Stuff I learned today

So, I visited a resumé guru today because I can’t get through the HR filters of most sites and can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.  I’ve tried matching my keywords and writing the damn thing over and over and OVER again to meet the most demanding filter but, no go.  Anyway, the guru worked it out, or so he assures me. It turns out I have to apply some sleight of hand. Think of it as CV SEO.  I think I’ve got it now.  What a royal pain in the ass, as if spending a couple of hours per application wasn’t painful enough.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned today:

1.) There really is such a thing as ageism.  It’s not just your imagination.  It’s probably due to some cocky young thing thinking you don’t know how to use technology, as if your diligence in filling out the ridiculous, lengthy, everything but your bloodtype online form wasn’t proof to the contrary.  If you’re over 45, you’re probably too old. Thank you New York Times.

2.) In the last three years (hmmm, let’s pause to meditate on the significance of three years, shall we?), an increasing number of employers have been hiring temp positions and not direct to position employees.  Sometimes, these temp positions turnover to permanent positions, but consider that first year a very long audition- without benefits.  And there’s no guarantee.  So, the assignment can end at any time.  Depending.  On what?  No idea.

3.) Obamacare is too damn expensive.  This came out of the blue.  Yup.  And it makes perfect sense.  If you are employed in this economy in a temp position and you have to carry the weight of that premium without a subsidy (because you make too much for Medicaid or live in a Medicaid expansionless state, but make too little for a subsidy because you are a lowly temp worker), it’s just too expensive.  You will spend substantially more of your paycheck than the blessed employee with the employer coverage.  But you’re less likely to become blessed because see #2 above.  I am now beginning to wonder what the purpose of Obamacare was.  Because if it is just a matter of getting kids covered who had  serious pre-existing conditions, there was SCHIP and Medicaid before Obamacare. Soooo…?  Bueller?

Malice or stupidity?  Before the administration gave a pass to the employer mandate, I was thinking “stupidity”.  Now, I’m not so sure.  Let’s just say there was a loophole big enough to drive a train through.

The guru says the tweaks should be enough to get me through.  I remain optimistic because, frankly, what is the alternative?  I don’t think I can sell my body at this point, even if I wanted to.  Thank goodness for the part time work and the no-mortgage thingy.  Still, no fun at all.  And I may live to be 92, which troubles me greatly.  Who’s going to hire me when I’m in my 90s?  Come to think of it, there will likely be a LOT of tail end boomers in our 90s, shlepping around the office, retail outlets and construction sites.  That should be interesting.

Stay tuned.

 

 

A song for the perpetually underemployed

This is one of the reasons I didn’t vote for Obama

There were a couple big ones, racism wasn’t among them.

The reason I didn’t vote for him in the primary in NJ on SuperTuesday in 2008 was because I didn’t think he was ready to be president and wasn’t familiar enough with the mechanisms of government to be effective.  It was pre-ordained that the Republicans were going to be a defiant, ruthless opposition party.  I felt that Hillary Clinton would have a better grasp of how to get around the Republicans to get things done.  Plus, I didn’t feel that Obama had been in Washington long enough to develop a working coalition of allies and congressional members.  His coalition was going to be “gifted” to him from his campaign donors.  It couldn’t be any other way given his lack of experience and time in Washington.  Annnnnnd, it looks like I was right.

I’m not gloating.  No, really I’m not because what has happened since 2008, including to me personally, has been so serious that this is no time to gloat.

But leave it to Obama to get his shit together when it finally makes very little difference.  According to Reuters:

President Barack Obama told his Cabinet on Tuesday to look for areas where he might be able to govern by executive action given gridlock in Congress that is hampering his agenda.

In a White House meeting, Obama brought together the top officials in his government a day after conceding that a deadlocked Congress will prompt him to act on his own authority where he can on an immigration overhaul.

Obama said he wants to work with Congress where possible, “but if Congress is unable to do it,” then he said his Cabinet officials and agency heads should look for areas where executive actions can “show some real progress.”

“The people who sent us here, they just don’t feel as if anybody is fighting for them or working them. We’re not always going to be able to get things through Congress … but we sure as heck can make sure that the folks back home know that we are pushing their agenda and that we’re working hard on their behalf,” Obama said.

This has me worried.  He’s looking to move the ball forward on immigration reform and while I applaud a solution that will resolve the status of immigrants who are here via irregular methods, I’m not so crazy about giving even more temporary  visas to tech and R&D companies when there are hundreds of thousands of American STEM workers still unemployed.

