Foreign Students, Local Burden

There’s a problem with foreign students attending our state universities that’s not immediately obvious, and I wanted to make sure I pointed it out.

State universities receive a significant part of their funding from the state.  At my alma mater, it was much more than half, with government funding, research grants, and charitable donations making up around 85% of funding (according to the fund raising campaigns that used to be run on campus).  Nearly all of that money comes from within the United States.

When a foreign student comes to campus, they filled a place that was paid for mostly by Americans, even though most of those students came from well-to-do families abroad.  Even if they pay twice the cost in tuition, they’re still getting a great deal on the cost of an education.  Not only that, but they’re willing and able to take student research positions without pay.  That takes away opportunities from American students competing for the all important experience required to get a job after school.

I’m not saying this out of animosity, but there’s only so many opportunities available to our students.  If we allow foreign students to come to our country and take those opportunities, then they will be the ones who prosper while our own people (who paid the taxes to support the university both directly and indirectly) never see the benefit of their country’s investment.

I’ve been told there’s plenty of opportunity for students in STEM fields, you just need to go out and find it.  If there’s really “more than enough to go around”, then we need to make unlimited opportunities available for student internships within the school.  I know that’s unrealistic – that’s the source of my frustration.  Americans are paying a premium to support our universities, but are being shortchanged on opportunity by foreign students who attend them.  If Americans are paying for the universities, then Americans should be favored in the process when there’s a shortage of work.


Ranting About Job Hunting

One of the problems we have in our country is the assumption that people (especially young people) have extra money just lying around.  I ran into it most recently when I was talking about how much trouble I was having finding work.  I graduated seven years ago with a degree in engineering.  If you have 2-3 years of experience, you’re golden and there are lots of jobs, but if you haven’t gotten that experience yet, getting your foot in the door is somewhere between difficult and impossible… at least without having someone to personally let you in by giving you a job with a hearty recommendation.

It does not matter how much you know if you can’t get a government license to be able to practice your craft.  I can’t even become an engineer-in-training (i.e. one of the first steps toward becoming an engineer) without approval from an existing engineer in my state – a most absurd restriction.  This is nothing but a barrier to entry to keep intelligent working class people out of professional positions.

And when I talk about how lack of experience is holding me back, it is met with ignorant gibberish.  I usually describe what I have been asked and told to do on multiple occasions: Relocate at my own expense to live near a company, then live at my own expense – paying for rent and food and transportation costs out of pocket – while working full time at a company doing a job for six months to two years to get some basic experience… all without ever getting a paycheck.  When I said “I need at least enough money to live from a job”, I get non-sense feedback about how “You have to be willing to make sacrifices” and “That’s not my problem”.

I’m not suggesting I need fancy dinners or a nice house – I’m saying that if I’m paid nothing at all, I literally cannot work.  The grocery store doesn’t accept “experience”, and no landlord is going to rent to me without a deposit (much less rent).  On top of that, I still have student loans accruing interest while I’m looking for work.  When I point out how ridiculous it is to expect people to work without pay, the immediate response I get from the industry is “Other people do it, it’s too bad you can’t”.

Add to it the ridiculous fact that I went to college to be more employable, and the whole situation makes even less sense.  What good is an engineering degree if it doesn’t mean that you can get engineering jobs?

I always want to ask “How many years did you work before you got your first paycheck?”  It is ridiculous and unreasonable to expect anyone to work for the benefit of somebody else without getting paid.  In the “good old days”, if you were working, you got a paycheck.

Part of the problem with America is that nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, and that is most true of the people who have the most money.  Labor, more than anything else, is being deemed worthless and paid accordingly.  So where do I end up?  I end up as a laborer in a warehouse, or waving a sign, while holding an engineering degree, because nobody is willing to hire me and I can’t ever get together enough money to “make the sacrifice” I need to make to be a professional.

I have no sympathy for companies that want to cry about “not having any engineers”, because they won’t pay for the ones they’ve got.  I’m not the only engineering graduate who can’t find a job.  What these companies really mean is that they aren’t willing to invest in the human capital (the engineer) and pay them enough to keep them on board once they’ve completed their basic training.

