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The Sad Tale of the Blind Barista

PeterK sends this story along saying that half of 2012 college grads will be unemployed or underemployed. [1]More:

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” said Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative-writing degree.

I’m sorry, but with what?! Assuming he took four years to earn his degree, young Bledsoe was only halfway through his college career when the economy crashed hard, and everybody wondered if we were on the verge of a new Great Depression. Did he not read the papers? Honestly, even in the best of times, job prospects for a creative writing major are iffy. Did Bledsoe think that it was all going to work out somehow? Good grief. Were there no adults in his life who tried to warn him?

More from the story:

His situation highlights a widening but little-discussed labor problem. Perhaps more than ever, the choices that young adults make earlier in life — level of schooling, academic field and training, where to attend college, how to pay for it — are having long-lasting financial impact.

“You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it’s not true for everybody,” said Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble with total U.S. student-loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. “If you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college.”

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35 Comments To "The Sad Tale of the Blind Barista"

#1 Comment By Mitchell On May 21, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

And yet will still allow nearly 1,000,000 legal immigrants in a year, and *all* political parties are proposing that foreign graduate students who, after all, are admitted as *students* not workers, be given automatic green cards.

#2 Comment By Sammacdon On May 21, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

His problem is that he’s probably looking for work as a creative writer. Good luck.

The thing is, though, there are scads of jobs that just want a college degree, and they don’t care what it’s in. He could get a sales job for a truck leasing company, or work at a bank or get his license and become an insurance salesman.

When I taught creative writing and journalism at the college level I always advised kids to pick a different major or to double major. Even if it were in something like religious studies. That would at least bump you up for the religion beat at a bigger paper.

I have no issue, I suppose, with a kid going to college to expand the life of his mind. Perhaps more people ought to treat college that way. But once you are out, you need to find something to do. Even if it doesn’t have the same name as your major. Most sociology majors don’t go on to become sociologists.

#3 Comment By connie On May 21, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” said Michael Bledsoe . . .

I know what he wants. He wants a job where he can work with people, and do interesting stuff, and read!

Hasn’t the job market always been thus for liberal arts majors with no way to display their technical skills? (No, knowing how to use Microsoft Word  does not count as technical skills.)

I went to a private liberal arts college many years ago, and I want to have sympathy for him, but it’s hard. The colleges and their instructors are also to blame. “We’ll teach creative thinking! And problem solving skills! Because that’s what employers want!” Er, maybe, maybe not; but even if those skills are what employers want (and I have my doubts about that), they have no way to measure if a presenting applicant has them.

#4 Comment By Charlieford On May 21, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

 “… it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one …”

Good luck with that.  Employers don’t have to hire 18-year-old high school graduates when there’s millions of older, more mature, college graduates to choose from.

Add the increasingly prevalent “must be currently employed in a comparable position” (ie, forget about using your barista-experience as a launching pad to something better) and you’ve got a heck of a jam.

#5 Comment By Kid_Charlemagne On May 21, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

I’m not sure the problem is necessarily his choice of major.  In my part of the country I do see lots of employment opportunities for people with “excellent writing skills” along with basic knowledge of computer use and an ability to work “on own initiative” etc. etc.

However, these jobs are not particularly well-paying or are internships and they have mundane (non-sexy) titles…

I think part of the problem is what college graduates have come to expect as “reward” for their BA…and part of the problem is that there are an incredible number of such jobs these days that don’t pay at all (internships).

#6 Comment By Nate Taylor On May 21, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

I think what is often missed in these discussions of majors is that the problem isn’t majors, but a lack of experience. A creative writing major (like an English or History or Philosophy major) could be great if paired with proper experience. Where these majors fail is that the professors don’t properly encourage their students to do internships and other work experience. Every student should be doing different things in the summer. Maybe interning at a local business or getting writing experience at a non-profit. In fact a humanities major is great for the professional world (build critical thinking and communicating skills) if paired with the right experience. 

This person is screwed because he probably didn’t do anything outside of serving jobs during college, not because of his major.

#7 Comment By Mike On May 21, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

We would be a much worse world were it not for people with degrees in creative writing and MFA of all sorts.  Much of our best literature and art is coming from people with those backgrounds.

But people also need a fall-back and a realization that poets and writers and people in publishing will struggle for awhile before they can make a living at what they love. Being a barista (or similar kind of work) is part of the tradition of artists who struggle until they are successful . . . or become MBAs.

#8 Comment By Bill Clendineng On May 21, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

I am the parent of a child who is piling up debt in pursuit of a career that won’t work.  We are (thankfully) not sharing in the debt and have not been able to contribute a great deal to our child’s schooling.  If we were buying into it, then we might have some say in the outcome.  We have suggested alternatives but have no control.
If parents are controlling a significant part of the money, then those parents need to do more than suggest if a child is studying into a dead end.

