always head up the managerial track, but that has its own risks. Some companies, however, offer a technical track that mirrors the managerial track. If you can keep up with the latest technical skills, that might have more market pull than being a laid off middle manager. I'm sure "verbal" careers have their own issues, but I don't think they compare with the razor sharp issues of a technical skill set. As you get older, you would like to depend more on your experience rather than your technical skills, but not everyone can be a manager. That's the downside of staying on the technical track.

"This is one reason I am a little more positive about career prospects for chemists as opposed to physicists or biologists; there is a long history of industrial employment of PhD's, rather than just academic employment."

It's so important to look at the details. That's why I have doubts about pushing my son towards physics. It's unlikely he will find a job studying string theory and dark energy. How about the difference between chemistry and chemical engineering?

ChemProf said...

Here's an interesting discussion of the tradeoffs.

Honestly, if I were advising a student who wanted to go to med school, I'd recommend either a second tier liberal arts college (assuming good scholarships) or a smaller state school. Med schools don't adjust grades to account for differences in grading between schools, and as long as you are getting a good grounding (and so do well on the MCAT), you are better off somewhere you can get higher grades.

We had an engineering student in our postbac program a few years ago, and despite her outstanding performance in our classes, she didn't get into med school because her undergrad GPA was around a 2.7 and med schools wouldn't take the hit.

ChemProf said...

"How about the difference between chemistry and chemical engineering?"

In chemistry, there is a bit of a continuum. In a drug company, for example, there are the research chemists (who develop and test drugs and drug formulations), the process chemists (who scale up the research chemist processes for the plant), and the chemical engineers (who run the plant). Students who get an undergrad degree in chemistry can go on to MS degrees in chem E, for example, or may become process chemists who kind of straddle the two fields.

For physics, the problem is that those with undergrad physics degrees used to get jobs as very general engineers. With the downturn, companies can afford engineers and are less likely to hire physics majors. Plus the whole discipline has an increasingly academic focus, so that strong students are encouraged to go to grad school specifically to become faculty, despite the fact that there are few faculty jobs. On the other hand, I have several friends with physics degrees who did very well in the computer field. No one ever complained they didn't have the "right" degree, as a physics degree was seen as "oh, you must be really smart." No one cared about their GPAs either.

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't read the comments, but this is the observation I have tremendous difficulty with:

a new phase of an economic transition away from plentiful high paying white collar jobs, just as prior restructuring moved away from plentiful high paying blue collar jobs

After a year of pretty intensive reading in economics, I am off the boat for "naturalistic" observations like this one. As far as I'm concerned, **no** observation of broad-scale changes in the economy that fail to include the world's central banks AND the world's financial regulatory schemes (Basel I & II) should be taken at face value.

Why did good blue collar jobs disappear?

As far as I can tell, good blue collar jobs didn't disappear; they went overseas.

Why did good blue collar jobs go overseas?

The standard explanation, which appears to be Kling's, is that there was a natural "adjustment" or "restructuring" or "new equilibrium" or some such.

I am coming to believe that the real story is that our policy elites -- maybe I should say international policy elites -- decided that it was fine for the U.S. to run very large capital account deficits.

As I am beginning to understand it, capital account deficits export "demand," which means they export jobs.

I'm still trying to understand capital flows and current account deficits, but given what I think I'm beginning to understand, I have a very bad feeling about the situation.

If "middle class" jobs are now sent overseas as well, I doubt I'm going to be chalking that up to some kind of natural "restructuring" that was simply bound to occur.

Catherine Johnson said...

Assuming I'm getting the jist, I take strong exception to the idea that we all need to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars we don't have in order to buy college degrees and STEM majors! for our kids in an attempt to keep one step ahead of the "restructuring" our policy elites have decided is in store for us.

I don't like policy elites.

Catherine Johnson said...

People leave and they don't fill the slot. Did that work go away? No. The rest have to do it.

another case of the money illusion!

These workers' compensation has fallen, but they don't know it.

Catherine Johnson said...

It struck me that there are plenty of jobs. It's just that companies don't want to fill them. Even at my wife's company (white collar STEM jobs) it takes the authorization of a very high level executive to open up a new job req.

right, and I think economists talk about this in terms of the "expectations channel," i.e. people base today's actions on their expectations about tomorrow

I believe that absolutely given all the writing I've done about the brain and what it does: the brain PREDICTS

that sounds obvious and possibly even banal, but you have to think about the difference between PROCESSING, which is what most people think the brain does, and PREDICTING, which is what it actually does (it looks like)

We don't go around life seeing CAT.

We go around life seeing a little bit of fur poking out from behind the sofa and we PREDICT cat. Very different, and something that is extremely hard to program a computer to do (I'm told).

So.... the economy.

What do people think tomorrow will be like?

They think it will be like today, or worse.

Hence: no hiring.

This gets back to inflation: the money illusion means that people experience inflation as a good thing, an indication of bounty, progress, and better times ahead.

I have come to believe - this is my intuition, not something I've read in economics literature - that inflation - meaning rising wages & prices **within reason** - is the "juice."

It's the thing that makes people feel like every day in every way they are getting better and better.

Today we have low inflation AND we apparently have very low expectations of inflation (this is something people interpret from the "TIPS spread"....)

People don't think the money is going up.

Allison said...

I have NO IDEA what you are talking about re: low inflation. Don't you buy food????

We have MASSIVE inflation in consumer products while we have MASSIVE deflation in housing values--you may think that because of the drop in housing values, we're in a deflationary market, but that's not the experience the rest of us have trying to pay our bills.

Seriously, do you not grocery shop? Have you not noticed that 21 oz boxes of cereal are now 18 oz, but the same price? That a pint of ice cream is now 14 oz? That a gallon of OJ is now 7 pints instead of 8? Grocery prices are up 15-20% across all goods by shrinking product sizes--and that doesn't include peanut butter!

