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Archive for the ‘society’ Category

I’m 45 now, I’ve been an engineer for over half my life.  Bit by bit, I have passed into the second half of my career without ever seeing the change coming.  Every once in a while I run into a discussion, in person or online, about the Millenials as the “Me Generation”, about how young people today are all about their entitlement and their toys, and not about what they can do your their country — or, more likely, for their employer.  As some like to sum it up, “Millenials want bags of money or praise.”

The first time it happened, maybe five years ago or so — I guess by then I was considered elderly enough not to be considered one of the young whippersnappers anymore — I was quite shocked.  I was trying to recognize the young people I know, and failed.  I asked myself whether it was because I was so disconnected from them, but it just so happen that a good number of my friends are in their mid-twenties.

Now I’ve gone back to teaching and I look at even younger people in our Engineering Department.  Do these complaints reflect what I’m seeing?

In a word, no.  I think it’s absurd.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between young people in 2011 and those I taught in the late 90s, or my cohorts in the late 80s, let alone my parents’ generation.  Particularly in the way they have learned to learn, the way they work, their expectations of how things work, they obviously have been shaped by a different context.  They have grown up with different technology.

But I find the descriptions that have been attached to their supposed sense of entitlement and air-headedness completely unfair.  Do they have unrealistic expectations?  Of course — it’s part of that stage of life.  And let’s face it, the world they have been raised to expect changes even faster with each passing decade.

Do they need to learn critical thinking, hard work, self-reliance, initiative, resourcefulness?  About as much as 20-year-olds ever do, and maybe less than my students from the late 90s.

Do they have an inflated sense of entitlement?  Ha.  Less so than the Baby Boomers.  In fact, if anything the Millenials’ flaw in the eyes of most employers is that they aren’t quite naive enough about being taken advantage of.  I still wouldn’t call them savvy — that’s something that take more years of experience — but they don’t come in with the expectation that they should sacrifice everything to the altar of The Job.  I say good on them.

No, what I’m seeing is young people who want their choices to have a meaning, who want try many things, who want their efforts to be appreciated, and who are doubtful about how much they can trust what they hear from older generations.  Employers, give them a chance and give them some reasons to love what they do!

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I don’t believe that it’s Jesus’ birthday, but I do like Christmas nonetheless.

I don’t believe that a baby was born to a virgin travelling to Bethlehem. Moreover, even if Matthew (or more likely a later compiler and translator of Matthew’s work) had not added this bit to tie Jesus to messianic traditions but instead had been reported a true (or true-ish) story, it would still have taken place in the spring, not at winter solstice.

I don’t believe that fir trees, chubby white-bearded men in red costumes, flying reindeer, or hard-working elves, have anything to do with Jesus either.

But I like that just about every culture and tradition has created some way of celebrating hope in darkness, the time when nights are at their longest but start getting shorter again (which in the southern hemisphere happens in June, not December, of course). I like that we can celebrate during the same period Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, Rohatsu, Bodhi Day, a slew of other “Christian” holidays that used to be more important until the 20th century (St. Sylvester, Epiphany, etc.), and nowadays Kwanzaa (and Muslim holidays when they roll around to a convenient date along the lunar cycle).

I wish we took more advantage of this to celebrate together rather than fight, but we’re not so good at sharing, least of all sharing peace and good will. But every year those of us paying attention can get a glimmer of it, “if only in our dreams” as Bing Crosby would croon.

I like giving presents, especially those I can make myself. I like putting thought into something I hope will make a loved one happy. I like the symbolic light in the middle of the night. I like people genuinely bringing good cheer and children genuinely marvelling at the season. Yes, I hate the fakery, the commercialism, the too-worldly and mercenary children, the feverish hope that people will spend “enough”, but I’m not willing to let these dictate how I should feel about the holidays.

Happy holidays! I’ll be thinking of you.

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Trash canSometimes people are just so strange. In case anyone blinked and missed it, we’re in the middle of a recession, an economic downturn, whatever you want to call it. A lot of people are out looking for a job (or two) as we hit higher unemployment rates than we’ve seen in decades. And yet, people who should know better still send crappy résumés and provide dumb answers in writing to the most obvious questions.

