Monday, September 08, 2008

Advice to an Astute Young Person

An astute and forward-thinking 20-year old reader paid me the great compliment of asking for my advice about three career choices he was pondering. The three choices he'd selected showed me that he is the rare individual who foresees "the end of the world as we know it" a.k.a. TEOTWAWKI and is determined to plan for that reality, not by constructing a bunker but by learning skills which will be in demand in what I call "Month 7."

To wit: if you secure food for six months, great--but what happens in Month Seven? When you emerge from the bunker/hideaway, 95% of the folks who were here on Day One of TEOTWAWKI are still around; the human animal is extremely resilient, adaptive, canny and it doesn't take much to keep them alive. Even the most horrific plagues still left 2/3 of the people alive and kicking.

(Even full-blown nuclear war--highly unlikely, and that's if the missiles still work after the first air-bursts create massive pulses of radiation that fry electronics and guidance systems)--would leave 2/3 of the population alive.

It's simply much more likely that things go on, and that work will need to get done, and those with the high-demand skillsets will do better than those will no skills or low-demand skills (purveyors of mortgage-backed securities, etc.)

Some expect a sudden, society-shattering TEOTWAWKI; I personally see a fair amount of redundancy, a cultural preference for martial law over mob rule, a deep agricultural base and an economy which still pumps 5 million barrels of oil a day domestically, mines millions of tons of coal and produces large quantities of natural gas. I would expect a decay more along the lines of "decline of Empire" in which jobs, food, money, credit, energy and gold all become scarce and increasingly costly.

Historically, such declines have lasted between decades and hundreds of years; since oil is peaking, we won't have the luxury of hundreds of years; decades will be the best-case scenario, a few years worst-case.

Nonetheless, order does not dissolve easily, especially if there is some resliency and redundancy--two traits the U.S. does possess.

Correspondent David V. (wilderness Alaska) suggested this weekend that last week's entries did not offer much hope and therefore it might be a good idea to offer some threads of hope. I agree.
With that goal in mind, here is the reader's letter to me and my response. I wrote this off the top of my head and therefore undoubtedly left out key bits. (Readers can probably add more sage advice than I was able to muster.)

Hello Mr. Smith:
First off, let me say that I have greatly enjoyed your writings. I was turned on them a few weeks ago via a link from and I've been hooked since.

On that note, I have realized that through cultivation and life experiences of your own, that you possess something that I greatly admire: A realistic, logical and lucid view of the past, present and future of our nation and society.

It is from this perspective that I write to you seeking your opinions on the future of young people like me and in similar circumstances as me. Let me explain:

I am 20 years after nearly 2 years of research, interviewing, shadowing and other methods of information-gathering I have narrowed down the "next step" I would like to take in my life professionally to three choices:

[1] Enlisting in the military... Specifically the Coast Guard. I wouldn't say that I am an irrational young man, but I do have an all-pervading fear that economic TEOTWAWKI or SHTF is literally over the horizon. And being one of the millions of unskilled or liberally educated young people in America, I feel that my lack of knowledge and experience of practical trades and skills will be of great detriment to me in such a situation. The Coast Guard offers a rate called "Damage Controlman" that teaches plumbing, welding, soldering, carpentry, CRBNE training, firefighting [structural and maritime] and through advancement Search and Rescue Paramedic/ Emergency Medical certifications and possibly Tactical Law Enforcement training.

This assortment of skills is impressive and would have great usefulness in the scenario I described above and many others for that matter, but the disadvantages would be that many of the certifications for these skills would not transfer to civilian life [as minor a disadvantage as that would be] and the uncertainty of how even the Coast Guard might be utilized in near-future military conflicts. I have no fear of disdain for defending U.S. soil against external attacks but another possibly unnecessary war and/or the heavy-handed quelling of "civil unrest" on the homefront are not attractive prospects for me.

[2] Learning a Trade... Specifically becoming an Electrician. I'd like to avoid debt and learn a highly marketable trade if possible. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers offers an almost all-expenses paid Apprenticeship program over 2 to 4 years that leads to full certification as an Electrician. I can see very little disadvantage to this except possibly being on the road constantly and possibly being stranded in an unfamiliar location due to civil unrest.