Let’s just say that I am not confident that this sudden urgency to resolve the immigration crisis is about illegal landscapers. I’ve been right so far.

Still, I guess it’s a good thing that Obama has realized that he does have the power after all to get things done even if it is 6 years too late.  Just think what be might have done about the mortgage crisis, unemployment, healthcare reform…

 

Nick Kristof is shocked, SHOCKED!

Nicholas Kristof  writes in The Compassion Gap about the nasty responses he got from a lot of his readers to the plight of a woman he profiled recently.  Says Kristoff:

SOME readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

Apparently, Nick Kristoff doesn’t read his own paper.  A few years ago, I noticed something extremely unsettling about the way the NYTimes was portraying the unemployed.  There were a number of articles for the front page that made the unemployed look like trailer trash, slovenly and asleep at their computers.  I don’t know what message that was supposed to send but it didn’t match ANY of the unemployed I knew, who consisted of R&D professionals with multiple degrees, publications and patents to their name.  There were hundreds of thousands of those people who certainly deserved compassion who didn’t get it.  And now those same hard working professionals have a very hard time finding jobs because for some reason, employers have this image in their heads that they’re obese, lazy, slovenly and depressing to be around.

Get your head out of your ass, Nick, and you will see that you are sitting in the middle of the source of the lack of compassion. The NY Times is a world leader when it comes to inducing stereotypical and harsh Pavlovian responses to people who have fallen from middle class grace.

Business ruined science in this country

These two posts go together:

Engineers See a Path out of Green Card Limbo at the NYTimes

and

Promoting STEM Education, Foolishly at In the Pipeline by Derek Lowe

Here’s the bottom line as Derek spells it out:

And that takes us back to the subject of these two posts, on the oft-heard complaints of employers that they just can’t seem to find qualified people any more. To which add, all too often, “. . .not at the salaries we’d prefer to pay them, anyway”. Colin Macilwain, the author of this Nature piece I’m quoting from, seems to agree:

“But the main backing for government intervention in STEM education has come from the business lobby. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a businessman stand up and bemoan the alleged failure of the education system to produce the science and technology ‘skills’ that his company requires, I’d be a very rich man.

 I have always struggled to recognize the picture these detractors paint. I find most recent science graduates to be positively bursting with both technical knowledge and enthusiasm.

If business people want to harness that enthusiasm, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and pay and train newly graduated scientists and engineers properly. It is much easier, of course, for the US National Association of Manufacturers and the British Confederation of British Industry to keep bleating that the state-run school- and university-education systems are ‘failing’.”

This position, which was not my original one on this issue, is not universally loved. (The standard take on this issue, by contrast, has the advantage of both flattering and advancing the interests of employers and educators alike, and it’s thus very politically attractive). I don’t even have much affection for my own position on this, even though I’ve come to think it’s accurate. As I’ve said before, it does feel odd for me, as a scientist, as someone who values education greatly, and as someone who’s broadly pro-immigration, to be making these points. But there they are.

Anyone who thinks that all you need to make  good science is cheap, well educated labor should really give it a whirl sometime.  Let me know how you’re doing after a decade of lab work and half a dozen restructurings.

The idea that we need to import more foreign engineers when American engineers can’t get work here and have to go work in Canada and Japan is just beyond cruel and stupid.

As Colin McIlwain says, the idea that there is a shortage of well educated, technically proficient and experienced American scientists is something the business community conjured up in order to push wages down.  Congress is either willfully ignorant or completely bamboozled if it seriously thinks that we need more foreign STEM graduates.  I recommend that the coastal Senators and Reps take a good look at their states’ unemployment statistics to see what Pharmageddon has done to the R&D industry.  It’s a hemorrhage of good jobs and tax revenue and if they pass this immigration measure, they’re only going to make the problem worse.

Good science is hard work and should be paid accordingly.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known scientists who have been here for years and had difficulty getting a Green Card and I have great sympathy for them.  They paid their dues and deserved the card.  But we don’t need more foreign math and science students here until we can clear the backlog of the hundreds of thousands un and underemployed scientists that are struggling to get by since the bonus class decided it didn’t really need research after all.  In any case, they’re smart enough to figure it out.  When low wages make living in the US a losing proposition after 10 years of undergraduate and graduate school, they’ll stop coming here.

They might try France instead.  Here’s an article from the WSJ about how R&D employees got the aid of the French government on its side to keep the research facilities open when the Bonus Class at Sanofi tried to shut them down.  The secret?  UNIONS.