Restaurants have responded accordingly. As have every other business that must raise prices to pay for their expenses.

"Why did good blue collar jobs go overseas?"

They didn't all go overseas. Many were mechanized away. Here in St. Paul where we've got a Ford plant still, 50 yr old men are "apprentices", waiting to get the one "journeyman" spot that is left, because they don't need all of the people they used to need 30 or 40 years ago. And those apprentices all the while never finding another job because of what they believe their pension will be. There hasn't been job growth in blue collar jobs for young people in generations, and while the older folks may have great contracts, it's at the expense of their even being jobs for the younger workers.

But others went "overseas" in a different direction: the job stayed here, but legal and illegal immigrants took them instead, at lower wages than US citizens would take it. (in part because the welfare barrier is so high that it may not be economically worth it to take a minimum wage job instead.)

"If "middle class" jobs are now sent overseas as well, I doubt I'm going to be chalking that up to some kind of natural "restructuring" that was simply bound to occur."

I don't read Kling's point as the restructuring was *bound to occur* at all. Just that it has, and automation and globalism have a lot to do with it. It wasn't inevitable, but the ratchet is still one way: we aren't going to get US businesses to stop using overseas labor until US labor costs are as low as overseas labor, or US labor is an order of magnitude more valuable.

The reason we all thought we had full employment up until 2008 was because of the fiction of living on borrowed money. As long as the music stayed on, and everyone was buying goods and services based on their house-as-ATM, things seemed fine. Businesses did the same: they had borrowed, too, and as long as the customer or the VC or the bondholder or the feds didn't care about efficiency, they didn't either. But then the money dried up, and it turned out that folks in S. Korea can do the same job an IT professional can here, but for 30k a year, not 130k. And it turned out manufacturing in China had none of the red tape that manufacturing here has, etc. etc.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have NO IDEA what you are talking about re: low inflation.

The words "low" and "high" and "medium" really have no meaning without comparison figures.

Inflation since the crash -- inflation meaning the CPI -- has been, on average, below what it normally is.

It is "below trend."

We have an "inflation shortfall."


It is low in comparison to what it normally is, which is 2% per year.

Catherine Johnson said...

I am not sure that the expiration date on STEM careers is any shorter, exactly. What do those in "verbal" careers do, for the most part?

I have absolutely no idea.

I think the people who've brought up the 'expiration date' idea have been Steve & Bonnie - maybe some others? (I don't think either of them has used the term "expiration date," btw.)

(I need to read every comment -- I'm still hopping around.)

Catherine Johnson said...

It can also be a career path that will chew you up and then spit you out when you hit 45.

Read first, post later!

Right - Steve has said this before, but he's not the only one. (As I say, I have no idea -- )

Catherine Johnson said...



Catherine Johnson said...

They didn't all go overseas. Many were mechanized away.

I don't believe this account.

It's not that I don't believe it; it's that I think it's incomplete to the point of being more wrong than right.

As far as I can tell, a growing economy produces jobs, period. Workers who lose their jobs are reabsorbed into other jobs. That's why the change in welfare laws, during the Clinton administration, didn't produce mass unemployment. A very large number of people -- women, right? uneducated women, probably mostly women of color (I think?) -- were suddenly forced to enter the labor market.

That did not produce a huge spike in unemployment.

I'm setting aside for the moment the question of whether their jobs were good - or whether women with young children at home should be taking care of other women's children, etc.

A healthy economy produces jobs.

Catherine Johnson said...

the ratchet is still one way: we aren't going to get US businesses to stop using overseas labor until US labor costs are as low as overseas labor, or US labor is an order of magnitude more valuable.

I believe that is wrong.

Basically, over the past year, I have experienced a paradigm shift.

I used to look at the economy and see businesses and government.

Now I look at the economy and see the Fed.

I don't think you can know what is going on -- or not going on -- in any economic situation if you fail to ask: What is the Fed doing?

What is the Central Bank doing?

AND: you have to know what's going on with capital accounts.

I still can't get a handle on trade well enough to understand how trade deficits work, BUT I'm getting close enough to understand that the "decision" to send jobs overseas has a second actor involved, and that is whoever decides it's OK for the US to run a trade deficit.

Congress, I guess. Congress and the White House.

And the international policy elites who create the Basel regimes.

I don't know what role the central banks play.

Catherine Johnson said...

And it turned out manufacturing in China had none of the red tape that manufacturing here has, etc. etc

Something is going on with trade & outsourcing that I don't understand.

We are friends with two high-level executives at major US companies who manufacture in China. China is a ***huge*** headache for both companies -- to the point that both said they don't know why companies **are** manufacturing there. Both companies experience, in their dealings with Chinese factories, major theft, major quality control problems, major lying and corruption; half the time the US execs have no idea where the real factories actually are. They're given show tours of show factories and then sent on their merry way. Major American companies are manufacturing goods in Chinese factories they've never laid eyes on and couldn't lay eyes on even if they wanted to because they don't know where they are.

These companies both deal with constant international lawsuits over the issues above, too.

Neither exec understood why their companies base manufacturing in China, given the endless problems and expense.

One thought the higher-ups actually don't realize how expensive China factories are because they don't include all the lawsuits in the cost of doing business with China. Instead, they see the lawsuits as "legal," and the costs go on the line for "legal."

I find that observation highly persuasive given Pfeffer's book (Hard Facts, Dangerous Truths - something like that).

The other exec said that he/she felt there is a political correctness involved: it would be politically incorrect to locate factories here in America - !

I don't think companies necessarily know why they're doing business in China.

The years since the crash have brought home to me how little anyone knows about the macroeconomy and about macroeconomic forces within the macroeconomy.

