The news media is filled with stories about white-collar outsourcing, including this recent and intriguing BusinessWeek article focused on computer programmers.
I remember when I was a senior in high school, I had to make a choice: my college calculus class or editing the student newspaper. I chose the newspaper and dropped out of calculus.
My dad influenced that decision significantly. I was always praised for my math skills and placed in the most advanced math courses (well, until I got into high school and these two guys started taking college math as, like, sophomores). But my dad told me once, "Do not become an engineer."
I call myself a Texan, but I was born in Pittsburgh. That's because my father was gifted nuclear engineer, having studied at the University of Texas at Austin, and pretty much the only place in America to apply that sort of knowledge was at Westinghouse, which made nuclear power plants and was based in Pennsylvania. That meant my parents needed to move hundreds of miles away from Dallas, where they had grown up and where their families lived. My parents went out to Pittsburgh, got an apartment, my dad enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania for an engineering master's degree, and then I came along.
It turned out uprooting was not very fun for my parents, nor was trying to raise a child in Pittsburgh. It also turned out the nuclear industry did not have a very active future ahead of it. We left when I was two, right around the time of Three Mile Island.
My Dad then worked for an engineering firm in the oil industry, doing stress analysis, a branch of mechanical engineering, on rigs and rig components. Then onto another oil-related firm, and then, like the nuclear power industry in 1979, the oil industry in Houston in 1986 caved. In this case, the culprit was an oil price collapse triggered by a sharp production increase by Saudi Arabia. My dad was eventually laid off.
Of course, the story has a happy ending, as we ended up in the beautiful city of San Diego, and my dad's firm, which makes auxiliary power units for jets, was able to ride out the military cuts of the late 1980s by selling into the commercial market, and then the 2001 decline in the commercial market by selling into the war on terror military buildup.
I think being jerked around the country like that was not my Dad's idea of a good time. In addition, my dad would mention from time to time that the people with sales and marketing backgrounds tended to accumulate disproportionate power and money at the various companies he worked for, even though the firms were technical. Overall, I sensed a certain feeling that the engineer did not have enough control over his own destiny.
As it turns out, there is something of an economic argument shaping up to bolster that position. It is quickly becoming apparent that every career path must now be viewed through the lens of, "Why is this job done best in America?" In other words, "Is this job hard or impossible to do in India, China or Eastern Europe?"
It turns out when you start asking that question, you end up screening in a lot of jobs parents tend to roll their eyes at: art, entertainment, certain types of design, creative writing, acting. As happy as I am to be in journalism, which luckily is also hard to outsource, maybe I'd end up with an even more financially solid career path if I followed in the footsteps of my brother, the actor!
That might sound nutty -- how many actors "make it" out of all who try? -- but I like to telling aspiring actors the story of my friend Mike's sister. She was scraping by doing avant garde SF theater until Steve Jobs called one day and offered her a plum VP position at Pixar.
Or there's always Joe P, from the Daily Cal board, known as "Hollywood Joe" to his ex-Washington Post colleagues because he left journalism to go into the movie business, landing at Fox Searchlight and now at Focus Features.
In America, the artists have won.