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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Not what he had bargained for

It’s often said that people with IT degrees can really clean up in the job market, but few do so quite as literally as Sam Fanning.  Earning his bachelors last year in network and IT administration from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Fanning unsuccessfully sought work is his field.  Finally, he accepted the only thing he could find, a position with his alma mater as a custodian–not of a computer network, as he had hoped, but the kind that cleans the campus buildings.  

The benefits provided by his unionized full-time night-shift janitor job include free tuition, which Fanning is reportedly considering using to pursue graduate work.  His greatest frustration, he tells the Chronicle, is that he is not using his technical skills and potential, which he believes may be hurting his applications for jobs in his field. He hopes to get further education to improve his chances.
Fanning’s situation is so iconic of these times that it seems that if reporter Don Troop hadn’t found him, someone would have had to make him up. It may be, of course, that Michigan’s exceptionally bad economy is responsible for Fanning’s inability to find more suitable work.  But across the country these days, large numbers of technically trained Americans, both recent graduates and older people with years of experience, lack opportunities to use the skills and abilities they developed at considerable cost in time, work and tuition.  For Fanning, making the $500 monthly payments on his $35,000 student debt takes a sizable chunk of his hourly $13.01.
Despite the continuing drumbeat from many political and educational figures that technically trained people have highly marketable skills, and, indeed, that the country needs many more such workers, that clearly is untrue not only for Fanning but even for many who have credentials far more prestigious than his.  To take just one admittedly anecdotal example, this reporter recently attended a small funeral for a very elderly emeritus professor at which the 30 or so mourners included two men with science degrees from top-tier universities–one of them a high school math teacher recently laid off because of budget cuts and the other a university lab worker let go when a grant was not renewed.  Neither lives in an area with especially high unemployment.
The bottom line for policy makers: getting people to train in science and technology is not enough.  Those who follow that educational route must realize that they have no guarantee of employment that uses their skills.  Ant the nation needs to give real, serious attention to seeing that more of them can translate their training and education into viable careers that use that hard-earned knowledge.