Want to know where the next great discoveries are going to come from?  Europe.

If American STEM workers don’t start fighting back, we all lose:

Still busy doing stuff work and house related.  It’s perfect gardening weather here in Pittsburgh.  I’m having a couple of cubic yards of mulch and top soil mix dropped off here later and I have a ton of weeding to do.  Now, where are my secateurs?

Surviving a Layoff or How I did it.

I see the light at the end of the tunnel and it is not a train.  My house is under contract and I’m making a decent profit on it. I’ll be able to pay off all my outstanding debts, put away a good chunk for the kid’s college fund and have enough to live on for the next year if I manage my money well. Next week, I’m moving my furniture to the new house in Pittsburgh.

Here are some of my tips for surviving a layoff in the Little Depression.  Please note that if everyone took this advice, we’d be plunged into another recession because when you’re in survival mode, spending money to keep the economy going is not your first priority.

Pre-layoff

1.) Prepare for a layoff well in advance of one.  Have at least 6 months salary saved up.  If you can, set aside a year’s mortgage and tax payments.  My savings combined with NJ’s unemployment pay helped me immeasurably.  Kudos to the NJ Department of Labor.  They were kind, respectful and helpful.

2.) Pay off as much debt as you possibly can.  Don’t buy a new car unless you can pay cash or the monthly payments are low enough that you can still eat on your unemployment check.  Maintain your car.  Payoff your credit cards.  Don’t go on vacation.

3.) Make sure you are healthy.  Get a yearly physical, address health issues when they crop up and you still have insurance.  Don’t put anything off.

During the Layoff

4.) Try not to panic.  I panicked and almost made some major, major mistakes.  Thank goodness I had Katiebird.

5.) Get a Katiebird.  It’s probably best if the person lives in another state and can’t see you everyday.  Just chit-chatting with another person over stuff can calm the nerves.

6.) Don’t take the first job you see.  Take your time and develop a Plan B.  Consider what kind of work you like to do, where you want to live and whether you can afford to stay where you are.

7.) Don’t rule out working for free.  If you’ve saved money and you’re covering your bills, use the time you have to stay current with your skills or learn something new.  I was fortunate enough to hook up with some people I used to work with who let me participate in some projects.  As a result, I’m looking forward to a publication that was recently submitted and have been invited to stay on an ongoing project.  I’m now getting paid a small amount but the whole experience kept me sane and I appreciated every minute of it.

8.) If you can’t afford to stay where you are, move.  I used the last year to fix up my house, learned how to install faucets, wire lighting fixtures and garbage disposals and experienced the joys of ripping out 25 years of creeping juniper in order to create “curb appeal”.  In the meantime, I looked for a bargain house in my target city and found one.  I paid cash for the house I bought (more on how I did this later).  Now, when I move there, my biggest expense will be my health insurance.  I will have no mortgage and the house is about 1/4 mile from the bus line.

9.) Do whatever you can to keep your health insurance.  COBRA is ridiculously expensive.  In fact, it cost me about half of my unemployment checks. There really should be a law preventing that. But you never know when you will need medical care so don’t drop your insurance under any circumstances.  Also, keeping continuous coverage will help you transition to an individual policy.  Don’t skip this step. I’ve known people who thought they could get away with not covering themselves or their children and they are now regretting it because after 63 days of no coverage, it’s really difficult to get affordable insurance on the individual market.

10.) Cancel any monthly bills you can live without.  I cut the cord on cable but kept internet.  It turns out that Brook and I didn’t really miss much.  I reduced my car insurance because I was no longer commuting to work.  Don’t buy a lot of clothes and other material goods but don’t forget to treat yourself once in awhile to a Grande Cinnamon Dolce Latte or a Gelati from Ritas.

11.) Use your IRA carefully.  I rolled my 401K into an IRA and purchased my new house with part of it.  You can do this without tax penalties if you return the money to your account within 60 days.  That 60 day thing seems rather arbitrary and rules out using the money for things like starting your own business but that’s the deal.  This is what Congress legislated.  It’s a shame that my generation has been snookered by fast talking financial planners in expensive suits to socking our nest eggs and rainy day funds in “instruments” and retirement plans that are not liquid without huge, and I do mean HUGE tax penalties, but there you are.  You *can* use this money but you need to be very clever about it and ask a lot of questions over and over again to make sure you’re doing it right.

