29 September 2013

Katie from Portland, ME  

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Work. Everybody does it; if they're not doing it, they're looking for it.

For scientists, work is defined as force multiplied by distance. That is to say, work requires some sort of physical action.

Even the Bible isn't silent on this issue. According to Exodus 35:2, "Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death."

Whoa. 

Katie is a waitress in Portland, ME. She works at a seafood restaurant during the week when she can to pay for school. She'd like to be a doctor or physical therapist, but, as she knows, those degrees "ain't cheap!"

Now, as Katie knows, there are quite a few people who are out of work. "The job market is so terrible. It took me three months of waiting just to work here! And I mean...well, it's a paycheck."

The national unemployment rate currently sits at 7.6%. In Maine, it's a little better at 6.8% (as of May 2013). Ostensibly, those numbers have gotten better over the past four years.

But there is one surprising statistic that is less reported:

"I know that it's frustrating and I know that it's hard. But I just don't understand the people who have given up on the job hunt entirely."

Katie is referring to the nearly one million Americans who are unemployed, but are classified as "discouraged workers." A discouraged worker is defined as one who "did not actively look for work in the prior 4 weeks for reasons such as thinks no work available, could not find work, lacks schooling or training, employer thinks too young or old, and other types of discrimination." Commonly, these people are referred to as those who have "given up on the workforce."

"Why would you just give up? What's the alternative?"

It's a sentiment echoed by many Americans when they hear the damning statistic. Some blame government, some blame business, and others blame the people looking for jobs themselves.

"I know some people who just sit at home. We're talking people who are in their 30s who thought they had a career. For whatever reason, they just aren't motivated to keep looking for a job."

Still, it's easier to say "get a job" when you have one yourself. Katie recognizes, "When I don't have a job, all I want is a job. When I have a job, all I want is to complain about it and think of something better. It's like a job isn't enough. I need something more...so I guess I can relate to people who aren't willing to jump into work they know they're going to hate."

For years, Americans have been told that if we go to college and study hard, we'll get a good job and live comfortable lives. Nowadays, we believe that it's a master's degree or law school that will bring in the big bucks. 

But as our manufacturing base, and with it our capacity to generate reliable jobs, continues its decades-long disappearance, the service and retail fields (including high-tech) cannot keep up. It's tough to create jobs selling things when we don't make them ourselves anymore.

So bright-eyed, optimistic college graduates hit the workforce and gradually have their confidence eroded month by month, until they accept a job that bears no resemblance to their field of study. These jobs pay less, which consequently makes it that much harder to live a decent life and pay down the crippling student loan debt that they've accrued because "everyone who wants a decent job has to go to college!"

In order to adapt and grow our economy, we must be willing to take on risk in ways the generations before us did not. We are not being judged on the quality of our creations anymore, but on our ability to manage and facilitate global business across a wide swath of areas. Websites like Etsy and Kickstarter are prime examples of people with good ideas prospering in innovative ways.

Despite the difficulties described here, college remains the best alternative for the majority of people to move on to good-paying jobs. Military service is likewise a rewarding field and a good set-up for a career down the road.

Yet a great, unspoken truth remains: 

Not everyone has to go to college. In fact, not everyone should go to college--at least not initially, on their own.

Entrepreneurship and blue-collar opportunities do not require a 4-year sabbatical period after high school and can lead to success for many. Ditto military service, whether through an officer's commission or enlistment. College should not be a thing to do simply "because;" it should be a well thought-out strategy.

Giving up, however, should never be an option. Risk may be unsettling, the waiting game may be frustrating, but the American economy demands a generation of patient, innovative workers who will invent the new technologies, develop new processes and expand our concept of business.

Thrift, resilience, confidence--whatever it takes! The silver bullet of economic growth does not exist. The work must be done by a new generation, and we can no longer afford to sulk on the sidelines.

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