Why Educate Everybody? (This is why)

One of the problems I’ve seen in principle (if not explicitly stated) is “Why do we bother to offer everyone an education, especially when so many people waste the opportunity?”  I think our country has forgotten why we educate absolutely everyone (even -and especially- the poor and disadvantaged), and provide everyone with the opportunity to be successful.  Thankfully, that reason has nothing to do with high-minded altruism, so it’s rigorous to survive the most unabashed selfishness.

The robust reason that we provide everyone with the opportunity to succeed is because we cannot know in advance who the geniuses are going to turn out to be (no matter how much we try), and the cost of offering education to literally everyone is cheaper than the benefit even a single genius brings to our nation.

It is true that there will be many, many people who choose to squander the opportunity they get – that’s just the nature of offering something extremely valuable to children who don’t appreciate its worth.  But the best and brightest are the ones who will change the world (at least in the realms of science, medicine, and engineering), and we should not hobble our country by condemning young people based on their parents’ ability to pay for their education.

These are the people who could cure cancer, master fusion, or something else we haven’t even imagined yet.

This is ignoring the compelling but non-selfish argument that everyone should be offered the opportunity to become the best person they can be, and how that opportunity is fundamental to basic personal liberty, but that’s requiring people to care about morals and principles.  We can always trust people to be self interested, and if living in a wealthy nation where you don’t have to be the genius yourself to enjoy the fringe benefits, then I don’t know what is.

I have heard much made about how “China and India have so many more doctors and engineers than we do”, and “There’s a shortage of STEM professionals”.  Those countries also have far more people than we do – we can’t afford to let anyone with potential slip through if we want to be able to keep up with them.

How not to Judge Labor

There’s a problem, and while it’s very common to teaching, it’s still a problem elsewhere, too.  That problem is that employers are trying to judge their employees on both compliance with standard procedures and evaluate them based on results.

It is completely reasonable to evaluate an employee based on their compliance with following protocol, and in a perfect world that would be the best way to achieve success.  In teaching, throughout the year, it seems like our teachers are expected to teach using the lessons and on the subjects that administration demands.  There is a similar parallel in sales, where following a certain protocol should deliver results, most of the time.

It is also completely reasonable to evaluate employees based on their output and results.  If a teacher’s students are learning, then the methods they are using are clearly working – regardless what those methods happen to be.  Similarly, if a salesperson is evaluated based on their sales quota then, unless they are breaking laws or making empty promises, it does not make sense to condemn their methods.

But judgment cannot be done both ways at once.  The results come directly from the methods used to obtain them.  If a teacher spends the entire year compliantly teaching in a specific mandated way, and a significant portion of her students failed to learn anything, it is completely unreasonable to condemn her as a “bad teacher” or reward her as a “good teacher”.  If everyone is using the same method, then success or failure come more from the capricious whims of fate that decides who sits before you on a given day.  It is unreasonable to spend the entire year putting workers into a straightjacket with no room for individual deviation, and then trying to evaluate their results based on their “performance” at the end of said year.  Reality just does not work that way, in spite of what our evaluative methods would lead you to believe.

I am convinced that our leaders cannot reasonably judge their workers on both compliance and performance.  If a person is compliant with required methods, and is not getting results, it means the method sucks.  If a person is going to be judged on their performance, then they need to be free to work in a way that works.

Maternity: Not an Insurable Risk

I sincerely don’t think maternity benefits should be covered by insurance, because the nature of maternity goes against the way insurance is built.

I’m not saying I don’t want maternity care; I’m saying that the nature of maternity care – that you have some reasonable amount of control over when you get pregnant, and stand to gain a great deal by deliberately making it happen – makes it something that goes against the nature of insurance, because it isn’t an “insurable risk”.  Insurance is for things that happen randomly and are largely out of your control, and maternity care fails to meet that criteria.  In short, that’s just not the kind of thing that insurance pays for.

Maternity (and parenthood in general) are of great interest to the public and the government (which needs future citizens to continue existing).  I know the United States prefers the tried-and-true “steal the best” method of recruiting talent, but eventually people are going to realize that coming to America is condemning your children’s children, because there’s no collective investment in their future.

There is a legitimate desire to have women have the healthcare benefits needed for maternity.  My biggest complaint is that this responsibility is being foisted onto insurance companies that are literally not designed to take care of that sort of thing; this kind of public good is what government is supposedly for.  For insurance, it makes more sense to cover infertility treatment (a medical problem beyond your control) rather than maternity (which people have a strong influence over).  I think maternity should be covered by a general government program that all citizens qualify for automatically when they need it.

