A Pointless Feel-Good Story about Reinvention–and the Alternative Case to Be Made for the Value of Interdisciplinary Studies, Minors, and Dual Majors

For several months, there was much political debate about the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Predictably, people on the Far Right, from Rand Paul to Paul Ryan, asserted that the extension of benefits would amount to a disservice to those receiving the benefits. The reasons ranged from the broadly ideological—for instance, that the extension of benefits would simply deepen dependency on government largesse—to the superficially logical—for instance, given that long-term unemployment has been a difficult feature of this recession and that employers are biased against the long-term unemployed, why should we be adding to the problem.

Of course, both types of arguments ignore the basic reality that this category of workers simply cannot find jobs. More specifically, the ideological argument ignores that the alternative to unemployment benefits may be homelessness and hunger, and the logical argument conflates being unemployed with receiving benefits, as if not providing the benefits is the equivalent of providing employment options. In both cases, the underlying assumptions seem to be that people won’t work unless they have to do so and that if they are determined enough to find a job, they can find one.

In any case, I don’t believe that the extension of unemployment benefits has even been allowed to come to a vote in the House. I received a lot of e-mails from progressive groups and labor groups encouraging me to let my congressman know that I supported the extension of these benefits, and I did so, knowing that it was a completely futile gesture but feeling that not sending him the message would be the equivalent of the House leadership’s not allowing a vote to be called.

As has been the case on many political issues, the considerable media attention to this issue seems to have been the inverse of the lack of attention to it in the House. Indeed, I began to notice that stories about the long-term unemployed began to appear with more frequency, even though many of them did not address directly the issue of extending benefits. Since these stories almost inevitably fell into two groups—those profiling long unemployed workers who had finally found work and those profiling long unemployed workers who were on the brink of insolvency and despair—I began to suspect that they served political purposes, that they had been “planted” by PACs on either side of the issue.

One story stood out to me because of its inanity. In fact, it is so inane that I suspect that it may be a genuine media product rather than a “planted” story.

The story was contributed by “career reinvention consultant” John Tarnoff to the Huffington Post, and its title is very straightforward—“How This Man Went from Laid-Off Engineer to Successful Comedian.” As the story relates, Dan Nainan had been educated as an engineer and had eventually become a Strategic Relations Manager with Intel Corporation. The position required him to make a large number of presentations, and to overcome his anxiety about public speaking, he enrolled in several workshops, including one on doing stand-up comedy that was something of a revelation, for he discovered that he actually had the ability to make people not only listen but laugh. According to the article, he was soon in considerable demand as a speaker for the company, but somehow when the recession occurred, he was laid off—despite the multiple levels of skills that he brought to his position—and decided when he could not find another position as an engineer that he would pursue a career in comedy. Eventually, he and Robert Schimmel became friends, he became Schimmel’s opening act, and that exposure has led to other opportunities. He is still not anything close to a “household name,” but he has now been the opening act for a sizable list of comedians who are “household names.”

It’s hard to imagine a more pointlessly inspiring story—though, in the interests of full disclosure, I have long felt that most “inspiring” stories are pointless.

In this case, one must ask how many unemployed engineers—or, more broadly, unemployed professionals—have anything close to a gift for stand-up comedy that will provide them with another route out of the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

And I can easily anticipate the author’s follow-up comment—that the story is meant to be more broadly illustrative, and not intended to provide a “road map” to a specific option. My response would then be to ask what, exactly, would be the “other” skills that would be comparably beneficial in pursuing a more mundane range of employment options. The reality that most laid-off engineers would immediately confront and recognize is that the “other” skills that they have developed on the job may be very valuable assets in the kind of job that they just lost, but it is almost impossible to market them as primary skills. For the laid-off engineers won’t have any formal credentials in those areas, and in pursuing the available positions in those areas, they will inevitably be competing against many candidates who do have formal credentials in those areas.

Reinvention is a lot easier to summarize in a feel-good story than it is to accomplish in real life. That’s a trite observation—and that’s precisely my point.

Here, however, is a more thoughtful observation. One of the major reasons why professionals become pigeon-holed into very specialized careers that leave them with very narrow options if they become unemployed is that higher education has emphasized increasingly narrow specializations for tenured faculty and that emphasis has inevitably been transferred to upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. Given the increasingly rapid rates of change in technology, economic sectors, and employment, what we should be emphasizing is interdisciplinary studies, minors, and dual or even multiple majors. Instead of trying to shorten the time that it takes to complete a degree in order to reduce the debt burden on students, there should be a public commitment to bear more of that cost and students should be allowed to focus for at least a full four years on developing as dynamic a “package” of credentials as they possibly can.

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