The Pandemic, Jobs and Human Dignity
by Raye Elizabeth Ward
Magical thinking gets us through what seems unendurable — grief, pandemics, subjugation, airplane flights. But now is not the time for it. We need to be sharp and practical to build the future we want for our ourselves and our country.
When the shelter-in-place-order hit, lacking medical skills, I pitched in to help with the collateral damage — an avalanche of unemployment applications. The experience has given me a catbird’s seat on the future of the job market here in Texas, home of the Texas Miracle, and it is not a rosy picture.
In Texas, jobless claims top 2.3 million
I’ve been without work more than once, and I can assure you it is no fun. Take away the job, the income, the camaraderie (even when it drives you nuts) and what’s left? Those of us lucky enough to have an education, skillset and professional network will probably be okay. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.
I’ve sorted applications from oil workers in south and west Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico; substitute teachers, restaurant and fast food workers, millwrights, puppeteers, musicians, pipeline consultants and business process engineers, cosmetologists, travel agents, dentists and their hygienists, retailers, financial planners and anesthesiologists. Their names have the ring of Africa, China, Vietnam, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, Latin America, rural Texas, the Ukraine and Poland.
“I work for pennies, not hours”
Early on, I opened an application with a handwritten note. Written in block letters by a deck hand on a shrimp boat, it said,”I work for pennies, not hours.” There was no self-pity, just the facts from a man with four kids and a third-grade education. A laborer from Donna, Texas, was out of work because he unloads onions from Mexico. Take away the trucks, and there is no job. The pandemic anticipates his future. As autonomous driving and robotic technology develops there will be no need for him.
Consider a 30-year old former Lyft driver with a wife and a four-year old son. When we met in April, he was taking three classes towards a career in cyber security without really understanding what working in the field would entail. He worked 10-hour days, six days a week while taking three classes, found he couldn’t pay his rent, became discouraged and dropped out of school.
Accessible, hands-on approaches with a global outlook
Disasters crack open change, and the pandemic may very well re-shape education to address reality. Instead of competing to get into a high-cost university to realize her dream to become a veterinarian, my friend Cherie’s daughter enrolled at Blinn College where after a couple of years, she’ll be able to transfer seamlessly into Texas A&M University and enroll in one of the best veterinarian training programs in the country.
Austin Community College will soon have four incubators where students get hands-on experience in their future careers. Bioscience, gives students access to a wet lab, which until recently was hard to find in Central Texas. The Fashion incubator features a huge 3D printer for designers and makers, and Entrepreneurship jump starts budding small businesses, something we’ll need in coming months.
A fourth, advanced manufacturing, will train students to use the sophisticated design equipment and processes that produce semiconductors for the factory and consumer of the future, chips that will take advantage of 5G and the Internet of Things. Graduates will be qualified to fill well-paying, high-demand openings at local employers Samsung, Advanced Micro and AMD.
Widening the lens to see the world
Even more remarkable may be an award-winning project at Del Valle High School, a chronically underserved community in the shadow of the Austin Bergstrom Airport.
Using Zoom and a partnership with the World Affairs Council of Austin, the Global Scholars Diploma program connects students with policy experts around the world to explore racism, immigration, climate change, global infections — issues that will shape their future. At left, these young women welcomed me when I visited to watch a regularly-scheduled moot court session with University of Texas law students.
Del Valle and Mike Cunningham are not taking a traditional approach to education. Working on a shoestring budget and leveraging local resources, the program teaches its students to think. It encourages debate, tests opinions, builds confidence and the patience to listen to other views. It nurtures participation, an understanding that the world is bigger than our own backyard, and a sense of a human responsibility that transcends the day-to-day.
Nurturing human dignity
Among Yuval Harari’s many provocative writings is a statement that humans have evolved too quickly to develop the dignity shown by the large predators of the past, who both ruled and served.
Needless to say, we’re not doing a very good job on the dignity front. We murder one another in the name of law enforcement. We brutalize the wildlife that shares the planet with us in the name of “sport.” We deport sick young immigrants who have contracted Covid-19 while in federal detention, transmitting the virus to their home countries.
Dignity is a big concept on which everything we call civilization turns. Our sense of human dignity determines our self respect, which in turn determines how we treat one another, the planet we rely on, and the beings we share it with. It’s difficult if not impossible to maintain our dignity if we lack the training or education to get a job that supports our children, if we’re too sick or obese to endure a full day’s work, or if other people look down on us because we can’t communicate effectively.
Education will not address all of our problems. But it is part of the baseline. Our world is trending in a direction that reflects more of the East and less of the West that defined the last century. If we are going to change direction, this is a moment of full of possibility. Just recognizing the opportunity and working towards a better future would be a fine thing. Because if we don’t do it, who will?