Letters

Pay off your student loans before you buy a Mercedes, loser! Readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "From Programming to Pizza Delivery."


Salon Staff
February 5, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

I worked for 20 years in technology. I built my career up, brick by brick, starting as a salesman in a mall computer store, working my way into a gig at Apple, then corporate IT, then finally management. As IT director, I did a bang-up job. Our systems ran so well that, when the recession hit, my company's management decided it didn't need those seven people in the IT department. They made me lay off my own people, then killed me.

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Laid off and near 40 years old, I could not find any work. I sent literally thousands of résumés out. Got five interviews, all of whom loved me but didn't like that I had so much experience. I guess they want their systems to suck. That was over two years ago. I wasn't making $50 an hour, but I had a decent, middle-class living. I didn't drive an SUV. I couldn't afford a house. I didn't take vacations. I rarely ate out. But I always thought the biz would support me. I can't tell you how angry I am at the computer business for throwing out good employees.

Know what I'm doing now? I'm working in a computer store for $9 an hour. How's that for a slap in the face? I can't afford shoes now. Never mind getting that timing belt replaced in my 9-year-old Honda. So it's not just high-priced Web-enabled Java programmers. It's good old-fashioned systems geeks too -- people who have made computers our lives for decades. I think your article made a good point, but it focused too much on the highest flyers, for whom nobody outside of the biz really cares. Me? I was just a day-to-day working stiff, and I got hosed too. Frankly, I don't see a future.

-- Rob Oakley

Why do we always think of how bad or well some Americans are doing? Why can't we think in terms of the global economy? For every one American programmer earning pizza/burger money, 10 or 20 Indian programmers who were earning nothing are making decent middle-class wages (still much less than $8 per hour).

Even today most Indian engineers who work as programmers don't own cars; they travel one hour by badly crowded bus/trains and live a lifestyle much inferior to American burger flippers.

Jobs are leaving America because of the American minimum wage act. Tell politicians to scrap it. Tell employers you will work close to what Indian programmers charge and live a lifestyle close to what they live.

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Eventually that's what will happen. How many pizza/courier jobs are there anyway? Most will be full and then you will find Americans working "illegally" below minimum wages since it's better than no wage at all.

Just like Indians traveled to the United States, worked on H1 visas at lower wages than Americans, why can't Americans do the same: go to Bangalore and undercut Indian programmers by say 30 percent? Isn't it better than selling pizza or working as courier?

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Or is it that being an American gives one the right to the highest-paying jobs at a salary many times what the job is worth?

When American politicians reduced the H1-B visa cap to 65,000 from 200,000 they shot their own foot. All H1-B visa holders were living and spending in the American economy, which was money staying in the American system, creating American jobs. Now you closed that window and the world outside figured out how to do those jobs sitting in their country and spending money in their own country/economy.

-- Vipul Shah

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I do have a lot of sympathy for high-tech workers who are having trouble finding a job (I am a 61-year-old programmer with almost 40 years of software development experience). However, it's difficult for me to empathize with the couple who spent a lot of money to learn programming languages, then went broke and declared bankruptcy. Competent programmers understand that you can't have somebody teach you C++, or Java or C#. To be any good at these languages, you must have the passion to learn them on your own (which isn't difficult) and keep learning every day. These people made some bad decisions, and the likelihood is that there are reasons beyond just the market conditions that they are not working. I think this weakened the otherwise interesting story.

-- Frank Cooley

It's interesting that in every article about tech jobs disappearing offshore, you always equate "tech jobs" with "programmers." While it's true that many programming jobs are going offshore (there is no physical proximity requirement at all for programming), many, many high-tech jobs stay local for the simple reason that they cannot be done remotely.

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My job, system administration, is a perfect example. While the people who wrote the software I administer may very well live in India or Bangladesh, in order for the software to function properly in a real-world environment and produce the results required, a knowledgeable high-tech worker must be present on-site. Hardware and software incompatibilities, database maintenance, and conditions that vary day to day all require someone who can physically look at some behavior and try to determine what the cause is. It is possible that some of the work can be done remotely, but if one of the problems is your network connection (for example) the sysadmin in India is pretty useless to you.

