Monday, March 29, 2010

Labor Market Basics

I found Gray and Herr's Chapter 5, Labor Market Basics, very relevant and illuminating reading, if not somewhat unsettling. The straight dope is not always what you want to hear. Is the best place to start workforce education in graduate school after one has achieved a strong liberal undergraduate education? Would I advise this to my students at UWW in the Media Arts & Game Development Program? Not exactly. I don't think graduate school is for everybody. Generally speaking, I think the best advice for undergraduates is to get a good balanced education, focusing equally between a broad liberal arts emphasis and a narrowly focused high skills niche where a job market exists and one can achieve a "labor market advantage." 

I would also advise students to develop their entrepreneurial skills so they can adapt to changing market conditions, know how to reposition themselves, research, network (aka achieve jobs through informal hiring procedures), successfully interview and obtain new positions. Considering some of the dreary statistics pointed out by Gray and Herr, including the fact that one and three college graduates will not obtain college graduate level work, (as of 1998), I think it's important students also study labor market projections and go out into the workforce with their eyes open. 

Students should look to achieve a unique set of skills related to high paying occupations, pursuing expertise in a vocation where there exists market demand. As of 1990, the largest growing labor segment was the "blue collar technical elite." Where's the sweet spot in 2010? Students should also bear in mind that education does not guarantee high wage full time employment—employers only pay for occupational skills that are in demand. Students need to become self-reliant enough to interpret the rapidly shifting job market opportunities of 2010; they should position themselves for success by balancing a liberal arts education with specific technical training as well as the development of entrepreneurial skills.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Time to Degree

Dr. Gould's point about undergraduate education time to degree at state schools versus private institutions applies to graduate school as well, I think, whereby it ultimately comes down to a seriousness of purpose, aka extreme focus on achieving a specific goal. It always concerns me when I hear people say they've been in a PhD program for an extremely long time. It seems the people that take the longest are usually single with "all the time in the world." They are content to live a life of the mind in comfortable grad student poverty. Ironically, the folks that are married with children and full-time jobs seem to finish their degrees the fastest. This is because pressure causes them to achieve tunnel vision and squeeze more work out of less time; value added by desperation--fear drives them to glory! 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Whether to Speak One's Mind?

The famous Prison Experiment by Phillip Zimbardo comes to mind:

"What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University. How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress." --Phillip Zimbardo

Another famous experiment, the Milgram Experiment, highlights a similar phenomenon, demonstrating how people will behave irrationally if their behavior is sanctioned by an authority figure. Both experiments reveal, somewhat cynically, the expression of irrational, morally compromised behavior under distressed or radically non-normal circumstances. One thing to take away, I venture, is the determination to be an independent thinker capable of going against the grain when your internal barometer informs you that a situation is corrupt, immoral, illegal, or generally offensive to your values. 

Dan Ariely explores this theme in his book, Predictably Irrational (2008). An MIT behavioral economist, Ariely sets up a series of experiments that reveal deep fault lines in the ways people make decisions.

In particular, he demonstrates that people have a very hard time following through on long-term decisions since our brains are hardwired to respond immediately to threats and opportunities. Futurist, Ray Kurzweil, makes a similar point when discussing technology trends and the difficulty humans have grasping the nature of predictable exponential growth.

I've been thinking about this question all week, actually, of how to relate a moment when my behavior was not consistent with my values in a work situation. Interestingly, this class is a work situation, in a sense, and so the context of sharing is colored by that. How honest should I be? Context shapes that question. Am I communicating to a public forum, a corporate blog, an email thread shared by my colleagues, a blind-cc'd email to a group of my students or a group consisting of people who work on my GameZombie team? Am I on a psychoanalysts' couch; speaking to my sister or my best friend; or am I in a job interview? What I choose to say and how I calibrate it will invariably be shaped by what Malcolm Gladwell calls my 'practical intelligence,' or my ability to successfully negotiate the situation.

I thought of a negative experience that people might find interesting. When I was an Assistant Instructor in grad school I told the professor I was working for that his lectures were 'boring,' because I genuinely thought they were. He was being lazy, providing a class of 120 students with one lackluster lecture after another. I cared about the material and he was strangling it. So one day, I told him so. But I did it with insufficient tact. He was offended and resentful. Afterward, he vastly improved his presentations, but he always held it against me that he felt obligated to work harder than he wanted to. At one point he thanked me for pushing him to improve, but I think he only half meant it. On another occasion, he told me it's sometimes better to just lie and keep your mouth shut--implying that's what I should have done. 

I'm glad I spoke my mind but I should have done so with greater empathy, using a softer approach to achieve the same results and avoid provoking an unpleasant response.