[3] Going to College... To earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering. This prospect, and to a greater extent all of my prospects emerge from a deep-rooted pessimism of what the future may hold for our country and society overall, a desire to learn valuable skills an knowledge that can help myself and the people I love adjust to a "Big Crunch" and pave the way for a marketable career should the predicted Crunch not be so bad. This particular option appeals to me from the latter standpoint being that mechanical engineering is seen as the mother of all engineering disciplines and would make available many options for me to explore for the rest of my life.
The drawbacks would be if a "Big Crunch" took place while I am in college and the block of debt I would accrue from student loans.

So again, I would ask your opinion of these circumstances and options. I realize that the burden of this decision rests entirely with me and anyone I ask about the matter will only be able to answer to the best of their knowledge from an indirect view of the matter, but I value your perspective and await anything you may have to say about this matter. Thank you.

My reply:
I am honored that you have asked for an opinion from me, for I am only qualified to respond due to the huge assortment of mistakes I've made in life .. . :-)

I am going to respond in seemingly haphazard fashion, based on people I know who have been happy with each of your choices.

1. you are already way ahead of my own thinking at 20, and ahead of 99% of your peers.

2. all of your choices are practical, sound and reliable sources of future income

3. the choice will rest ultimately on which of these 3 best aligns with your True Self, i.e. that combination of traits, talents and built-in preferences we each have. It is difficult to make an objective assessment of these and so people tend to be swayed by fashion or peers or "advice" and then enter something onyl to eventually realise it is a bad match with who they are. Countless people get law degrees and then discover they loathe the realities of being an attorney.

4. My niece's husband joined the Coast Guard right after high school and he got a tremendous amount out of it--he learned a skill (as you foresee for yourself), in his case, welding, and he enjoyed the travel to Alaska and the sea life. It used to be a 6-year hitch but perhaps it has been reduced to 4 years? He likes the outdoors, hates offices and classrooms, and was fine with authority. He was a good match with the CG and I think on occasion he wishes he'd re-enlisted.
Keys to this are of course being able to take orders and endure hard training and long stretches of tedious duty. You strike me as someone with ambition and foresight and so you should expect wanting to rise in the ranks, just to keep things interesting.

Many of the finest people I know are enlistees in the US Armed Forces--the best, the brightest, the ones trying hardest to make something of themselves. Not everyone will be like this of course--there are slackers and complainers everywhere.

If you're not sure a completely regimented life and taking orders no matter how dumb is a match for your personality, perhaps you should pass on this choice. Many people thrive in structure, others chafe.

A Peace Corps volunteer I knew well once told me that there are PC trainees who go thru the arduous training, get off the plane in the foreign country of their assignment and realise they aren't cut out for the Peace Corps. They then get back on the plane and go home. That's the kind of realization you hope to avoid because you can't "quit" the military, at least not easily.

Yes, you might be ordered to use force; that is possible in int'l fishing disputes or drug-running chases. You do have to be clear about that and know that even rescue missions of the typical CG sort are very dangerous at times. But that could be exhilarating--again, it's the personality type and match you will have to parse out.

5. electricians will be in demand as the solar economy takes hold. If you can position yourself in this field that will guarantee work and the pride of doing something useful for society.

The one caveat I have about any specific trade (be it electrical, plumbing, welding, etc.) is that for an ambitious person or one with a restless intelligence, any trade eventually becomes limiting/boring. This might be an issue for you after a few years in the trade. Contractors tend to come from the ranks of carpentry, as the foremen oversee all work and have familiarity with how the entire building goes together. Sometimes MBAs and engineers become contractors too.
You might become a foreman for an electrical crew, and if your ambitions lie beyond work (to raise a family, own land, play music, etc.) then this would be an excellent solid base which would enable you to make a living doing useful work at a good rate of pay while pursuing your interests/spending time with your family etc.