All human decisions are made within a context, but we aren't very good at perceiving the effect context (incentives, etc.) has on our actions.

I've forgotten the name for **that** particular illusion at the moment....

Catherine Johnson said...

The reason we all thought we had full employment up until 2008 was because of the fiction of living on borrowed money.

But why were people, companies, and governments living on borrowed money?

That's the question you have to ask. At least, that is the question I am asking.

What changed that made so much debt a) possible and b) necessary or nearly so?

To the extent people ask this question at all, they chalk it up to bad character, but that's not an analysis, really; it's a moral judgment.

As far as I can tell, once the decision is made 'on high' for a country to run a trade deficit, the country as a whole has been put into debt -- and individuals will come to live in debt as well.

At least, I think that's what people like Michael Pettis are saying....

It's the current account deficit that's the killer.

ChemProf said...

Here's another factor that feeds into SteveH's "easier to make everyone work harder." It is really hard now to fire people. One trick I've taught a lot of my students is that essentially all hiring for entry level positions is via staffing agencies. That way, if someone doesn't work out, you just don't extend their contract. Plus you don't pay benefits for that person (although usually the staffing agency will cover a basic benefits package). Then companies hire their contract folks into full time positions after a while.

Anonymous said...

Catherine: "Why did good blue collar jobs go overseas?"

Allison: "They didn't all go overseas. Many were mechanized away."

Catherine: "I don't believe this account.
It's not that I don't believe it; it's that I think it's incomplete to the point of being more wrong than right."

To pick one example, the US steel industry, where from the mid-1970s to today the output has been relatively stable, but the number of employees has dropped to 1/3 the number in the mid-1970s.

a) "Since the 1970s, growing competition and the increasing availability of alternative materials, such as plastic, slowed steel industry growth; employment in the U.S. steel industry dropped from 2.5 million in 1974 to to less than a million in 1998 ... U.S. steel production has remained constant since the 1970s at about 100 million tons"


b) "A major shakeout of the industry ensued. By 1975 American steel production had plunged by 37 percent to only 89 million tons. The industry, however, still employed 457,000 workers at very high wages. By 1988 production had rebounded to 102,700,000 tons, but the number of steelworkers had declined to 169,000. Annual steel production per worker had more than tripled in thirteen years."

The problem for the blue collar steel workers is that these steel jobs were replaced in the economy with non-blue-collar jobs ... or with blue-collar jobs that paid a lot less than the pre-1970 steel jobs.

A growing economy should create jobs, but not necessarily ones that the displaced workers can/will do at their old wages.

And high paying newer jobs tend to take more training than the old blue-collar factory jobs.

-Mark Roulo


Anonymous said...

Another example, from "The U.S. Automotive Industry: National and State Trends in Manufacturing Employment":

"These trends seem, on the face of it, contradictory:
    *) Loss of 3.9 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2008;
    *) Increase in manufacturing output by 60% between 1997 and 2005."

[The paper is here talking about US manufacturing capacity as a whole, not just the automobile industry]

The paper continues:

"The application of new technologies such as robotics and use of computing and software on the factory floor are often cited as major changes that boosted manufacturing productivity, increased quality and cut prices, but also led to ongoing layoffs."

Now, can the recently unemployed manufacturing folks go get jobs writing the software used to make their old jobs more efficient? No, for the most part they cannot.

Can they get jobs designing the robots that have replaced some of them? No, they can't do that either.

If you and I wanted 60% more manufactured goods, then they would stay employed making things. But for the most part, what you and I want more of is things like music and software and movies and games and eating out at restaurants and traveling (and, sometimes iPads ... but you need a lot of iPads to make up for one car in terms of manufacturing output ... and the iPad manufacturing is going to be very low cost].

No one wonders why we don't have 90% of our workforce in agriculture, as we did way back when.

Eventually those folks (or their kids ...) moved to manufacturing.

This generation is seeing manufacturing jobs go away, too, for the same basic reason: We as a society are getting pretty efficient at making things, and don't want twice as much *stuff*.

The problem is that moving from well paying manufacturing jobs to low skill white collar jobs is going to involve a non-trivial cut in pay. Which sucks for those people, and also for people like them in the next generation.

Not everyone has the skill set to write software, but also not everyone has the skill set to be an electrician. Simple jobs (screwing on lug nuts) commanded good wages for a few generations. But now they don't. And I don't see us going back any time soon.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

A growing economy should create jobs, but not necessarily ones that the displaced workers can/will do at their old wages.

I know that's what everyone thinks, but I've stopped believing it.

There's interesting data on this issue leading up to the crash.

I think I'll just quote Scott Sumner's post on this subject:

Housing starts peaked in January 2006, and then fell steadily for years:

January 2006 — housing starts = 2.303 million, unemployment = 4.7%

April 2008 — housing starts = 1.008 million, unemployment = 4.9%

October 2009 — housing starts = 527,000, unemployment = 10.1%

So housing starts fall by 1.3 million over 27 months, and unemployment hardly changes. Looks like those construction workers found other jobs, which is what is supposed to happen if the Fed keeps NGDP growing at a slow but steady rate. Then NGDP plummeted, and housing fell another 480,000. Is this because people didn’t “want” those houses? No. They didn’t want 2.2 million new houses a year; that really was a societal screw-up (with many possible villains.) Kling’s completely right about that. But they probably do want about a million new houses a year as our population grows by 3 million per year and families average about 3. The reason housing fell far below normal is because the severe fall in NGDP created a deep recession. Unemployed factory and service workers aren’t going to buy new houses.

The housing bubble burst well before the crash, but employment held steady.

That has to mean that construction workers found other jobs because the economy continued to create jobs.

Catherine Johnson said...