#9 Comment By Tyro On May 21, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

In my day, people with no idea what they wanted to do with their lives got a job with Anderson Consulting.

That aside, in an economy like this, you either get one of the few entry level job openings, or you don’t. Tons of young people with “practical” degrees in nursing and pharmacy are reeling, as well. And dropping out of college isn’t an option because even entry level clerical work requires a college degree.

That said, given the very poor writing skills held by people at all levels of white collar management, I don’t think it is fair to question the “practical” value of his degree.

#10 Comment By StillAnInterestedObserver On May 21, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

 My sweetie just made a commitment for some higher education — but as she and I agree, it’s for a practical cause: she’s a couple of classes away from completing an interrupted associates degree from some time ago, but has in the meantime already worked on and achieved a massage practitioner’s license, which she’s used to start her own small business in the field.  She’s just today entered on an extended (and fully accredited/licensed) therapist’s program, and while she is taking some loans, it’s only for a year of study and is already halfway paid for with earlier savings, and is incredibly less expensive overall than any full college commitment would be at present — thousands as opposed to tens of thousands.  In terms of risk/reward, especially since she can continue to build up her business contacts over the next year, in combination with an understanding part-time employment situation that is also giving her a lot of front-end experience in running a larger business, this has turned out to be far, far better for her in terms of time and commitment than charging ahead on a general bachelor’s degree, enabling her to build up a professional career with full national licensing first and then being able to pursue that bachelor’s later with plenty of life and business experience under her belt, and on her own terms.  It’s that kind of approach I wish was more readily understood and conveyed in secondary school, as Freeman notes in that part you quote.

#11 Comment By Justin St. Giles Payne On May 21, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

Does anybody have a job that doesn’t involve writing, these days? It’s not at all clear that he has a useless degree.

#12 Comment By Charlieford On May 21, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

 But don’t worry.  Cutting taxes, Medicare, Medicaid and food-stamps will fix it.

#13 Comment By RodDreher On May 21, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

Who gets a degree in “creative writing”? Did we have no readable novels and short stories before the advent of MFA programs? 

#14 Comment By Jeffrey Hughes On May 21, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

 I graduated with a degree in creative writing.  It required fewer mandatory classes than other majors, a feature that allowed me to dabble in other subjects and try to round out my eduction some, as well as receive mentoring in a field that interested me.  I didn’t end up becoming a novelist – I’m in law school now (go ahead on the jokes about the jobs that will be waiting for me with THAT degree) – but it gave me a certain amount of freedom to explore the university, and I don’t think it prepared me less for the “real world” than other humanities majors.

Besides, in most run of the mill fields – with exceptions for STEM-oriented jobs – it isn’t clear to me that employers want you to have major X or Y, so much as they want you to have the ability to critically analyze documents or information and to write your thoughts down in a clear, coherent manner.  Since any creative writing major likely requires a number of English literature classes, presumably a creative writing major has these skills.

#15 Comment By Sands77 On May 21, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

Can a person really be taught to be a creative writer?  I mean, I know a person can be taught about colons, semi-colons, contractions, subjective and objective pronouns, etc.  But can they really be taught to be creative?

It’s a lot like music.  There are a lot of good guitar players out there that are not creative enough to write their own music.

#16 Comment By Christopher Larsen On May 21, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Analysis by anecdote aside, liberal arts majors have more trouble getting a foot in the door than persons with more technical or professional training like accounting. But people with liberal arts backgrounds tend to significantly outperform others in income and professional growth due to their excellent communication skills and flexible creative critical thinking skills. The English or History major may not get a job in that field but their skills are very transferable *if* they get the opportunity to get their foot in the door. Never ever underestimate the ability to adapt and communicate well in the corporate world. But getting experience is the key as other posters have said.

Of course any story about the validity or necessity or value of a degree (or no degree) is deeply skewed in this economic environment. What is unarguable is the reality that $ 100,000 for a BA in anything  is unconscionable. Fortunately, student have the option of Income Based repayment that caps repayment terms to a manageable proportion of their income and offers loan forgiveness after as little as 10 years of work in the non-profit or  government sectors.

#17 Comment By TWylite On May 21, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

People in artsy fields like this simply cannot rely on schooling alone to pave a career path for them. They need to be very entrepeneurial, giving away a lot of work just to begin to make a name for themselves. The article doesn’t say either way, but this guy needs to be doing much more than just sending resumes if he is not already: submitting stuff to the local freebie alternative rags, posting his work on multiple internet channels, self-publishing his own pamphlets/books to give away to anyone who might show interest, etc. Same kind of deal with musicians. They can’t just take lessons, make a demo recording, stick it in the mail, and expect record companies or performing venues to beat a path to their door. 