I do believe the United States takes great pride in the idea that a person should not be condemned by the circumstances of their birth, and that everyone deserves to be free.  The reason we have a public education system is to make sure that nobody should be condemned to poverty by their family’s ability to provide education, and I think that maternity care falls into that same general good of assuring everyone life, liberty, and the chance to pursue happiness.

United States to Withdraw from the United Nations?

I saw that a bill had been proposed that would see the United States withdraw from the United Nations entirely.  That seems like a mistake to me.

I think withdrawing from the UN entirely would be a strategic blunder.  Reducing our commitments might be appropriate, if we find ourselves unable to support them.

However, I recall the Soviet Union boycotting the UN in 1950, and how it stopped them from being able to veto the resolution on the Korean War which saw a peacekeeping force deployed to South Korea.  For the Soviet Union, that was a terrible strategic blunder.  If the United States withdrew from the United Nations entirely, it would surely lose its preeminent position on the Security Council and the power that comes with it.

Politics is complicated and often a headache, but it requires participation.  It is one of the few places where we cannot simply walk away from people and situations that we do not like for our personal comfort, because that does not fix anything.

There is a famous quote: “Those who refuse to participate in politics end up being governed by their inferiors”.  I can’t support a total withdrawal from the United Nations, but I could understand a reduction of our commitments to them in those areas where the United States has been contributing more than their “fair share”.  It seems that the United States was providing 22% of the financial funding for the UN, and easing that burden seems reasonable on a world with over 100 countries.

But politics is not a “take my toys and go home” kind of endeavor.  I want to see less meddling abroad (especially militarily), but I don’t want to see a total abdication of our position there.

Language Hurdles in STEM

I had a conversation today with somebody that reminded me of one of the problems there was in my college days.  It was a problem that frequently comes up in science and engineering courses, and that problem is that your professors don’t speak English well.

I don’t mean that they have a mild accent, either.  Having a modest bit of accent adds flair and personality.  On the other hand, if you are trying to learn your vocabulary from someone who doesn’t really speak your language well, will have difficulty learning from them.  I had several classes where the professor wrote on the board and said words that nobody in class could quite understand, and we furiously copied down his numbers and examples to study on our own time.  When we fail to understand our professors, it should come from our need to grow in the field, not the inability to know what words they are saying.

This conversation came up partly because the person told me that they became so frustrated with this specific problem in engineering courses that they changed majors to accounting, where people spoke good English.

Engineering is an extremely hard curriculum.  My major at my alma mater (aerospace) has always had an extremely high failure and transfer rate (to other majors) because “Rocket Scientist” has a certain appeal as a title, but the work is extremely difficult.  The policy seemed to be “Let them all try, and they can sort themselves out”, and I am okay with that policy.  The curriculum was so challenging that the college actually implemented a policy that no course could be repeated more than three times for graduation, and it affected people.  My peers and I used to joke that every class was a weed-out class because so many students were lost each semester.  I really cannot stress the attrition rate enough; some years almost 300 people will start the major as freshmen when only 30 are graduating as seniors.  Those are grim numbers.

Compounding the extremely difficult workload with thick accents and poor English badly undermines the students’ ability to succeed.  Some of the foreign instructors speak very good English, but some of them struggled with the language.  They are brilliant, capable people; but they don’t need to be leading a lecture in a language where they cannot be understood.  I had thought it might have been a problem limited to my own University in its quest for more diversity; but after hearing from somebody from an entirely different state complain about the same problem there, I suspect that problem is more widespread.

This particular problem is straightforward: We need our teachers, especially in the STEM courses, to be speaking good English if we want our students to be successful.  There are too many new ideas to learn to cut the professors some slack on their English communication abilities.


Putting the Cart Before the Horse in Education

There is a major problem with education, and the way our country has chosen to structure it, economically.  The people who most need education to find work (the young and the suddenly unemployed) are the ones who are least likely to be able to afford to pay for it out of pocket.