However, I wouldn't advise someone to go into STEM just because that's where the jobs are. It is too much work for too little payoff if it isn't something you really love to do.

That's exactly the way I see it --- entirely based on things you all have said.

The message I get from the media and from our policy elites is that "math is a sure thing."

Major in "STEM" and you're assured a job, high pay, benefits -- AND YOU'LL BE SAVING YOUR COUNTRY!

Anonymous said...

"That has to mean that construction workers found other jobs because the economy continued to create jobs."

It is almost as if the drop in auto employment since 2008 had some bad effect :-)

Sure, those construction guys got absorbed in 2006 ... the economy was doing okay, then. But the long-term trend for skilled manual labor is still down. Not every year, but over time.

The big jump in unemployment from 2008 to 2009 wasn't just because of construction. Housing prices dropped, and *everyone* felt a lot poorer. So *everyone* cut back on spending (which is what you do when you get a lot poorer very fast).

People who were used to refinancing their houses every few years and taking money out [to spend] couldn't do that anymore. The firms that had built up capacity to handle that spending found that they had excess capacity, and started laying off.

I think you are confounding our current recession (caused by most American's feeling poorer all at once and all of a sudden) with a long-term drop in skilled blue-collar employment in America.

These are not the same thing.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

No one wonders why we don't have 90% of our workforce in agriculture, as we did way back when.

Right, but that's not what I'm questioning.

I'm questioning why innovation and technical progress "suddenly" mean that people with average IQs and below can't make a good living -- as they could when I was a child.

I haven't read Tyler Cowen's book, but I'm inclined to believe that Western economies had their years "glorieuses" back in the .... 1950s and 1960s, I think. The Post-War years.

Nevertheless, the economy has continued to innovate and the population has continued to grow.

I am asking why in the past couple of decades innovation and the invention of new technology has meant lower wages for working class employees instead of higher, as it meant in the past.

I **think** it has to do with the decision to run a current account deficit.

Catherine Johnson said...

Sure, those construction guys got absorbed in 2006 ... the economy was doing okay, then.

That is my point!

My point is that when an economy is healthy, old jobs die and new jobs are created.

That is exactly what I'm saying. (Or trying to say.)

But the long-term trend for skilled manual labor is still down. Not every year, but over time.


And the **reason** for that trend is what I now question.

This "long-term trend" is always spoken of as if it was simply ..... in the cards. It was an "economic restructuring" or an "adjustment" or a "structural" something or other.

What do those words mean?

Why do we have a long-term trend away from skilled labor to the point where we are now facing a future where you need a Ph.D. to get a job and college is the "new high school."

I don't believe this state of affairs is simply in the nature of things.

I think policy decisions were made, and no doubt will be made, by policy elites whose unit of analysis is not the individual person in his individual struggles.

Anonymous said...

Two differences come to mind:

1) In the 1950s and the 1960s Europe and Japan were still recovering from WW-II. We didn't import lots of things like cars from either place, so unions in the auto industry could force higher wages. This didn't make the country any richer (they got more, the folks buying cars had less money left over after buying the car), but might still have been a good tradeoff for the country [more wage compression might be good for sociological cohesion, for example]. In any event, the UAW can't force higher wages anymore because they'll kill their companies (see GM and Chrysler).

2) Computers weren't used much in industry until maybe around the 1980s or 1990s. They are used a *lot* now. CNC machines put a lot of skilled tool-and-die guys out of a job. This wasn't a risk in 1960. Same deal with robots on auto manufacturing lines.

(2) is basically a claim that computers make things qualitatively different.

I'm sure that there are other things that matter, too.

One thing to keep in mind about the current account deficit (or trade deficit) is that the mirror of this is an investment surplus. People in other countries are investing more in our country that they would if there was not trade deficit. This is pretty close to a tautology.

Now ... because we are also running a government budget deficit, the foreign "investment" is often in US Gov. bonds ... which don't do much to increase our wealth as a society. If we didn't run a government deficit, the trade deficit would either go away or turn into more investment in US companies [which might have other problems ... see Japan in the 1980s when companies could borrow money for almost free].

In any event, the only practical way to get rid of the trade deficit is to probably put up protectionist barriers. There is a good chance that this would make things bad for everyone ... but I'm not betting that we don't try it at some point!

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

Have I mentioned I don't like policy elites?

I believe I have.

Anonymous said...

"I think policy decisions were made..."

What policy decision do you think were made that reduced our agricultural work force to 3% of the workforce?

Then, what policy decision(s) do you think were made that caused us to not need as many manufacturing jobs?

Finally, *what* non-blue-collar jobs do you think would pay what 1970s UAW folks were making (say, about $60K-$70K per year in today's money) for folks with only a high school education?

It's maybe useful to remember that prior to the 1940s, there wasn't this huge middle class made up of highly paid low-skilled blue-collar folks. This condition existed only for about 30-ish years.

You are reacting as if that was "normal." It wasn't.

It would be nice if it was, but historically it wasn't.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

Talking to Ed now ....

By definition there is no other period that is exactly like the post-WWII period, but that's not the same thing as saying there was never a period of increasing real wages for working class people.

There absolutely were other periods when there were increasing **real** wages for working class people.

Ed says he's not a US historian so he doesn't know exactly; probably the ante bellum years, the period from early 20th century up to close to the crash -- definitely during the 1st World War.

The Roaring Twenties weren't just a middle class phenomenon.

As far as I can tell, there is no intinsic, "natural" reason why things are the way they are **now** -- or why they have been the way they have been for the past 20 years. History doesn't appear to work that way.

As to policy decisions, I really don't know what part of our government makes decisions about international monetary regimes (Basel I & II) or about exchange rates, capital controls, and the like. I assume that Congress signs off on these things; I don't know what role the Fed plays.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm basically grappling with Michael Pettis's writings, which I don't understand well at all, but which I've come to trust.