#18 Comment By Mike On May 21, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

The same could be said for journalism degrees (I have one of those too).  There was a lot of great journalism before people got degrees in them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a value and a place.

#19 Comment By Nathaniel On May 21, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

Yes. Some people are more more naturally inclined to creativity than others, but the inclination needs to be cultivated, and studying under those who have already cultivated their own creativity can be a tremendous help. Creativity is rarely something that springs up sui generis; it needs the rich soil of diverse experiences of other people’s creativity to flower.

Beyond that, there’s the necessity of translating a creative idea into a communicable format, which is a big part of what a creative writing degree (I minored in it) would teach you. A lot of people have creative ideas but don’t know how to use language and literary form to communicate it effectively to an audience, so their creativity dies with them.

#20 Comment By Erin Manning On May 21, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

 The problem with that, Nate, is that middle to lower-middle class Americans who go to college spend their college years working their backsides off in minimum-wage jobs any time they’re not actually in class.  Internships are usually unpaid positions.  Good luck doing a summer internship and then getting back into school in the fall.

When I graduated from college I worked temp jobs in business offices to get my foot in the door.  I remember once filling in for a receptionist at a corporate law department.  The intern who was there wore suits that cost more than I spent on textbooks during my college career–and if you added shoes, jewelry, and handbags, her outfits for the time I worked in her department probably cost as much as my entire college tuition.  If a student from my sort of background had applied for the internship, he/she would probably have been laughed out of the office, and if he/she HAD been hired, he/she would have ended up with no money in August to put toward the next year’s tuition–which in most cases would mean not going back at all.

(And non-profits, even more so.  What’s the use of getting future job experience if you can’t afford to finish your degree?)

#21 Comment By Noah07G On May 21, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

“Who gets a degree in ‘creative writing’ “?

I do. (Did.)

Disclaimer: My parents wanted me to get a degree in *something* (“anything!”), so after giving up on philosophy (“it’s interesting, but too hard”) I decided on the easiest major I could find.

Anyway, needless to say, it has yet to be used. And I doubt that any of the kids in my classes ever became writers. Aside from one, maybe two, nobody had much real talent (we read everything aloud in most of the classes), not to mention desire, ambition, etc.

I think David Mamet was probably correct: actors, writers, musicians, stay away from college. You either have it or you don’t (generalization of course, but largely, in my view, accurate).  If you want to be a writer, start writing.

#22 Comment By JonF311 On May 21, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

Yes, but he needs something more than just writing on his resume. I agree advertized skill at writing makes you stand out, but it’s not going to open a lot of door unless it’s paired with something more.

#23 Comment By Erin Manning On May 21, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

 The truth is, an English major with the “right” alma mater, background, income level, and social status will do way, way better than someone with a business or technology major who graduated from a lower-tiered college, who had to work both during school semesters and during summers, who has less income, and whose social sphere is limited to others like him.

Then, too, degrees in the liberal arts often appeal to people who are natural introverts.  The truth that nobody wants to tell recent college grads (or anybody) is that if you really want to be successful in today’s corporate job environment, you have to learn how to be a fake extrovert–and even that will only get you so far if you have moral or ethical qualms about being a backstabbing jerk, lying to make others look bad, sucking up to a boss by encouraging his various personality disorders and feeding/enabling his narcissism, and cultivating the art of throwing both customers and co-workers under the proverbial bus in order to make yourself look good, all of which are not only marketable skills but are really the only important skills to have, as with this type of personality you can easily manipulate the weaker members of the herd to do the work you’re supposed to be doing and liking it–or at least, fearing you too much to complain.

#24 Comment By Michael Wenberg On May 21, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

We have a young friend who just received his Master’s in piano performance from ASU.  He’s a talented musician, but not “great.”  Now he’s back working at the local grocery store and gigging around the Tucson area.  His parents were well-to-do, and I think living vicariously through him, which is why they supported him through six years of schooling resulting in a degree wtih limited commercial value.

We’ve taken a different tack with our kids, resisting the impulse to helicopter, and telling them they’re on their own when it comes to school  My oldest son is now finishing up a Master’s in Mathematics, completely self financed, and our middle daughter is going to school courtesy of the U.S. Navy.  Youngest son, just out of high school, would love to go to a four year school, but “HE” can’t afford it, so he’s going to community college for a couple of years, will work  part time, and then will look into transferring to a 4 year school then.  My wife and I can certainly afford to pay for our kid’s schooling, and I can’t say it was easy being hard asses, but the education they have received through figuring out how to finance it on their own has been priceless.  They also have a sense of accomplishment that no gift from my wife and I could ever match.  And instead of hating us, the two older ones have thanked us for letting them do it on their own.    

#25 Comment By Glaivester On May 21, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

Is “creative writing” that useful though?  Is it translatable into “writing reports, essays, studies, etc.?”

