Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 22, 2012 1:55PM

When Bootstraps Aren't Enough: the Metrics of Success

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My little rustbelt city has been hit hard by the recession.  When I started teaching community college in the early aughts, very few of my full-time students were over 25.  Now, there are displaced workers in every section of every class I teach.  Many of them haven’t set foot in a classroom in well over twenty years.  They have been set adrift from manufacturing jobs and laid off from shrinking companies. They are down, but not out.


Tim was an electrician in a manufacturing facility for thirty years before he was laid off the day before Thanksgiving in 2008, when his company was purchased by a Chinese corporation. Even though his union contract guaranteed him severance, the new owners kept enough people around to fire up one production line every now and then until the contract expired, thus circumventing their obligation to the 120+ workers they had displaced.  He was, for the first time in over 30 years, unemployed and without a paycheck.  


Undaunted, he filed for unemployment and soon enrolled in school. He showed up in my English class at the end of his first year, having breezed through the first two quarters of our composition sequence in short order.  He took the “hard” classes first: Math and English--subjects he hadn't taken since high school.  


He sat at the back of my classroom, a big guy with a shock of graying hair and a goatee.  He wore jeans an army jacket just like a good college student should. While he was quiet at first, it wasn’t long before he started to distinguish himself, both in class discussions and in his writing.  He had a poet’s ear for phrasing, and was a sensitive and appreciative reader.  His papers were a pleasure to read. And although the math classes nearly kicked his butt, he started to see the power of mathematics in engineering.  Going back to school, he told me, was harder than any job he’d ever had.


During his second year, he stopped by my office now and then to say hi, or to show me pictures of his new grandchild.  To my delight, he said going back to school had kindled a love of writing, and he continued to do so, both for classes and for fun.  When he graduated, he was in the top 3% of his class.  He had made the most of his second chance at an education; he never missed a class, and the one tiny blotch on his otherwise perfect academic record was a single B in a math class that he just couldn’t quite beat.  By all measures, certainly by the college’s metrics, he was the perfect “completer,” the “success” referred to on our marketing materials.  Surely, his spanking new Associate’s Degree in Operations Technology had given him the skills and the resume necessary to compete in this job market.  Surely the two years he’d spent in school would have been time for the economy to recover. 


Tim and his family had managed to make ends meet while he was in school, thanks to a number of programs designed especially for people like him. He had done everything in lockstep: from filing for benefits, to enrolling in school, to completing every class successfully and on time, to graduating with honors.  His TAA benefits (the Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits designed to help those who became unemployed due to  the impact of international trade) kicked in exactly two weeks before he graduated.  The minute he did so, the benefits dried up.


Over the next six months, he sent out literally hundreds of resumes, which resulted in a handful of interviews.  Each of those, after seeming to go well, led to weeks of waiting, often for no response at all.  With a resume and academic record like his, it’s hard to believe that his age didn’t have something to do with the lack of offers, but of course, no one says that.  At first he applied for management jobs, but after a few months, he had to lower the bar.


Finally, in January, Tim was offered a job more than 45 miles from his home.  In a manufacturing facility.  Doing a job that he was qualified to do the day he was laid off over three years ago.  


But it’s a job, and he’s happy to have it.  Even with his wife’s income, things had started to get tight, and he needed to work.  He was close to taking a job at a Home Depot or the like, just to make ends meet.  And there may be an opportunity for advancement from his hourly union job to management.  It’s not an easy leap to make, but it’s possible.  I have my fingers crossed for him.


Still, it’s hard from where I sit not to wonder if the two years he spent in school did him any good at all.  Our students, our state, and our President look to community colleges to retrain the workforce for bigger and better things.  


But no one anticipated that the recovery would take as long as it has.  In 2008, the idea of taking 2 years to go to school while the economy turned around seemed reasonable. That it’s taken closer to four was harder to predict.  In this morning’s paper was an article about the mini manufacturing boom in Ohio, but they are not the high-tech manufacturing jobs Tim trained for.  The tremendous optimism and hard work that accompanied his journey into academia must be hard for him to remember at the end of a long day.  In fact, when I asked him if he wouldn’t like to tell his own story, he said:


I will always continue to write, but for the near future I have to pour my heart and soul into this job to establish a foothold and maybe then I can advance. For the foreseeable future I am looking at lots of overtime, night shifts and a 97 mile round trip drive daily. As you can imagine, by the time I get home, I feel like a bird with no song in me.”