I recently met a woman who created her own IRA real estate investment fund.  She now invests her IRA money in this fund and uses it to purchase houses all across the country.  She fixes them up and rents them and plans to earn enough money to retire from this fund.  In her case, since she’s not taking the money out, there’s no tax penalty.  Something to think about.

So, now, I’m just waiting for the final pieces of my move to fall into place.  I don’t have a regular full time job yet but for now, I’m Ok.  I have some money left over, my kid’s future is not dismal and my health insurance is covered.  I didn’t lose my house and my credit is still pretty good.  When I move, my standard of living will be about the same as it was in NJ.  My house is about the same size and I’ve got more land.  It’s in a nice neighborhood and my neighbors are about the same socio-economic status as before.  It’s just in a different city.

I can work from home but I’ll probably be looking for a job when I get there.  At this point, I can bartend and still be fine.

That’s not to say that there weren’t bumps along the way.  There were plenty, including one major one that I will tell you about someday.  But in any case, it *did* get better.  Whether all this frugality is good for the country is another story and there’s no doubt that the idea that researchers can afford to do research on their own without the economy of scale of a bigger lab or company is just utter nonsense.  I don’t believe in “creative destruction”.  As Gandalf said, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom”.  Breaking the economy, breaking up R&D facilities, breaking up families and lives, just to see what happens and assuming that everyone will land on their feet all ticketyboo is not a good economic strategy.

But I survived.

****************

What are your layoff tips?  Add them in the comments.

 

 

SOTU {{facepalm}}

There are two problems with the SOTU speech.  I don’t believe Obama and the Republicans have a gift for manipulation.  We need to learn how to monkeywrench that.

First, let’s start with Obama.  I don’t care what he said last night or what his delivery was like or even if some of his ideas were kinda, sorta in the vague general direction we need to go.  Even if he didn’t have a history of making you think he has your best interests at heart just before he delivers some incredibly weak policy, all his goodwill would have been negated when I heard this:

Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

[yeah, yeah, all well and good but what's this...?]

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

There are two problems with the idea that American needs more highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers from foreign countries.  The first is that it’s bullshit and the second is that Obama is getting his information from the same Wall Street braintrusts who ran our research complex into the ground.

Let’s take on the bullshit aspect first, shall we?  Since 2008, the biotech/pharma research sector has laid off over 100,000 scientists, the bulk of them in NJ.  Don’t believe me?  Check out FiercePharma Top 10 Layoffs for 2009 for a taste of the carnage.  As for foreign engineers needing to come here, I can only assume he means the kind of engineers they employ in the Apple plants in China.  Because I know American chemical engineers who are working in Canada and Japan because they can’t get a job in the United States.  So, the only reason I can think as to why we are bringing in foreign engineers is that the companies that want to hire them have been keeping perfectly good, highly skilled American engineers out of the labor market and now, realizing they actually need engineers, they want to bring in cheap labor from elsewhere.

It is the mark of a very disinterested, captured president if he is unwilling to address the real problem of unemployed American STEM workers, who apparently have no voice, in order to shut up the yammering from the executive suites of big companies.  He’d rather send our own American high tech workers out of the country and away from their families than ask companies to demonstrate why they need to be sitting on the pile of cash that should be wages.  This is shameful.

Secondly, about that entrepreneurship?  What exactly does he think R&D professionals are made of?  When we were working for corporations, we were not exactly making the big bucks.  Some of us came from the midwest and were dragged out to the most expensive areas of the country when our corporate overlords decided to merge their little hearts away.  THEN when those same corporate overlords realized that the cost of research was suddenly too high, because they vastly increased the cost of each scientist by moving them out to the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia, they unceremoniously laid our asses off and stranded us here.  The severance packages are temporary, mortgages are forever.

So, where exactly are we supposed to get money to be entrepreneurs?  I mean, who in their right mind would lend money to little biotech startups with a lead compound and expect that compound to go all the way through clinical to market?  Well, as we have seen from recent evidence, it is very, very difficult to start those kinds of businesses here because once the compound is at the development stage, you need to lay off early discovery personnel in order to have enough capital to see the drug through the next stage.  What foreign grad student would voluntarily come to America to put themselves through that  short employment cycle?  Why not go to Germany to study?  I would.  I wouldn’t waste my time struggling here in the US where you are expected to live on a pittance, public transportation is awful, healthcare is ridiculously expensive and you can’t buy a decent house on the $37K a year that you’ll be expected to make as a permanent post doc.

If Obama can’t get this one policy right with regard to the causes and effects of high unemployment among American STEM workers, I can’t believe he has a good grip on ANY economic issue.  It’s either willful ignorance on his part or he just doesn’t give a damn.