This happens because, excepting our grade school system, the students are required to pay for the education “up front”.  The whole point of establishing the grade school system was supposed to be to help regular people compete in the job market, but the important skills are no longer being taught in grade schools.  Taking out usurious loans to pay for that education is severe exploitation of this situation – if we are going to have loans pay for education, they should at least be interest-free.

But even this is a twisted way to look at the system.  Why do most people want “education”?  So that they can get a job and gainful employment.  By putting the cost of education first, the whole system is foisting the costs of professional training onto the employees, leaving the businesses free to reap the rewards without paying any of the costs (often not even via taxes, if they have enough loop holes).

If employers want us to have a specific skill in order to work for them, then the employer should have to eat the cost of training for that specific skill.  If we treat college or other self-funded training as a requirement for getting a job, then employers have successfully transferred the cost of training from the companies to the hopeful employees, with no promise of ever recouping their losses.  The alternative is starvation wages and death, so everyone who works is forced into this gamble where someone else (someone rich) decides whether they get to live a decent life, or whether they will rot in the streets with a useless piece of paper and run away debts.

Working For Free (Or Not)

There’s a disconnect between working class and more financially secure people regarding the phrase “I can’t work for free,” and I think that needs to be cleared up, because it is undermining an important part of our national conversation about working – both working for yourself and working for other people.

When a working-class person says “I can’t work for free”, if a more monied person hears this, they usually respond “I work for free all the time!”.  The working class person is saying that they cannot live without having their basic needs met, or at least cannot work without some kind of compensation.  When you are just starting as an employee, you usually don’t have any savings to live on while you build your experience and reputation, so you need money for food and shelter.  Someone who is already financially established can get away with “working for free” to build their reputation.

When a person with money and a business says they are “working for free”, they are generating reputation and advertisement for their existing business.  When a person has multiple products already produced and ready for sale, doing a 15 minute interview that will be spread to some corner of the world that might not have heard of you is something worthwhile and valuable.  That’s not the case when you are an employee.

When you are a worker, life is very different.  You sell your labor, and once you are hired somewhere, everything you have to offer (your skill and your time) is being consumed on the job.  The companies asking for free labor are generally not charitable non-profits.  If they were, asking for freebies wouldn’t be as offensive.  No, the people who ask you to “work for free” are often major for-profit companies, and their hope is that talented but naive people who will be easily exploited for their own profits will sign up.  They offer “experience” and “reputation”, but those things don’t pay the rent and they absolutely do not pay off mounting student loans.  The empty promise is that one day, you might even get a paying job – maybe here, maybe somewhere else, but no guarantees.  When you are a multi-million dollar company, you can do better than that for a employees.  Even if a business is smaller or just starting, some kind of compensation is in order (e.g. royalties or part-ownership that might one day pay off).

There is also a substantial difference between the rightfully maligned “unpaid internship” and working as an entrepreneur.  When somebody is “working for free” as an entrepreneur, their work is self-directed and self-promoted.  They work as much or as little as they want, meet their own standards, and most importantly get to keep all the benefits of that work.  There is a big difference between doing a 15 minute interview for a website (which will then be promoted all over the country), and doing artwork for a company without compensation.

Working at an unpaid internship is very much like working at a job – set hours, directed work, and something that you are expected to be producing for an employer. The biggest differences are what you can expect to get paid for it, and how much experience they demand that you have, but anything useful you produce is still taken by the company.

If you are working for somebody else, you deserve to have at least your most basic needs met by them.  Employees and interns cannot possibly accept less than that.  When I hear “work for the experience”, I find myself asking “How valuable could the work experience be if you aren’t willing to pay me to do it?”  Somehow, our country has reached a point where, after spending thousands of dollars and multiple years in college, professionals are still expected to spend years working without pay for the benefit of somebody else, and refusing to submit to this broken system makes you “unreasonable” and “unemployable”.


Barriers to Entry

I think one of the problems our country faces socially is that it takes the ability to go out and “just get a job” for granted, as if there was “nothing stopping you” from being able to work for somebody else.  I think there is a great deal that is unhealthy with this perspective for many, many reasons.

There can be many barriers to the ability to work.  The most common problem we discuss is education, and I won’t pretend that lack of education can keep somebody out of a specific job.  There are more problems than that, though.