I like to think we did right by him, but there’s a part of me that feels like we’re making false promises to students like Tim when we say their education will lead to a brighter future.  Deep down I know education is valuable for its own sake and not just as a means to an end.  When asked if he would do it again, Tim said he wouldn’t have traded the second chance at a degree for anything. Discovering a facility with words, the power of mathematics, and having the satisfaction of exceeding one’s own expectations are all benefits that none of our institutional metrics can quantify.  For now, that will have to be enough.



** This is a companion piece to one I wrote a year ago, questioning whether college is for everyone.  Read more about my students at my blog, Notes from the Professor. 


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A jolting look at the promise of education and the way we measure success. Well done.
Education is never a guarantee, and that is where the message is getting mangled. But it is always worth the sacrifice when it is understood that the best in life can happen when talent, preparedness and opportunity meet. I am in school again at 51 and have been unemployed for two years with no change in job prospects because of having returned to school. My university diploma is a personal achievement first, and an arrow in the professional quiver second. No regrets!
This is smart -- and sad. You put a face on the statistics. You don't gush, exaggerate, or mourn. You just tell the story with an empathetic nod. And though it hurts to read, I still feel a little hopeful at the end. After all, Tim is hopeful and doesn't regret a moment of his education.
I have mixed feelings about college and agree with KC that the message gets mangled when it's presented as some sort of guarantee of employment. At a minimum I think colleges need to take a hard look at where jobs are at, what education or degrees might actually help, and get that information out to students.
Thanks for writing this, Kate. I often wonder the same things--even with the best training in the world, where are the jobs? My kids are in middle school, and I have no idea what to tell them to study in a few years. "Follow your dreams" is throwing good money away to get a degree in art history, or political science, or medieval English.

Well written, and well done.
I'm with you that an education is valuable for its own sake, but that's not what schools are selling to unsuspecting students, especially those who take a degree in the arts. In that, legitimate schools are little better than ITT or Full Sail or any of the other "tech" schools.

American isn't suffering from a lack of educated persons, it's suffering from a lack of good-paying jobs for educated persons, but neither colleges or politicians are being honest about that. The obvious proof is right before our eyes in that so many of the Occupiers have gone from college to the unemployment lines.

I wish I had an answer for this dilemma; I don't, but I can assure you the answer is not to give more tax breaks to "job creators" or multi-national corporations.
One more -- my dear mother-in-law, bless her heart, is overly fond of that "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" expression. I once reminded her that sometimes people don't have any boots.
Wow. Did this ever strike a chord with me. It's arguably the most important question we are facing right here and right now: Is college really a means to financial success? Far too many of us know otherwise. Yet, we keep telling kids, especially kids from poor families, that all they have to do is get an education, and the world will be theirs. As I said on another post about the current economy -- and I have to be careful with my comments or someone is bound to come along and call me Pollyanna or something ruder -- talent and drive alone do not guarantee professional success and financial reward. You really do have to be in the right place at the right time (lucky) and know the right people (have connections). If you aren't born into those connections, you have to work hard at building them, and appreciating and nurturing every one you make.
Well, it's not as if writing is a money-making career. Most writers don't even get reimbursed for paper and ink cartridges, forget about postage. He would have done better if he'd taken advanced electronics or IT courses. Or plumbing or car repair. Especially since only about ten percent of Americans know how to read, becoming a writer is a suicidal career choice.
". . . there’s a part of me that feels like we’re making false promises to students like Tim when we say their education will lead to a brighter future. "

My husband and I (both college teachers) talk about this all the time. In one of my English classes, I ask my students to write cover letters and resumes. If they aren't applying for jobs that don't require a college degree, I ask, "why are you here?" That seems terrible, but I think what's worse is me not saying anything. Then they end up like me: in debt up to their ears when they graduate and STILL can't find a full-time job with benefits. [r]
This is a great piece, interesting, informative, and well-written. Thanks for posting. A few comments --

Kate writes: " . . . it’s hard to believe that his age didn’t have something to do with the lack of offers, but of course, no one says that."

I heard one older worker put it this way, comparing himself to a video game: "The employers are looking for Call of Duty or Mortal Kombat, and when they look at me they see Pong or Donkey Kong."

Discrimination against older workers is a huge problem, and it affects all genders, races, and cultural groups. I'm surprised that we don't have some kind of Affirmative Action program for older workers by now. It may be that many unemployed people in their late 50s and 60s will simply never work again, and if employers refuse to hire older workers then retraining them won't help.

Kate: "Surely, his spanking new Associate’s Degree in Operations Technology had given him the skills and the resume necessary to compete in this job market."