In case anyone else wants to grapple with this guy, here are the salient links:

How to become virtuous and save more

Current account dilemma

Germany must do it, not China

An Exorbitant Burden

Foreign capital, go home!

Here's the formulation that I've been trying to understand:

importing [foreign] capital means exporting demand...[and] increasing unemployment

The U.S. runs a trade deficit.

I assume that our policy elites think that running a trade deficit is either a harmless thing or a good thing. There's a lot of grumbling about China in Congress,'s not as if our elected representatives perceive themselves as having no decision to make...

I'm also assuming - this may be wrong - that there is a causal relationship between our trade deficit and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Catherine Johnson said...

No one ever complained they didn't have the "right" degree, as a physics degree was seen as "oh, you must be really smart."

There is a fabulous line on this theme in Margin Call!

Best line in the whole movie; the theater burst out laughing when they heard it.

The scene is a Wall Street conference room in the dead of night, where top management are finding out that the firm is broke.

The person explaining it to them is a 28-year old risk analysis with some kind of engineering degree from MIT.

Catherine Johnson said...

One thing to keep in mind about the current account deficit (or trade deficit) is that the mirror of this is an investment surplus.


That's what's bad about it.

Pettis says that this "investment surplus" forces the debtor country to choose between unemployment or citizens living in debt.

Catherine Johnson said...

"informal empire

I've just learned this term.

Apparently, in the late 19th century and for the next 50 years Germany had a policy of subjugating Germany via economic policy, which included investing in Eastern European countries, loaning them money, building factories in their countries, etc. Currency manipulation, too, I gather.

This is apparently a version of the argument typically made about the British Empire, which has never been overturned. Britain dominated colonies not via dictatorships and brute force, but economically.

Glen said...

@ChemProf, your Volokh article and your own story about the outstanding engineer who couldn't get into med school were both fascinating in a slasher movie sort of way. Just when I think the education story can't get any worse....

FedUpMom said...

Catherine, it's "gist". .

Here's one explanation for the loss of (some) jobs that sounds reasonable to me: (heard it on the radio!)

During the bubble, everyone, including people running companies, felt rich and likely to become richer, so they were relatively careless about staffing. When the bubble burst, companies started looking at their salary payouts and firing or laying off anyone they could. Now they've discovered they can run their companies about as profitably as before without those employees. Those jobs are not coming back.

Of course, this often isn't fair to the employees left behind, who are often taking on the work of those who were laid off, for no extra compensation.

Plus, there are entire categories of jobs that are being destroyed by modern technology. Remember when secretaries were hired to do the typing? Remember when you'd call a travel agent to book a flight? Remember when you'd go to a brick-and-mortar bookstore and give money to a cashier to buy a book? That's how old we all are.

SteveH said...

The Volokh article is interesting. The best line I read was:

"And when you know, and your parents know, that in addition to the 50k a year you’ve paid to study some liberal arts subject that only has a return on investment if you double down the bet on law school or b-school — at another 50k a year?"

However, I don't agree with his idea of providing technical minors for liberal arts students. While those skills might be useful, it's not clear that they will have any impact on job prospects - especially on a pass/fail basis. The question is whether companies (or grad schools) look past credentials and grades at the real person when hiring for a job.

Is college really necessary for the job you end up in? You need that piece of paper to get in the door, but in many cases, you could have saved time and money with on-the-job training, even if you paid for it. College is so inefficient and costly for many classes. Is college supposed to make you a well rounded person, or just provide a path to a job? At the current cost, I can save a lot of money and teach myself sociology perfectly well, especially if that's not my career path.

Even if you do succeed in the elite school/top grades marathon, what have you really won? Have you just won the chance to get paid very well doing something you really didn't want to do? Do you have happiness and control over your life? Should you just shut up and be happy that you have a job? All those years of playing and winning the education game, and what have you won?

Early in my career, when my wife and I moved to a new area, the job prospects were limited. There were lots of STEM-type jobs, but my degrees were not stamped with the words "STEM". There were lots of programming jobs, but that didn't mean that I would be happy with any of them. I ended up with a contractor for the Navy and programming their AN/UYK 7 computers in assembly language. I thought my head would explode. We had to schedule testing slots at all hours of the day and night.

You can't just look at the number of STEM jobs and assume that tech grads are mobile. You could reverse that and claim that the job market forces people to be mobile against their wishes. It's very difficult to decide to live in a particular area without a lot of sacrifices. My job was part of our process of doing that.

Some areas, like the 128 and 495 belts around Boston give you some flexibility, but that's at the cost of distance and traffic. However, just because there are lots of STEM companies around Boston, it doesn't mean that you qualify for even a very small fraction of them. Then start looking at the cost of housing and property taxes. You are now pushed out to 495 and beyond. You might as well hop on the train to NYC in Stamford.

My son loves physics, but he wouldn't love, or probably like, programming. If that's the kind of job he wanted, that's what he would study. Why would one work so hard for a goal and then say "Whatever?". Even if you get your dream job, do you even know what it's all about?

I guess some (even STEM graduates) are now just happy to get one decent offer. After 16+ years of education, this is what you get? If you have a PhD in physics (and you really want to do physics), what choices do you have, slave wages in a post-doc position? Some of this is not new, but the cost of college changes the formula and risk choices.

This just reinforces my view that the college for all movement is very damaging, even for some of the best students. It's a statistical game, but it doesn't take much to fall off the bell curve. That doesn't mean that I will tell my son not to play the game, but I will try to get him to understand and define his own goals far beyond his education years.

Catherine Johnson said...

FedUp Mom - good lord!




(I wonder where "gist" came from??? What word am I mixing 'jist' up with???)