Look, guys, and by guys I mean the White House and Congress, high tech workers have to eat too.  You may think we’re all a bunch of unwashed geeks who eat Cheetos out of the vending machines and are awkward around the opposite sex but if you actually do any kind of investigation into the lives we live, you will see that we’re not that different from other “normal” Americans.  We like nice places to live that aren’t collapsing on us, decent transportation, a nice bottle of wine with dinner, trips to DisneyWorld with the kids we procreated and all the other stuff that makes life in the US worth living.  Whoever is telling you that STEM people are willing to work for post doc salaries until they get the brilliant idea that’s going to turn them into the next Thomas Edison is really not dealing well with reality.

Speaking of not dealing with reality well, Paul Krugman has a post on his blog about Marco Rubio’s response and how Rubio casually threw in this bit of, well, there’s no other way to say this, lying:

This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

Krugman says:

OK, leave on one side the caricature of Obama, with the usual mirror-image fallacy (we want smaller government, therefore liberals just want bigger government, never mind what it does); there we go with the “Barney Frank did it” story. Deregulation, the explosive growth of virtually unregulated shadow banking, lax lending standards by loan originators who sold their loans off as soon as they were made, had nothing to do with it — it was all the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie, and Freddie.

Look, this is one of the most thoroughly researched topics out there, and every piece of the government-did-it thesis has been refuted; see Mike Konczal for a summary. No, the CRA wasn’t responsible for the epidemic of bad lending; no, Fannie and Freddie didn’t cause the housing bubble; no, the “high-risk” loans of the GSEs weren’t remotely as risky as subprime.

This really isn’t about the GSEs, it’s about the BSEs — the Blame Someone Else crowd. Faced with overwhelming, catastrophic evidence that their faith in unregulated financial markets was wrong, they have responded by rewriting history to defend their prejudices.

This strikes me as a bigger deal than whether Rubio slurped his water; he and his party are now committed to the belief that their pre-crisis doctrine was perfect, that there are no lessons from the worst financial crisis in three generations except that we should have even less regulation. And given another shot at power, they’ll test that thesis by giving the bankers a chance to do it all over again.

Since I am about to move into a neighborhood that was affected by the housing crisis (disclaimer: my new house is a foreclosed property in a neighborhood of them), I will be doing my own little bit of research on Rubio’s side of the story to determine what exactly went wrong but let me just say that I’m skeptical.  Not only am I skeptical about the cause of the disaster but I suspect that the true bad actors are still acting badly.  Check out this post by Dave Dayan at The New Republic to see how investment bankers are messing with the housing recovery.  I had a conversation with a realtor yesterday, a listing agent for foreclosed properties, who told me that the banks are a mess.  From his description, I get the image of banks out of control, restructuring constantly, trying to game the system on a minute by minute basis, unsure who gets what contract papers when and in what order and losing money for themselves and their investors in the process because the working environment is constantly shifting.  Of course, that is a much more complex and longer story to tell and besides, it doesn’t fit with the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” strategy  of deflecting blame from the big money donors of the Republican party so the general public is largely unaware of the bankers’ shenanigans and how they are setting communities, homeowners and renters up for even more destructive wealth extraction.

But what really floors me is how so many voters who lean conservative actually believe this crap.  Is it because the alternative explanations never get floated past them or that those alternatives are too complex?  Or is it because the conditioning is too ingrained?  Demographic trends will take care of much of negative effects to a critical mass of Americans but for the good of the country, we really need to figure out how to put a stop to allowing so much of our population to believe lies.  At the very least, there should be a truth in advertising statement for both the SOTU address and its responses.  But even that will be insufficient if there’s no way to effectively push back in such a way that an evidence based world is the operant one.

It’s a huge problem for both the left and the right.  If we don’t solve it, we might as well just let the plutocrats indenture us now.

Update: So, apparently the new meme is “Down with Austerity! Up with a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases!”  A “balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases” is still AUSTERITY.  I’m sorry, no matter how you slice it, when you cut spending in the midst of a depression, which is what we are in right now, the consequence is going to be AUSTERITY and a return to more recession.  Can we cut the crap already, Barry?  You need to spend money, the money you can get for ridiculously low interest rates, and put people back to work.  Anything else is AUSTERITY.

I blame the “progressives” who got us into this mess.  I will never, never forgive the assholes who got schmoozed by this Republican president in disguise.

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