I can’t really give specifics, but I’ve just encountered stunning examples of job seekers shooting themselves in the foot. I’m not talking about just a little dull or lacking pizazz; I’m talking abysmal errors that are sure to make any reader flee. So let me quickly dispell a few notions about résumés:

  1. A résumé is not a 10-page list of projects. Unless you’re applying for a very specific type of job, such as faculty in a higher learning institution, keep it to a page or two. If it’s appropriate for your type of work, you can always submit a list of projects as a separate support document, keeping the descriptions short, sweet, and punchy. You can also add all sorts of detail on your Website. But your résumé? No, keep it brief.
  2. A résumé is not a list of previous jobs held. It’s a short space in which to drive home the point about why an employer would want you, and not somebody else, to work for them. Tell people about problems you solved, things you improved.
  3. Spell-checking is not optional.. And that includes correctly spelling the names of the person and the company you are applying to. If you can’t spell, do find someone who can.
  4. Visual appeal is not just the cherry on top — it’s the framework for your résumé. It must be easy to read and to recognize when left with a pile of other résumés, yet tasteful and professional. Stick to white or off-white paper of good quality but without ostentation; use crisp fonts that are easy to read, contrasting pleasantly to help direct the eye. Go read The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams; it’s inexpensive, easy to read, and tremendously useful. Hand-written résumés are right out. Seriously, people.
  5. Petulance is not endearing. No matter how justified you think you are about blow-outs with past employers, please don’t trumpet them proudly in your résumé, nor in your cover letter, your interview, your e-mails, etc. Particularly if you’re now applying to the same employer, for the same boss.

Consider hiring a professional to help you with your résumé. For $100 to $200 you should be able to get something good. No, the pro can’t write it all for you; for things pertaining to your own area of expertise, you know more than the résumé writer. But do listen to him or her on their own area of expertise!

Bottom line: we all need a bit of help in a job search, because looking for work is not our job! But there is no excuse for sabotaging one’s own job-seeking effort with a wretched first contact.

Links of interest:

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This week I had to make a little trip toward the eastern edge of the state, to Susanville (which I discovered to be a really pretty, charming little town.) I left in the evening and stayed in Redding overnight so I could meet with my colleagues there in the morning before heading out to Susanville.

Since our company has a corporate account with the chain, I stayed at the Red Lion Inn. It’s handy, it means the bill is handled directly; I don’t have to put the charge on my credit card and get it reimbursed. Besides, as far as I’m concerned all these chains offer more or less the same comforts; all that separates them is price and service.

I’ve stayed at the Red Lion Inn in Eureka before; it’s fine, not a memorable experience but OK. Well, the Redding Red Lion made Eureka’s look like a shining beacon of suave, cosmopolitan charm.

It’s not that anything terrible happened; it’s more that the service was generally disappointing. For example, the room had a single bath towel, and half a pot of old coffee had been left in the little in-room coffee-maker. But the best was the bar.

It was 8:30 pm when I got to the hotel, and I was tired and parched. I checked in, dropped my luggage in the room, etc. so it was at most 9 pm when I came back to look for something to drink. The dining room was closed but the bar seemed open so I went in, looking for a glass of iced tea, lemonade, soda, cold water, whatever. Two off-shift employees were talking to a crusty old bartender who looked and sounded like a triplet to Selma and Patty Bouvier. I had seen the off-shift employees a little earlier, smoking outside; now they were chatting animatedly with the bartender.

I looked around; there were no customers at all. The three employees, including the bartender, paid no attention to me at all as I waited for a few moments. I thought maybe the bar was closed and the crew was about to clean up the place so I stepped out to check the posted hours, which extended until 10 pm. I went back in, waited another moment until somebody took a breath, and asked the bartender: “Is the place open?”

“What?” growled Bartender Lady.

“Is this place open?” I repeated.

“Is WHAT open??”

I was a little baffled, but one of the off-shift employees helpfully clarified. “She wants to know if the bar is open. Oh yeah, there’s at least half an hour to go.”

And with this, the same off-shift employee returned to telling and miming her adventures at dog obedience training class. The three slightly turned their backs to me and Bartender Lady was pointedly enraptured in the conversation. I stood there for a moment more, stunned, tired from a day of work and three hours of driving, trying to figure out to whether they would actually offer any service to, you know, a customer. Unasked, Bartender Lady pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels and started pouring for her pals.