Another big one is transportation – just getting to/from work.  This is another major barrier that tends to get overlooked because the people who already have money don’t use the services which are required for “entry level” transportation like busses and trains. Even those services are not free, and since we are literally born with nothing, if somebody isn’t willing to give you a couple dollars a day to ride the bus, you can’t even get to a job – much less the interview.  When it takes two weeks to get paid, that is easily $20 or more.

Even that is ignoring the impractical reality of taking a bus (or other public transit).  I had the pleasure of using the Metro in Washington DC, and I was flabbergasted that it actually worked as billed – but this is an exception to how public transit works, especially in my area (North Carolina).  Most public transit is not on time, has very long waiting periods between pick ups, and is terribly unreliable.  It is not unusual to be able to travel a distance in 15 minutes by car that requires two hours to travel by bus.  In addition to regular traffic, you also have to deal with the constant stops for other people, routes that may not even go where you need them to, and connecting routes that can be separated by thirty minutes or more.  You cannot stick to your schedule because the bus is never, ever on time, and that works against you in two ways. First, because you are required to plan extra time for waiting for the dang thing to arrive in the first place; but also because a late bus can cause you to miss your planned connection, forcing you to wait up to an hour for the next connecting bus (scheduled thirty minutes later, but running badly behind schedule).

That cuts into the rest of the time you have to do anything at all in life, and the practicality of doing it.  How many groceries would you buy if you had to carry them a half a mile from the bus stop home, if it took three hours to get from where you live to the nearest grocery store one way?  That requires that you spend your entire day just buying groceries, and prevents you from being able to do anything else productive with your time – but also forces you to limit how much you can buy to how much you can possibly carry.  Walking even a quarter mile with a full week’s worth of food on your back is very difficult.  I hope you didn’t buy anything that requires refrigeration.

And that’s on a good day.  I recall having problems getting around Raleigh any time that public transit was disrupted.  Because public transit is such a low priority and not held as “sacred”, it gets disrupted by even minor events with no relevance to the city at large.  NC State used to hold a “Krispy Kreme Challenge” where students would run from campus to a nearby doughnut shop, eat a dozen doughnuts, and then run back to campus – and if you puke you are disqualified.  That is a small, stupid event to shut down all the bus traffic flowing down Hillsborough street, one of the main thoroughfares for the area.  Public transit cannot be disrupted so easily when people who have jobs depend on it to get to work, and having to call out “because some idiots are eating doughnuts and running in the street” is ridiculous and will get you fired.

And that is assuming you can even get into a job in the first place.  We talk about the barriers that come with lack of education, but even after getting educated you are often required to get an expensive license, even to work for somebody else.  There are some people who get into the nice, cozy jobs that pay for your licenses for you – often because they have some kind of family connection – and those people will never understand the agony of having to cough up $50 for a license just to be able to work at a low wage, part-time, seasonal job for a few months.  If you are starting from zero, you cannot overcome those barriers on your own, and it is unreasonable to expect it to happen.

And all of that is within a major city, one of the two largest in the state of North Carolina.  Heaven forbid that you live in the countryside – there’s probably no bus system at all.

It is painful when you try to discuss these problems with people whose family paid for their transportation (car, car insurance, licensing fee, and all the costs of practicing driving to be able to pass the driving test), who allowed them to keep their entire paychecks to reinvest into themselves, who cannot understand what all the fuss is about.  “Just get a job and go to work”.  They take getting the job and getting to work for granted.

There are enough legitimate barriers to employment (like skill and dependability) without adding extra barriers of transportation and licensing fees.  The barriers that keep people from being able to get started are the worst of them all, because they cannot always be overcome by yourself (which is often by design).  In a country where some people talk about “privilege”, being able to get a job and make something of yourself should not itself be a privilege.

If I could, I’d make public transportation paid for by taxes, and let it be available to all persons without a point-of-use cost.  I am convinced that public transportation is a public good, and should not be viewed the same way that private transportation is.  It also needs to be kept on a more accurate schedule (i.e. better planning), and it should not be allowed to be disrupted by “public events” the same way that a side street only used by private vehicles that can easily detour might be.

And can we please remove the costs from licenses that are required to get jobs?  If the government wants to stop decent people from being able to work, they need to eat the cost of it instead of forcing the public to do it.  Those licensing fees only exist to limit business opportunities to rich people.

Maybe the problem is just that the people affected most are poor, and because of this system always will be.