Jul 232011

Your cultural heritage-related job has a rising probability of going away.  Or, if you’re looking for such a job, you could have a tough time finding one.

Budget, by chbrenchley, on Flickr

Budget, by chbrenchley, on Flickr

Saying this goes against my native optimism, but in surveying the current political landscape, it’s hard to come to a different conclusion.  Most libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and related institutions depend to some extent–often a rather large extent–on government revenue streams. State and local funding is already being cut back all over the country.

A saving grace have been federal dollars.  Budgets for federal collecting institutions such as the National Archives and Records Administration and Government Printing Office have been steady, as have budgets for funders such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Much of this money goes directly to providing jobs for librarians, archivists, curators and other related professions.  Jobs all over the country, in places big and small.  Jobs for long-time professionals and jobs for those just starting out.

Out of work, by peretzpup, on Flickr

Out of work, by peretzpup, on Flickr

But, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, the days of reliable federal dollars for culture are over.  Regardless of the outcome for the current battle over raising the debt limit, deep cuts in federal discretionary spending are inevitable.  The only question is how deep and how soon.  News reports about the current negotiations between Congress and the White House toss around various ideas for trillion-dollar cuts without many details; you can be sure, however, that discretionary spending for cultural heritage entities–while comparatively tiny, will take proportionally big hits to cushion blows to more popular programs such as medicare and ostensibly more important activities such as national defense.

I’m basing this prediction partly on a gut feeling and partly on news reports.  The news has been plenty grim.  Congress is looking to cut NEH by 13 percent in the 2012 budget, “nearly double what the House panel proposed to cut from the Interior Department and other agencies covered by the spending legislation.” The House is looking to cut the Government Printing Office 2012 budget by 16 percent.  And the coming debt-ceiling cuts could be on top of the annual budget reductions.

The popular zeitgeist also seems oriented toward distributed individual action rather than big, centralized institutional solutions.  Social media is all about empowering the individual, and innovation is now commonly seen as working from “edge to core” or through activities such as crowdsourcing.  The latter approach even extends to funding: Kickstarter has raised millions of dollars for a host of creative projects.  Plus there is, needless to say, very little enthusiasm to raise taxes in support of government programs.

All this will add up to big job losses in an already tough labor market.  This will be terrible for older and mid-career workers, but I also worry about the next generation who may have a very hard time finding work that pays a living wage.  This is bad for them, of course, but it’s also really bad for whole sector, which desperately needs their energy, enthusiasm and engagement.

We may be facing a lost generation of librarians, archivists and curators.

Two things could prevent this.  The first is that market-based economic models such as Kickstarter will ramp way up to offset the loss of government funding, which would be fantastic.  The second is that I’m completely wrong in this prognostication, which normally would be a bummer, but in this case would also be fantastic.

So, go Kickstarter.  And, for good measure, here’s to being wrong.

Jan 092011

The grim economy grinds on.

Recently I noted that a very well publicized online job survey appeared to be painting an overly rosy picture about jobs for historians, philosophers, librarians and museum curators.  Now today’s New York Times asks Is Law School a Losing Game? And they mean “game.”  The article leaves little doubt that law schools work very hard to pump up the appearance that nearly all of their graduates are reaping the golden reward of a law degree.  Even if they are waiting tables or stocking shelves.

2010-04-22 by bgottsab, on Flickr

Yet the issue is more complicated than just fudged statistics and doubtful rankings.  The Times also gets to the issue of what can be called student self-deception: “nearly all of them, it seems, are convinced they’re going to win the ring toss at this carnival and bring home the bear.”  The article tells the story of one fellow who has $250,000 in law school loans and survives on temp work.  He supposedly has no regrets because he has a prestigious degree.  “I’m an attorney.” he says.  “All of my friends see me as a person they look up to.”

Slate, among others, has bashed the Times repeatedly for running bogus trend stories on subjects such as “winning souls for Christ with mixed martial arts” and “maintained that potbellies were now hip.”  But this collusion between school and student strikes me as authentic.  I have a child who was drawn into the sparkling promise of law school spell but, thankfully, the spell broke before she enrolled (or took out any loans).

The issue is not limited to law school.  A host of articles have appeared recently about the perils of the PhD, particularly those in the humanities.  The Economist was especially brutal  last month in suggesting that advanced degree seekers grow dispirited over time.  The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time notes that only 57% of U.S. doctoral students overall get the degree within a decade.  “In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off.”  Bad job prospects are cited as a reason.

When it comes to careers, all of us face leaps of faith.  Few choices come with certainly.  But when it comes to making certain investments in an education it seems that more attention is needed on the leap with less reliance on the faith.

Jan 072011

While studying the humanities is deeply rewarding and socially important, many graduates have had to seek jobs outside the field.

Yet according to a 2011 Jobs Rated report we are in boom times for people with skills tied to the humanities.  Out of 200 jobs rated here is how some with an apparent connection to the humanities stack up:

  • Historian, ranked 8th
  • Philosopher, ranked 16th
  • Librarian, ranked 29th
  • Museum Curator, ranked 53rd

Each job is rated according to work environment, stress, physical demands and hiring outlook, with a composite score determining the overall ranking.

Of the four jobs noted, historians had the highest income: $63,208 (“income score was computed by adding the estimated mid-level income and the income growth potential”).  Curators had the highest stress and the most physical demands, but also the best work environment and the best hiring outlook.

I am, however, a bit confused about the actual jobs involved.  Click on the historian category and one sees job openings like this:

  • DSS Application & Data Historians
  • Computer Systems Process Engineer (with “Wonderware Historian” experience)
  • Control Systems Specialist (with “A&E Historian” experience)

Out of 20 jobs listed, there is only one that looks like my notion of a historian: “Professor in Art History.”

Similar results are seen for listed librarian jobs, which include “Business Development Assistant,” “Computer Operator” and “Traffic Specialist I.”  There are a few jobs that come a little closer to my notion of a actual library job, including a post as “Librarian—Golf Channel.”

Things are stranger still for the philosophy category.  The only position listed is for “Urologist Job in Vermont.”

Another source of job prospects is from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition.  It says “keen competition is expected for historian jobs because the number of applicants typically outnumbers the number of positions available.”  The same phrase is used to describe career prospects for “archivists, curators and museum technicians.”

Things are somewhat brighter for librarians: “Job growth is expected to be as fast as the average and job opportunities are expected to be favorable, as a large number of librarians are likely to retire in the coming decade.”  Philosophers may also be in better shape as well, although they are assessed in combination with  postsecondary teachers of all kinds.

Humanities students should apply their hard-won analytical and critical skills when assessing career prospects.