In short, programming is not the end-all and be-all of the tech industry. In fact, programming skills are reasonably minor, easy-to-learn skills that can be applied almost anywhere, hence the ease of shipping such work offshore. Programmers who lose their jobs to offshore work should look at some of the other IT fields -- system admin, system analysis, implementation and troubleshooting, database admin, etc. -- for their new work. As long as companies depend on complicated computers running complicated software designed to perform a complicated task, there will be a need for local, hands-on tech support.

-- Lyle Bateman

I'm sorry, I need to get something clear. The Brewers still owed $75,000 in student loans at the age of 39, yet owned a Mercedes each and a three-bedroom house (this is a childless couple) on a golf course with a swimming pool in the backyard? Is this thinking part of the "culture of entitlement" that Americans are always being accused of practicing, as in "I don't care how much debt I owe, I'm American and I deserve my own swimming pool, and nobody can take that right away from me"?

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These people may be victims of a troubled economy, but they are first and foremost very, very bad at managing their money.

-- Katherine Read

I'm sure you get this all the time, but I have to put in my two cents' worth:

NEVER EVER FORGET WHAT HAS HAPPENED!
NEVER EVER FORGET! EVER!

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No matter how big the boom, no matter how valuable you are right now, as far as the economy is concerned, you are disposable. Unemployment benefits and unions and a social safety net are not something optional that only the hoi polloi need. Everybody needs it sooner or later.

-- Tim Moerman

American corporations that fire American citizens and rehire foreigners are doing to our economy what al-Qaida attempted to do by destroying the WTC. The CEOs of these corporations (large and small) should be treated the same as any enemy of the USA in wartime, thrown in jail, tried as traitors. Their companies should then be considered "foreign" and lose any tax benefits. Money gained from taxing these companies should go to fund healthcare and unemployment benefits along with small business grants to those who lost their jobs. Tax breaks should only be given to American companies who hire Americans as a majority of their workforce. Enough is enough. Either we're the most powerful country in the world, or we are not.

-- Peggy Allen

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Generally speaking, you will rarely find a more sympathetic ear than mine when it comes to the difficulty of finding good jobs right now. I just spent over a year and a half looking for full-time work after getting laid off in 2002. Last year, I ended up moving into my girlfriend's mother's basement to keep from sinking deeper into debt. However, even at the height of my dot-com fortunes, I was only netting about 40-45K. In my city, that didn't leave much wiggle room. But $200,000? That really should be enough to provide plenty of buffer room, assuming they spread their investments carefully and maybe save some here and there. Yes, expenses rise to match income, but an unmarried childless man making $89,000 has no business being so unprepared for a change in fortune.

While it's an easy fact to ignore when times are good, chances are they won't stay that way. People have to be more careful about leveraging themselves to the hilt. Our rampant materialism offers dangerous temptations, but it's up to individuals not to put themselves in a position where they need a six-figure income just to pay the bills. I have to think that, given the money these people were making, they have to take at least some responsibility for their current plight. I'll save my sympathy for the folks at the bottom of the tax bracket who actually need all their income but haven't gotten any help at all from our current administration.

-- Matthew Cooke

Every time I read one of these job-loss articles I feel the wolves nipping at my heels -- I could be next. I teach at a proprietary tech school; they can't find any students, which means my job as adjunct faculty is coming to an end, soon; death by a thousand cuts. Having read several books by Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz and others, and a rather bleak outlook of the state of the union in the Atlantic magazine, I have come to understand the complete and utter failure of both Republicans and Democrats to ameliorate this growing problem.

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While Mr. Reich advocates changes in job functions and recognizes the dislocations these changes cause, he also makes several outstanding suggestions: 1) a national employment savings account, 2) health insurance for everyone, 3) investment in education. Reich has made several other suggestions; however, these are the ones with the most resonance with me. I merely wish our current crop of presidential candidates would begin a meaningful debate over these issues.

-- Petra Lynn Hofmann

Do you expect me to feel sorry for the couple of 39-year-old laid-off programmers who, despite making six-figure salaries a year, couldn't pay off their student loans? Oh, but they could afford a three-bedroom house with a swimming pool on a golf course and two Mercedes. They were financially irresponsible, but they blame it all on H1-B workers. That is some pathetic whining.

I am not disputing the fact that there isn't any job growth in the software industry, but is using them as one of your examples helpful in any way?

-- Suelika Chial

If I read one more... freaking story about former high-paid tech workers now slinging hash at the local burger joint, I'm going to hurl.

-- Rashunda Tramble


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