Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Problem with Employers.

Perusing classified ads always leaves me grouchy and frustrated. Unemployment is up in this country, and there is an increasing number of people who have completely given up looking for jobs. There are many reasons for this discouragement, but I believe the number one reason is that employers don't know what they're looking for. A five-minute jaunt through the Craigslist want ads shows that the requisite qualifications for many jobs are either excessive (Does a PARALEGAL for a small law firm really need a law degree?) or inaccurately specific (Technical writers "must have a Bachelor's degree in English or a technical field such as math or engineering."). Employers must see themselves as gods in their field, and possess a kind of penis envy with competing firms. Let me break down what is wrong with both of these examples.

Paralegals are responsible for doing the bitch work in law firms (unless it is a big firm, in which case that job goes to the first and second year law associates who have to earn their $120k a year). They do need to have a solid understanding of the technical aspects of the law: filing, legal research, etc. For that reason, there are CERTIFICATION programs. These take about a year or two to complete, are available at most technical schools or community colleges, and the total cost of completing these programs is the same as getting an Associate's degree. A Juris Doctorate, on the other hand, takes three years to complete (on top of the four+ years it takes to earn the prerequisite Bachelor's degree), and even at a low-ranked state public school, the PER YEAR cost of tuition alone is roughly the same as the entire cost of the paralegal certificate. I say again, this is tuition costs alone, and hasn't factored in living costs, fees, and, of course, books (the book I bought for my business law class was the most expensive book I have ever purchased: $198). Aside from allowing Juris Doctors to work for six figures at a prestigious law firm as a practicing attorney, let's review a few other positions for which JDs are qualified:

Publishing: JDs can earn about $50,000 a year publishing legal writing. This is double the salary of a paralegal, and given the fact that some law firms expect employees - even non-attorneys - to put in about 80 hours a week, one could look at this position as paying quadruple the salary.

University teaching: Having attained a law degree, a law school graduate is now qualified to work as a professor at a college or university. Salaries start around $60,000. On a side note, if one wants to be a university professor, the JD route is the way to go. Rather than spending six - ten years working on a PhD and doing adjunct professorships, spend three years at a law school, then teach polisci. :)

Legal Consulting: Starting salary of $150,000 a year without the requirement for putting in slave-like work hours? Yes, please.

Why on earth would a person who is qualified for positions such as these want to use their overpriced education to work as an assistant in a law firm in a small town? 

Technical writers are responsible for writing textbooks, manuals, and the instructions on all of our electronics. The fact that these pieces of literature are infamously impossible to follow and horribly written (and I'm not talking about those which were originally written in a foreign language) is really all the evidence I need to support my argument. I will go ahead and add some meat to the bones, though. The problem with requiring technical writers to hold a degree in English or a "hard" science is that they aren't the most qualified candidates for the job. First of all, English majors read a lot of books - novels, poems, short stories. They don't read statistics, literature on technical subjects,  or economics. English majors read Shakespeare, they read authors from foreign countries, they read children's books. They aren't reading theses, and they aren't required to break down arguments. They take creative writing classes, and write about their opinions. Most importantly, the majority of English majors spend their undergraduate careers reading, not writing. Compare an English major's writing portfolio with that of a history major or a political science major. The latter two will have a larger, more diverse selection of writing samples, and will have spent their undergraduate careers doing research on highly specialized subjects, and then writing theses which make convincing arguments to those who are not experts in said specialized subject.

There are two problems with hiring a "hard" science major to write manuals. The first problem is that majors in the "hard" sciences (math, biology, physics, etc) are not required to write that often. The bulk of their undergraduate careers are spent working proofs and performing experiments, and building beer bongs which maximize PSI in order to inject beer into the drinker with the most efficient force (i.e. the beer should hit the drinker hard enough to shoot the alcohol directly into the stomach, but not so hard that said drinker drowns). Second, the "hard" sciences use "math" English. I'm not just referring to the hieroglyphics that terrify non-mathematical individuals and cause them to instantaneously spew out "I HATE MATH!" "Math" English is a very, very specific dialect. Any person who has ever struggled with word problems knows this...but doesn't actually know they know it. Order of Operations is not just for use in symbolic equations. When reading word problems, you must follow exactly the order in which they are written. Furthermore, "Math" English has specific phrases which have symbolic equivalents which look very different, but whose original phrases look trickily similar. "Twenty five less ten" is NOT the same as "Twenty five less than ten." The symbolic equivalents of these phrases are "25-10" and "10-25." 
The difference in the former is 15, the latter is - 15.

Employers who post ads such as these probably dissuaded 1/3 of qualified potential employees from applying to their positions by inaccurately assessing their own needs. Paralegals need an understanding of legal procedures and research, good written and oral communication skills, and the flexibility to work multiple cases at once. A technical writer needs excellent written communication skills and should possess enough experience in a technical subject to be able to translate technical talk into something a non-expert can understand. These employers should be asking for candidates who possess usefully specific skills, rather than trying to screen out the truly unqualified applicants with a baseline degree cutoff. Truly unqualified applicants are going to apply anyway.