#26 Comment By SiarlysJenkins On May 21, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

I have often advised people in their late teens who plan to go to college but don’t know what for to get a job driving a truck. It pays well, there are long lists of want ads in Craig’s list, and when they figure out what they want out of their education, they’ll have some money saved up. One young man I gave that advice to went to college for a year, got nothing out of it but a social life and a demeaning nickname, and is now working part time for UPS. His parents have a $5000 loan to pay off.

#27 Comment By Brett Rohlwing On May 21, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

What scares me about this guy is that he’ll probably end up trying to enter my incredibly tight and surprisingly competitive profession– librarianship. I am fortunate to be employed as public librarian in an excellent and thriving system, but the job market in general is pretty bad even in good times. Way too many MLS holders out there. (Nice work if you can get it, though! ;^) )

#28 Comment By Tyro On May 21, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

Well, many people would regard not contributing to college, particularly since parental contribution is a requirement under FAFSA until you’re 24 or 25, to be putting up a major barrier to your children’s education. But I suspect that this is a difference in social class/regional norms.

While the “name” of my degree seems like it has a lot of “commercial value”, in a practical sense, the classes were rather abstract and theoretical and more about teaching the fundamentals of the field. The only reason I was marketable on the job market is because I spent summer after summer chasing after internships which gave me a track reacord of experience. I noticed a lot of kids were perfectly fine with spending the summers lifeguarding or waiting tables because the money was good, and they got their careers off to a much slower start…. and that was in a good economy.

#29 Comment By Reid Dalton On May 21, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

College students have never taken a liberal arts degree in order to train themselves for gainful employment.  They take that degree to imbibe the wisdom of the ages, to form relationships with other students who will be the future leaders of their community, state and nation, and as a gateway to graduate or professional school or an entry level job where they will get that training.  But too many schools don’t even fulfill this promise.  That is why college is becoming a wasteful investment.

#30 Comment By Justin St. Giles Payne On May 22, 2012 @ 8:38 am

Mine did, and I didn’t even major in it. I have a STEM degree, but by far I’m the best technical communicator at work simply because I also have a background in creative writing.

Good writing is good writing. It doesn’t matter what the application is – getting your point across clearly in an engaging manner, and being able to put yourself into the mindset of your audience, are exactly the sort of “creative writing” skills you need to succeed as a communicator. And who on Earth has a job where they don’t have to communicate in print?

#31 Comment By pak152 On May 22, 2012 @ 9:46 am

 “…resulting in a degree wtih limited commercial value.”
well since it is piano performance he could work in a piano bar couldn’t he?

#32 Comment By pak152 On May 22, 2012 @ 9:51 am

 depends upon what type of job the barista is looking for. I wonder if he ever considered volunteering at some non-profits helping them with their newsletters, email announcements, etc. These would help him build a portfolio. his barista job can help support him. or is he waiting for the ‘perfect job’ to come along?
I have two degrees in history. what I learned was how to do research, analyze that research and then to put that research into a cogent piece of information. Transferable skills. for only 4 years did I really work in a field associated with history. after that i’ve been employed in the O&G industry, Systems Integration, Telcom and now with a major Software company

I’ve followed the Yogi Bera Philosophy of Life – When you come to the fork in the road, take it.

#33 Comment By pak152 On May 22, 2012 @ 9:57 am

Reid Dalton wrote “College students have never taken a liberal arts degree in order to train themselves for gainful employment.”

at one time one went to college to get educated not trained for a job. The key is how you use the education in your life.

Now colleges and universities are trying to be Nostradamus ie trying to divine what future jobs will be and supplying the training for them. good luck with that
Do we really need Bachelor’s degrees in Real Estate? or Playground Management? and not to offend those who may be employed in the profession Journalism?

Steve Jobs dropped out of college and once he did he went back and audited the classes. It has been pointed out that one such class got him fascinated with typography something that he introduced with the Macs.

#34 Comment By Tyro On May 22, 2012 @ 10:02 am

The way employers measure whether the applicant has those skills is generally to look less at the major and more at whether the applicant displays the appropriate social class markers first via his alma mater and next via his track record of internships and self-presentation in which he developed the vocabulary to credibly pursue those job openings. It is possible to figure this out in your first entry level jobs, but it is harder and keeps you out of certain career paths.

#35 Comment By Justin St. Giles Payne On May 22, 2012 @ 11:00 am

Your youngest is actually going to be harmed by the educational path you’re forcing him into – community college credits may not effectively transfer, so he could wind up repeating coursework. Consider the possibility that’s he’s already learned the lesson about how hard it is to pay for school and help him afford the four-year college. As Tyro says, parental contribution is a requirement on FAFSA, which means all that money you’re not spending on his education is reducing his access to financial aid. Doesn’t seem like much of a favor, and if your kids were being honest with you, I think they’d agree.