You might also combine your electrical knowledge (that is, after you graduate with your journeyman card) with some business and accounting classes which would prepare you to go into business for yourself if that appeals to you.

As a carpenter (still learning, still improving after 35 years) I think you are right-on in seeking a real trade, be it welding, electrical, or any other "real skill", as those will be in demand even as we go thru bad times/declining economy. Electrical is especially wise due to the coming transition to a solar economy and the upgrades to our elect. infrastructure. There are no guarantees in life but this is as close as it gets.

6. the going to college/mech. engineering option is the riskiest for the reasons you list--huge debts and a possible dearth of jobs are definite risks. If things degrade/fall apart, whatever funds are available will probably be spent on maintaining what already exists rather than hiring engineers to plan upgrades or new structures.

On the other hand, America might wake up in 4-10 years and stop "investing" in worthless medicines and luxury housing and start rebuilding its infrastructure, in which mechanical engineers will be in high demand.

College offers more breadth of education, meaning you can also learn about poetry, world history, chemistry, etc. while you get your engineering degree.

This also relates to where you want to live, as you want to live where you feel most yourself/like yourself. Engineers work in cities; there are virtually no jobs in rural areas for engineers, while electricians and welders can work just about anywhere. So to be an engineer means living and working in suburbs or urban areas.

You could of course learn a trade and then get a degree, though that is an 8-year plan and could burn you out.

If you decide to go to college, definitely go to a state school where the tuition is cheap; don't borrow any more than you have to.

Many people turn to the book "what color is your parachute?" for the exercise of trying to figure out what traits are core to themselves and what jobs best align with those traits. Self-knowledge is a permanent process and one that is never complete; you might decide now and then discover something about yourself in 4 years which causes you to choose another path.
The fact that you're thought this out so rationally and carefully suggests you will go far in whatever field you choose.

I would also suggest having a tiered series of ambitions/goals--don't limit yourself. That is why I have suggested ways you might leverage a trade into supervision, your own business, etc. I have also noted that for many of us, our ambitions lie elsewhere than career--music, raising kids, writing, biking/fishing, you name it. If this is you, then a job with limited hours (like a trade) is ideal. Avoid workaholic professions unless that is the love of your life. The trades are good in that way--you do your job and go home.

If things get absolutely horrible, the CG will still be funded by the Federal govt. In that sense it is the safest/least risky. On the other hand, you might be shot at by drug runners so it is also the riskiest. You will not get to choose where you live, etc.

As an electrician, you might be unemployed--but if you focused on learning solar arrays, converters, substations, etc. then I would imagine that Peak Oil will generate a lifetime of work for you. The same is true in engineering if you learn how to erect algae-based biofuel plants, thermal solar arrays, etc.

If these technologies excite you, and you're OK at math or willing to work hard, then perhaps that's the choice closest/in alignment with your finest, truest inner self.

If you go to college, I would start seeking internships with firms doing the work that excites you right away. hang out in the firms for free, offer to be a go-fer, whatever. And challenge yourself beyond the classwork--do special projects on your own, or at least choose real-world projcets of substance for your projects. Try to network with profs and professional engineering societies--the key to success in any profession is getting good mentors who will help you. It's hard to recruit mentors, but they are out there--you just don't know ahead of time who will be your mentor so you have to look and keep on looking.

As a writer I have sought a mentor for decades and never found one. I have had to mentor myself which is immeasurably more difficult and trying than having someone experienced and caring who will mentor you in your chosen profession. You have to believe in yourself, of course, but it's easier when someone else believes in you, too.

I congratulate you once again on the clarity of your thinking, analysis and planning.
I hope this helps, and please keep me informed of your decision process-- Charles

New must-read essay by Chris Sullins: Dust and Shadow, Part 2

The reasons someone becomes a soldier are varied. At an individual level I would suspect they are little different from those given by warriors from across the planet from now to ages past. One can read “The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China” and see that the art of warfare, harnessing the motivations of men, and empire management has changed very little over the past two millennia.

During my deployment to Iraq. . . .

Thank you, Beth M. ($30), for your very generous donation to this site and for your kind remarks. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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