We need to reconsider how we think about work

By Jonah Dratfield

(Erica Lowenkron/ Daily Collegian)

In the United States, college-bound students are generally presented with two options: They can pursue a lucrative major in order to land a high paying job, or follow their passion in order to realize their dreams. The problem is that neither of these philosophies prepare students for meaningful lives or fulfilling careers. Pursuing wealth and status, to the exclusion of all else, is a recipe for an unsatisfactory life, and pursuing constant bliss is an ideal way to be miserable. There is nothing wrong with desiring a high salary or an enjoyable job, but the extremes to which we have taken these philosophies has proven counterproductive.

Statistics about American workers reflect this. In addition to there being a current labor shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs and blue-collar jobs, a 2014 poll showed that over half of Americans were unhappy at work. Fortunately, we have the capacity to improve this situation if we are willing to think critically about how we approach work. This means not only reevaluating our approaches to preparatory career tracks, but reconsidering the ways in which our work lives intersect with our personal lives. If we can provide people with professional paths that capitalize on their skills and interests, we will not only be happier, but more productive. Yet, in order to do this, we need to reconsider various aspects of the educational system and deconstruct the attitudes we hold about different fields of work.

While many people are interested in STEM subjects and embark on careers in these fields, STEM programs are often set up in ways that do not nurture intellectual growth. A 2011 study showed that roughly 60 percent of students who began as STEM and pre-med majors failed to complete their degrees in these fields. Although these statistics have improved due to Obama-era initiatives, there are still numerous problems with how these majors are designed. Introductory STEM courses often cover huge amounts of material and involve gigantic lecture classes in which students’ individual needs cannot be met. Furthermore, there is gender disparity in how these classes affect students’ perception of themselves. Women are 1.5 times as likely as men to leave STEM majors after taking a calculus class and obtain far fewer STEM degrees than men. There is also a racial gap in performance. Black, Hispanic and Native American students consistently perform worse on STEM exams than white and Asian students, and drop STEM majors at higher rates. Evidently, we have deeply ingrained cultural notions about STEM work that result in certain minorities lacking confidence in their abilities in these fields. This is having a detrimental impact on the economy, as well as on the field itself and the students involved in the field.

STEM is far from the only area that students are needlessly deterred from studying. There is currently a shortage of workers in blue-collar industries. This includes shortages of plumbers, electricians and machinists. To a large extent, this is a result of the status we accord these workers, not the pay that these jobs provide. We, as a culture, seem incapable of recognizing how vital this work is to the growth of our economy. There is a stigma attached to these jobs that affects how many people perceive the workers involved in these fields and the skill required for the work. This stands in stark contrast to countries such as Denmark, where trash collectors regularly socialize with white-collar workers and where one’s economic status does not dictate their social circle. This is the sort of society we should strive for: A society in which needless social divisions do not stem from professional work. If this ideal were actualized, people who desired to pursue trade skills would not feel that they were disappointing their families or relegating themselves to low status when they did. They would align their careers with their interests, instead of with the expectations of their communities.

I am advocating for students and workers in blue-collar and STEM fields, but I am by no means criticizing people who choose the arts and humanities as career tracks or educational paths. One of the laudable aspects of the U.S. higher educational system is that it gives students the capacity to pursue the subjects they are interested in. It is vitally important for us to have professionals whose careers are centered around the humanities and the arts. But what I am criticizing is our incapacity to make STEM and blue-collar work feasible options for people of all backgrounds. Furthermore, I am criticizing our academic system’s failure to support people in these fields and our society’s inability to reconsider attitudes about STEM and blue-collar work.

There are numerous people who wish to work with their hands, with numbers or in labs. Yet we are not providing these people with paths conducive to their intellectual and professional prosperity. In order to remedy this situation, we need to reconsider how we think about work. When we do this, we will not only have a better economy, but a better country — a country in which our collective well-being improves along with our collective wealth.

Jonah Dratfield is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]