Symphonies in a Garage
By Charles Orlowek
The satellite radio in our vehicle is preset to popular songs of the World War II generation. Picking up the car one day from Chicago's Mike Anderson Chevrolet, Haydn's Symphony No. 104 welcomed me back! The radio had been reset to the "Symphony Hall" channel as repairs were made to the car’s emission system.
Mechanics enjoying classical music on the job? At first, I was surprised. And yet appreciation for high culture is absolutely compatible with those whose education and career pursuits are oriented more closely toward vocational, scientific, technical, or engineering fields.
The View from the National Endowment for the Humanities
When he was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach spoke of a false choice between either humanities or STEM fields. "Each set of disciplines is essential. Each bolsters the other," the former Iowa congressman and Princeton professor said in a speech at the University of Illinois in 2013. He considered learning science, technology, engineering, or math without the humanities as inviting "social disaster." He also asserted that "the humanities without STEM defines economic stagnation."
If the latter comment is right, could coolness toward STEM careers and studies – in academic and vocational forms – contribute to the development of pay stagnation and related struggles in some post-secondary career fields?
Has STEM Really Been Falling Behind?
In 2016, some professors at The Ohio State University were "alarmed that numbers of new freshmen majoring in the classic liberal arts disciplines have plummeted in recent years," according to a report in the Columbus Dispatch. Humanities professors saw a "deliberate choice to enroll ever more majors in other fields" on the part of university administrators.
In fact, since the mid-1980s, American colleges and universities have more than doubled the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in liberal arts and the humanities, while the number in engineering and computer science is up less than 25 percent. This shift happened during a time when the role of technology grew vastly more important in managing environmental quality, sustaining economic competitiveness, and enabling the use of data to help drive new discoveries across all fields of human query, from the humanities and social sciences, to the hard sciences, the "Internet of Things," and beyond.
For associate's degrees, U.S. government data show the trend for computer science virtually flat between 2004-2005 and 2014-2015, and the number in engineering technologies actually fell over the same period.
Water in Flint
The Flint, Michigan water fiasco was widely reported as a human-made failure of public infrastructure. Catastrophic damage to the city's drinking water was the result of a failure to introduce corrosion control additives when the water source was changed, causing pipes to leach lead. Operating and maintaining infrastructure, and caring for the environment, are not principally jobs for workers with shovels, but rather vocations for men and women with technical and scientific knowledge and skills. "Next-generation utility staff need to know not only the physics of the grid [in the case of electric utilities], but also the operation of sophisticated monitoring, control, and analytical systems," according to a 2016 report published by the consulting firm Deloitte. "The water sector faces severe workforce challenges in the coming years," according to an October 2017 report on skills shortages posted by the California Water Environment Association.
The latter echoes issues already raised in a national Water Sector Workforce Sustainability Initiative report issued in 2010, several years before the Flint disaster. Such reports underscore the need for technological education and training in all levels of our workforce, as well as the creative application of such learning.
Perhaps A Career in Activism?
Mastery of technical and scientific fields also bolsters competitiveness in advanced manufacturing and in other sectors which build wealth and jobs. In recent decades, as career development professionals may recognize, the ambitions of many Americans have gravitated instead toward areas which spend wealth, like the arts, philanthropy, personal services, and endeavors around lobbying and awareness raising. Idealistic youth may see their futures in full-time activism promoting social or environmental causes. For some, would it make sense to consider a lifelong commitment to part-time activism, complemented by full-time work as an engineer developing environmentally responsible industrial processes?
A Full Life With Limitless Possibilities
The musical compositions of George Tsontakis, an active American composer and conductor, have been played around the world by symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. Chicago's Fulcrum Point New Music Project refers to the Queens, New York native as one of "the most influential composers in new art music." Recently I sat in on a discussion during which he was asked what passion he has outside of music. His response was “excavating work,” adding that he owns his own backhoe! And he mentioned that before music occupied so much of his time, he was a professional union carpenter. Queen Elizabeth II, who did not attend a university, trained as an automotive mechanic during her military service in World War II and then became the reigning British monarch for more than 60 years. The choice to learn technical disciplines or vocational trades forecloses no options. A creative life filled with the arts, as well as the sciences, can still belong to every one of us.
Career development professionals are constantly challenged to help inform choices, taking account of external needs in the community (and beyond), as well as an individual’s native talents and passions. Regardless of career or major field of study, everyone can still learn to be creative in his or her own right and to enjoy the fine and wonderful things this wide world has to offer a human soul.
Charles Orlowek, a consultant in international business development, writes about middle class culture and careers. He has recruited participants to the Calumet Green Manufacturing Partnership, which offers job training and internships in Chicago and its south suburbs, and counseled adults in career transition at Chicago's St. Chrysostom's Employment Council. He has degrees from the University of Maryland and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He can be reached at email@example.com