Way off-topic...I have two ESL students in my comp class this fall. One speaks French as his native language. I wrote "double entendre" on the board (because it came up with reference to early versions of Little Red Riding Hood) & asked him what it meant in French. (I read some French, so I have my own translation, but I was interested in his.)

He said it makes no sense at all (though he gave a literal translation that was the same as mine) & that the expression isn't used in French.

ChemProf said...

SteveH, here's some specific advice for your son, if he does go on in physics. First, don't let the people in his undergrad or PhD program convince him that the only acceptable job is at a research university. That's one way that academics wind up as permanent postdocs. Look at state schools and small liberal arts colleges (even if they are second or third tier). Don't forget to consider national lab jobs (they pay really well, and you get to do research full time, but they are less prestigious). There are also some physics jobs in companies, although you'll need to hunt for them. Finally, if he is serious about this as a career, he needs to be willing to move anywhere in the country to find the job he wants. There is often less competition for great academic jobs in the midwest or south, because fewer people are willing to move there.

FedUpMom said...

"Double entendre" isn't used in French? That's hilarious.

I think "double entendre" is mostly a British expression. The Brits, of course, tend to associate anything sexual with France. ("No sex, please, we're British!") So a condom is a "French letter", and venereal disease is the "French disease", and a naughty play on words is a "double entendre".

While we're off topic:

A woman walked into a bar, and asked the bartender for a double entendre. So he gave her one!

Catherine Johnson said...

FedUp Mom wrote:

During the bubble, everyone, including people running companies, felt rich and likely to become richer, so they were relatively careless about staffing. When the bubble burst, companies started looking at their salary payouts and firing or laying off anyone they could.

For what it's worth, I believe this account, which jibes with what I believe I know about human psychology. (And what I know about human psychology is more than just what I see around me; I have 'journalistic' expertise in this realm.)

I connect this with the money illusion: people experience nominal increases in income as real.

I also connect it with the Go - NoGo systems in the brain: those are our two modes, as it turns out! Go, NoGo.

As far as I can see, a recession puts everyone into NoGo mode.

Now they've discovered they can run their companies about as profitably as before without those employees. Those jobs are not coming back.

I personally (not citing experts here) don't think this prediction is right.

Historically, during WWII many people expected the Depression to return as soon as the war was over and government spending contracted. (I have the impression this idea was near-universal, but that's an impression.)

Instead, the economy took off and had what were probably the best 30 years in ... the 20th century? (Not sure.)

I should probably find a short & sweet explanation of Damasio's work on frontal lobe damage to post up front.

What Damasio showed is that there is no such animal as reason alone. All reason is suffused with emotion, and emotion is critical to making good decisions.

I believe we are in a minor depression -- and regardless of what an economist would call it we are certainly in a psychological depression. Look at the wrong-track polls.

In a psychological depression, people are in "NoGo" states; they're focused on avoiding future harm; they are living in states of uncertainty.

Presumably at some point in my lifetime the economy will go back to robust growth (unless the Fed decides that Japan is our model), at which point "Go" will become dominant again (or at least alive again).

One thing I've learned about "business" over the last few years is that "business" as a whole - the private sector - isn't rational at all. That's not a criticism per se; it's just to say that the private sector runs according to the same cognitive structures and institutional lethargies the public sector does -- with the, in my view, very healthy constraint that businesses actually can fail. Business, I believe, receives a reality check the public sector often does not.

SO: businesses aren't going to learn anything about efficiency from our minor depression; they'll go back to "careless" hiring because "careless" hiring is the same as optimistic hiring.

Careless is "Go."

(btw, I've been working on a project for -- gosh -- 2 years now that's all about the basal ganglia, an area of the brain nobody writes about & that is still a huge mystery.

Go and NoGo are basal ganglia functions, and they're pretty much the Key to Life.

(That's a joke, but not entirely.)

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't believe that technological advance causes overall loss of jobs --- BUT this may be one of those pieces of received wisdom that I should revisit.

I also don't believe that technological advance automatically shifts an economy to a "knowledge" or "service" economy. And, again, that could be wrong, but I just don't see it. We have bodies; we live in houses; we buy physical objects to consume....

And - hey! - I read a fabulous article a few years back about the fact that robots who can clean your house have not been developed!

Since I was a kid, people were predicting automation of homemaking, yet automation of homemaking has not occurred.

There's an element of human judgment machines cannot as yet master.

The guy who invented the Palm is working on a new paradigm (machines as predictors, not processors), so we'll see how that goes.

However, if it turns out to be the case that technological advance automatically puts very large swathes of the population out of work; if it turns out that technological advance makes it very difficult for anyone with an average or below-average IQ to find work; I'm going to become a social democrat pronto.

Catherine Johnson said...

FedUpMom wrote:

Here's one explanation for the loss of (some) jobs that sounds reasonable to me: (heard it on the radio!)

I love it!

That's the essence of being an Informed Citizen: you have to figure out who to listen to.

I'm listening to Scott Sumner, who is a professor writing a blog and not a member of the elite.

Speaking of figuring out who to listen to, I've decided Language Log is right: whom is dead.

Catherine Johnson said...

800 verbal; mid 600s math--

Just started reading Volokh:

There are a lot of smart students out there who will nonetheless not be able to compete in world class institutions in STEM. Why? They might have, say, near 800s in verbal and writing, and mid 600s in math on the SAT.

That's C.

I don't know what Volokh is going to say next, but I've been planning to put up a post about the part of the Times article that neither Allison nor Katharine highlighted (I think - I've been reading too fast): the drop-outs from STEM are (as I recall) disproportionately in elite schools.

That is C's problem **exactly**: little fish in a big pond.

Both in our local public schools and in his Jesuit high school, C. can't compete with the top kids in math -- and the top kids are the only ones who make it through to calculus.