In normal circumstances it probably would have. In my observation job retraining programs assume an economy that is temporarily down but will soon recover. What we have is an economy that may not recover for a very long time, and even when it does recover many of the jobs that used to exist will be permanently gone. And in some cases, not just individual jobs but also manufacturing plants and entire industries may be gone.

Given how bad the economy is, and how many jobs have been transferred overseas, perhaps we need to readjust our expectations for job retraining programs. Obviously, the purpose of job retraining is to get students jobs. In the current economy that may not happen as often as we would like. But even if students don't end up with the jobs for which they have been trained, they may find, as your student did, that education can help make unemployment or under-employment more tolerable by leading to a more fulfilling life.
This is a wonderful piece, Kate. I also teach at a community college, and you describe the culture of learners there perfectly. Always, it's these older, non-traditional students (a slight condescending term which applies to nearly 1/3 the class) --these are the most informed, most interesting, most engaged in the classroom. They make teaching a pleasure.
Well-written, compelling, and totally depressing.
When I was born, we were a nation who made things the rest of the world actually anted to buy. Within the course of my lifetime, we have dismantled our manufacturing capacity and sold it to China for scrap. I don't know who benefits from all this. Certainly not the average person. Thanks for posting this.
It's mentors like you that will have a lasting impact on society, one person at a time. Thank you for sharing.
I was just reading all of the comments and I agree that a higher education isn't for everyone, but your student wasn't one of them. He now holds something that even a bad economy cannot take away. Kudos to him for making the most of his second chance. Even in skilled trades, there are no guarantees. R
This story reminds me of a friend of mine.

She got laid off from a technology job in the IT space when she was in her late 20s about four years ago, and after struggling to find a job she decided to go to community college and get an associate’s degree. She figured this would put her in much better place job search wise, because even though she had done a lot in her career she didn’t have any formal education in technology.

But after she got her degree she still struggled to find work, and the reasons for this were several:

1) General lack of available jobs
2) The lack of work experience over the past two years hurt her more than the degree helped her, especially since she was often competing against people with a similar level of experience, more recent experience AND four year degrees in computer science, not to mention experience with programming.

The issue of alignment between the outcomes of training programs, expectations of students and the needs of employers can’t be discounted.

I’ve interviewed countless people who’ve received project management certifications or training from the local community college, and while I laud the effort their combination of effort and experience was rarely what I was looking for and they were usually more qualified to be Project Admins or assistants, despite what their schools told them.

Mind you I know my friend’s experience is a lot different than your student’s, especially since she works in a rapidly expanding and growing field, just noting that there just needs to be a better alignment between education, students goals and employers.
My husband and I are both post-secondary teachers and we've found this to be true as well. A well-written story.
Thanks for writing this so well. I also work at a (different) community college, where some of us are getting pretty cynical about academe's false promises. We see plenty of people who shouldn't be there at all, and second- or third-career folks struggling with basics of how to set up a Word document. It's heartbreaking and frustrating.
Nice piece. I love the sentiments in your last paragraph.
Late to the party but I thought I'd add a couple of points.

First and possibly most important: In the early 1990s my daughter was entering her last year at an expensive "almost Ivy" college as an English major. In a conversation about her courses I tentatively broached the question of practicality. Her response: Mom. It's about education, not job training. That was a lot of the value Tim got from his time at your school, I think. Education.

Then, something I've observed. In a law school and a medical school, in programs that add on beyond the JD and the MD, I have worked with staff in additional programs that are there to make sure the students are introduced to their local professional community; they create networking and skill building opportunities. They don't directly bring the jobs to the students but they help clear the path and set the students on it.

Rather than just throwing up job training programs that seem like a good idea or are justified by some statistics, isn't it a good idea for community colleges to partner with local businesses, unions and trade associations to develop the coursework that's in demand? In my fantasy, before he finishes his course of study, Tim has met people who are in a position to hire him, some could be adjunct faculty. He has had the opportunity to impress them with his experience and maturity and they will be able at least to clear a path for him through the 25 year old HR assistants.

I know it’s done or been done at some schools, maybe it’s common and I’m just missing it. ~r
Having an education is an advantage. Not having an education is a disadvantage. Likewise for degrees, which aren't the same thing. But life doesn't come with guarantees. You still have to go out and USE your advantages, and even if you do everything right, you can still wind up failing. The good news is, if you don't wind up dead, you can probably try again and fail 3 or four more times until you find something that works. And if you don't get cocky, one success is all it takes.