At that point, I got the message and gave up on even asking for the location of a soda machine. I walked to a nearby gas station and got a bottle of ice-cold water.

(By the way, the next morning I received friendly and competent service in the hotel restaurant, which went a long way to improve my view; I dutifully filled the little feedback card and praised the nice lady there.)

None of the experience was particularly traumatic, especially for someone who’s had to sleep in some pretty damn roachy motels (including a bed set up in a basement boiler room, next to the janitor’s mop, with water running on the floor.) But given that the hotel looked about 30% occupied, and is set on a strip filled with other similar hotels, you’d think they would make more of an effort to offer service in this economy.

I would not be surprised to learn that there have been employee cuts and the remaining ones are disgruntled. Whatever — the root cause is still bad hotel management. Don’t treat your employees so poorly that they’ll give bad service, and get rid of bad apples.

This resulted in lost income for them the very same day, too! Along the way to Susanville, I told the story to two co-workers; and one said: “Oh, I have to stay in town tonight so I need a hotel, but I’ll go across the street, then.”

Instant lost customer — and you can bet I’m not going to make an effort to go back either. How stupid is that, when everyone is hurting for business?

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I am so very mortified. I just received the e-mail invitation from the American Society of Civil Engineers for the ASCE’s 139th Annual Civil Engineering Conference. And who do they proudly boast is the guest speaker for the Closing General Session Breakfast? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Yes, it’s Mister Ben “Expelled” Stein himself. Mr. Ben “science leads you to killing people” Stein. Mr. “Intelligent Design” himself, who kept a straight-face while comparing President Obama with Adolf Hitler, Juan Peron, and Evita Peron. But then, Mr. Stein likes to compare all sorts of things to Nazi depredations, he’s like Godwin’s Law walking out there outside the Internet.

Prepare yourself for a hilarious morning as he delivers advice with his unique sense of humor, while telling you what you need to know.

You know what, guys? You’re definitely along the hilarious track there as you make us a laughingstock by inviting someone who stands decidedly against science, fact-based thinking to speak at an engineering conference. This goes against everything an engineer is trained for and against our obligations toward society.

Thanks for nothing, bozos.

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Leaving Humboldt behind?

Every year, Memorial Day weekend signals the exodus of college kids heading back home. Sure enough, the house kitty-corner from us emptied up, pouring furniture into a U-Haul truck; our young neighbours departed. I hardly ever saw them during their stay.

But they left behind a quantity of clay pellets, the kind you use for hydroponic gardens. A lot of pellets. By the barrel. In fact, by four large barrels (you can see two left after another neighbour promptly snagged a couple.)

People sure love their tomatoes in Humboldt. But apparently, my departing young neighbours’ parents don’t have the space for a garden. How sad. You think their Humboldt salad days are over?

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stopIn this troubled economy, we all know people who are looking for a job, whether they’re still employed or not. And I take it as a good sign that we want to be helpful, and pass tips along when we hear of a good opportunity that might match a contact’s background.

Still, there is such a thing as going too far with the networking. Here are a few cases when you want to stop and think: “Do I give a name and contact info to the recruiter, or do I simply pass the information along to my contacts who might be interested?”

In all these examples, the premise is that you are contacted by someone actively recruiting for a job, and the job opening seems like a good match for one of your contacts.

  1. If you know your contact is unemployed and actively looking: Yes, go ahead and provide your friend’s contact information to the recruiter; and let your friend know at once.
  2. If you know your contact is currently employed but actively looking: If your contact gave you the OK to disseminate her/his contact information, provide it to the recruiter; otherwise, NO, ask the recruiter to send you the job description and contact your friend to pass it along.
  3. If your contact is or may be employed but you think s/he might still be interested: NO, do not pass your friend’s contact information along. Ask the recruiter to send you the job description and contact your friend to pass it along.

I know we all want to be helpful, we really are aching to make a difference for all our friends by helping them get back on their feet but some help may be a nuisance or even a hurdle. At the very least, hastily passing contact information without permission — especially from contacts that are not actually friends but more distant — can be a breach of etiquette and privacy.

Links of interest:

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