C., whose IQ is high and who scored an 800 on the verbal section, putting him in a group of just 1400 boys in the entire test-taking population of --- is it 2 million? --- can't even get through the high school sequence of math.

Attewell's study shows that a kid like C., attending a middle-class school, would have taken AP calculus and would have done fine on the AP exam.

He'll end up attending a college where the math kids blow him out of the water, so that's the end of math.

We've told him not to set foot inside a math class at whatever college he attends. He is to take any and all math classes at a community college.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow --- I'm halfway through -- that is a fantastic article

thanks so much for posting the link

This is EXACTLY what we've lived through AT THE K-12 LEVEL, WHICH IS CRAZY

K-12 schools, especially "star schools" like mine (i.e. schools with an affluent, educated demographic), wash kids out of math by 3rd or 4th grade **within K-12 math.**

There is no commitment to teaching high-ability students K-12 math to anything resembling mastery.

Catherine Johnson said...

What you are looking for is a technical track designed for a student who is Yale quality in history or philosophy, but who needs something more like State College for technical skills.


This is incredible.

That is C.

I think I told you all that C. is actually being recruited by a very elite school because of his strength in humanities. Recruited. (We had no idea schools at the Yale level did any such thing.)

If he gets into the school, he won't be able to take math or science -- and we'll be spending $50K a year for our son not to be able to take math or science. (I haven't looked into whether this school offers anything decent for non-math majors - and have an email from rudbeckia hirta on the subject that I have yet to get to. I'm BEHIND.)

C. is at the school this weekend; he and 80 other students from across the country were invited to spend a weekend at the school living with students there and taking "precepts" with the school's professors.

I didn't even know what a "precept" was. Ed had to explain it to me. Of course, when he told me a "precept" is a "recitation" something-or-other, I didn't know what that was, either.

Ed explained again, and then said, "What did you call it at Iowa?" (where I first taught).

We called it "Sections."

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I didn't realize this, but apparently C. has been invited for I think 3 of these weekends. The other two were at Wash U and Oberlin. I didn't realize what the invitations were. In the case of Wash U, the invitation was for a weekend at the school's expense, with us picking up plane fare. I saw that as a come on, and didn't even read the material.

The third school paid for transportation as well.

In any event, I gather this form of recruitment is called "avalanche recruiting." You invite in a group of students for a weekend, the students develop some bonds, and they help recruit each other both to apply and to accept an offer if they get one.

Catherine Johnson said...

is there a serious possibility that you plan to go on to law school or b-school? If so, then the strategy is completely different — go with classes and majors that maximize GPA, period. No other priority in any class that has a grade. If that means Sustainable Development in Latin America, go for it; if it means anthropology as human rights activism, go for it; if it means Global Justice, go for it. The professional schools won’t care; all that matters is the GPA.

from Volokh

ChemProf said...

For SteveH: I realized I should make a stronger pitch for the national labs as a source of physics jobs in particular. My actual field is physical chemistry, so I worked with many physics guys. One of my postdocs was in a national lab, and that has two big things going for it:

1. The pay is great, nothing like slave wages (which in chem at least aren't that bad anyway. An academic postdoc makes ~40K, but a national lab postdoc makes over 80K!). I only got back to my postdoc salary after I got tenure.

2. Once you are in the national lab system, it is relatively easy to move into a staff position, at least as compared to moving into an assistant professorship from an academic postdoc. I know quite a few people who did that despite having "unfashionable" PhD's from Tulane, LSU, Indiana, etc.

If your son finds he really wants to do research and not teach, this is a really good route, but it isn't one that is talked about much. You do have to be something of an entrepreneur, looking for sources of funding and exciting new projects, but you can have a solid career there. Plus, they generally want US citizens (it is easier for them to get clearances that way), so that thins the competition a bit.

Anonymous said...

I've got quite some time to sort this out, but is there any obvious *downside* to getting a degree in math (assume one is *not* interested in being a professional academic)?

My gut says that this makes more sense than, say, "ecological studies."

Assume that along with the math degree, one also minors in something like history (or classics).

Also assume that the kid in question isn't going to be an engineer.


-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

The argument, Mark, is that the math major will have a lower GPA, so won't have some of the same opportunities they would have if they had a "studies" degree with a 4.0. Law/business/med school doesn't really adjust for the degree, so if that is your goal, you want the highest possible GPA.

That said, I've found that chem/math/STEM majors can go into the same areas that other students with check-box degrees, and are often very successful in areas where they don't "need" a technical degree (even without minoring in a "verbal" area).

Glen said...

Confessions of an Engineering Washout

-- an interesting article by lawyer Douglas Kern on his attempt to get a STEM degree at Harvard.

Allison said...

To combine a bunch of these ideas in one comment, I think it's worth separating getting a degree in something you like from the career plan you intend to use that degree for.

Getting a physics degree is a terrific thing for learning how to think, having discipline, an enormous number of quantitative skills under your belt, and knowing a bit of physics. You aren't stuck only ending up as a phd level research physicist.

Same with a math degree. There's a reason that tons of folks with bachelor's in math and phys went into quantitative finance, or working as a consultant at McKinsey, or teaching, or doing IEOR like stuff, or... And those degrees can get you a job at Google writing code, if you want it, too.

Speaking as the math major with the low GPA from the other smartypants U school down the river, there are plenty of opportunities as long as a 22 yr old doesn't think "I have no skills" but can think about their degree skills creatively.

I think the "but I have no skills" is the BIGGEST impediment to success for the newly mined bachelor's degree holder. And it's the same thing many a liberal arts degree holder thinks, which is why they go to law school--because then they see that they'd be *something* well defined.

They do have schools, but the tunnel vision of school makes it hard to see, esp. if they didn't have an off campus summer job or internship in industry. A good career counseling center can really help this panic subside.

The funny part of the Kern piece is that *every engineer I knew* and most of the physics and chem majors felt *exactly the same way* but they didn't drop out--they stayed in. Was that because they were just stubborn? Or because they didn't see a way out (I did know a few writing and music majors at MIT, actually)? Or had they just more peer pressure that *this is how it is* to keep them from feeling like giving up?

So I don't think Kern's experience explains the wash-outness. Something else about his temperament or his interests is more the deciding factor.

Allison said...

errr, skills not schools!

They do have SKILLS, but the tunnel vision of school makes it hard to see, esp. if they didn't have an off campus summer job or internship in industry.

SteveH said...

I think I'm coming at this issue a little differently. I went into engineering, but I surely won't or can't do many kinds of engineering. One of my degrees is in computer engineering, but, as I said in another post, when I had to do a particular type of programming, I felt like my head would explode. There might be a lot of STEM jobs, but that's only a "Plan B" consideration. I want to know about how to help my son with his "Plan A". Part of that might be to get him to be realistic about what the career options really are.

My son is interested in theoretical physics, not programming or economics. It may be nice that, upon graduation, he could find a job in many different areas, but once you start down one path, you are often stuck forever. There may be a lot of STEM jobs, but once you get into a particular area, the salary might be high, but the opportunities low. It's not necessarily comforting to know that you might be able to get a good job, but that your head will explode.

I like ChemProf's specific comments about career paths. I think that too many play the college game very well, but then take the first job that comes their way after college.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, ChemProf.

I don't think Law, MBA or Doctor are on the horizon, so it sounds like there is little downside to actually taking a major in which you learn a bunch :-)

This was kinda my thinking ... unless you need the high GPA more than you need to learn something (and professional school was the only example I could come up with where the GPA was more useful than learning), it is safe to take the harder major and learn specific content.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

In some ways I think I got lucky when I picked my college.

It was good, but not MIT/Stanford/Ivy/UCB great. But ... one thing that I did encounter was that almost all the full professors in the Chemistry department took teaching the undergrads seriously.

I have a hypothesis that the best undergrad *teaching* might show up in the 40-100 ranked schools because the profs are bright and the fellow students are bright, but the profs are not so high powered focused on their research that they don't want to teach.

You give up some (maybe a lot?) smarts in the student body and some in the professors, but you get back an actual focus on teaching from the professors.

Of course, I have a sample size of two (one for me, one for classes I took at Stanford not as part of my undergrad...).

I wonder if Kern would have done better at a slightly less prestigious school...


-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

With STEM degrees and with physics undergraduate degrees in particular I'd be a little wary of the large research institutions. As an example Cal (UC Berkeley) is the top rated graduate school in chemistry but I sure wouldn't send my kids there as undergraduates with the 500 person classrooms taught by grad students with three weeks of training.

There are a few top notch undergraduate-centered places (Harvey Mudd leaps to mind) but failing getting into there I think there's a lot to be said for finding a strong 2nd tier liberal arts college with one or two solid STEM departments that are actually doing some research as well as teaching. Strong students get lots of attention and opportunities as well as stronger and more personal letters of recommendation.

ChemProf said...

I was one of those chem grad students at Cal, and we got two days of training. But yeah, for STEM and given the current economic environment, I'd suggest looking at second tier liberal arts colleges and see what scholarship money was out there, as well as which departments have a strong history. It does take a little more searching, but there are some gems. I used to think it was a problem to be the big fish in a little pond, but at least for now, that seems to be a good strategy for students.

GoogleMaster said...

Hey, hey, my niece is one of those first-year chem grad students at Cal. I believe she *is* teaching some sort of class this semester, but I'm not sure how much training she got.

GoogleMaster said...

Wow, coincidentally just watched a fascinating segment on 60 Minutes. Google "Freeman Hrabowski" of UMBC.

ChemProf said...

Googlemaster, I guarantee she's teaching something, either first semester gen chem or first semester organic, depending on her field. Cal requires that every chem grad student TA three semesters, and you always work in the fall when you start. Which means that first year undergrads are being taught by first year grad students who are busy with their own classes and are also trying to get into a research group.

Good luck to your neice! Cal is a great place to get a chem PhD.

SteveH said...

If it's very likely you will go on to graduate school, how much does your undergrad school help or hurt? When I applied to graduate school, it seemed that the decision was made more by the department I was applying to rather than the school. How is acceptance for graduate school different than undergraduate school?

My advisor strongly pushed me to go to another school for graduate work. They want you to see the field from a different perspective. I didn't switch schools, but it seems that graduate school acceptance is not hindered by coming from another college. It's expected.

"I used to think it was a problem to be the big fish in a little pond, but at least for now, that seems to be a good strategy for students. "

It seems that a carefully selected undergrad school can be a really good choice, and you might get more money. Then again, I went to U of Michigan, but my world was really just the engineering department I was in. We had department picnics and staff vs. student drinking contests. (This was the 70's.) There weren't many graduate TA's. I never felt like a fish, big or small. We could walk into our professors' offices just to chat. These were/are some of the leaders in the field. Perhaps it's different in engineering. If you know what degree you want as a freshman, you start taking those courses in your first year and you are made to feel like part of the department.

I started out commuting to UCONN (a clueless physics major), but when I figured out what I wanted to do, I transferred and didn't wait for graduate school. The downside of transferring is that the credits don't transfer properly. I fell behind a semester. Also, I had to catch up on specific department classes.

Catherine Johnson said...

late to the party ... Allison wrote: To combine a bunch of these ideas in one comment, I think it's worth separating getting a degree in something you like from the career plan you intend to use that degree for.

I've been thinking that for a while now.