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Design engineers like me, in case you haven’t heard, have become technological grape-pickers who follow the contract crops and evanescent product niches (last year it was wireless communications). Increasingly, we are migrant technical workers without the sunburn. César Chávez, where the hell are you now that we need you?

Engineering careers are varied. There is a popular misconception that most engineers design things, but this is often not the case, and to become a good design engineer usually requires that one gets mentored in a specialty early on. Despite the best academic laboratory regimens, most engineers graduate lacking vital pragmatic knowledge. In short, they know enough theory to be either pragmatically dangerous or functionally impotent.

By contrast, this kind of naïveté is not an encumbrance to attorneys or politicians, who often go on to brilliant careers in legislatures and the Congress, performing as scientific and business illiterates who design legislation to regulate other peoples’ lives. It is a commonplace among engineers that “politics is show business for ugly people.”

Engineers who do not go into design work often get shunted into the backwaters of technical bureaucracies in aerospace firms and government bureaus, becoming the equivalent of clerks, keeping laborious track of design change notices, of document trees, and scheduling charts.

I was fortunate enough to have fallen under the mentoring of a brilliant design engineer who was the chief engineer for a San Diego electronic-instrument corporation. In about 36 months of intense guided effort, which often involved working until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. (I was an unmarried gunslinger in my 20s and had no one to go home to), I learned enough practical electronic-design technique to put me way ahead of contemporaries in the following years of my profession.

In America, gray hair is an even greater liability than no hair in the job market. But younger businessmen-on-the-make both berate and desperately need the experience of seasoned colleagues and consultants, mimicking as they do so our prevailing cultural attitudes toward age in general. These success-obsessed business guys come in two varieties: those poor souls who believe they know everything; and those who have found out that they don’t but must pretend omniscience while they learn things from older men indirectly, on the sly. For many men in business, having to admit that one simply does not know something is the business equivalent of saying one cannot get an erection.


Edith guides me through the library and conference rooms of the facility. I can’t for the life of me figure out what a library filled with employment statistics and motivational pap, like “Taking Charge of the Interview” by Cecil Limpwick, has to do with getting a job in the Internet Age.

Thinking back on 30 years of job experiences, I cannot recall obtaining a single job by mailing my résumé anywhere — indeed, mailing my résumé was a concession to the human resources department after I had already obtained the position by routing myself through my own buddy network and then selling myself to my future boss. The HR people simply filled out the paperwork. It saddens me to see young people put so much hope in their résumés.

Human resource departments were first created from personnel-administration functions back in the early ’70s, at the urging of corporate attorneys, to shield corporations from lawsuits for wrongful termination. Professional employees had become more assertive, and the job of a new human resources department was to create and maintain a dossier on anyone who had ever worked for the corporation, in any capacity, for any period of time. “Joost sign zee paypuhs!”

As the finale to my tour, Edith tells me about the faculty here at Pacific Career Strategies. Surprisingly, it consists of only two young women named Darcy and Anika. No men. I find this curious, until Edith opens a seminar room door and gestures me in along the wall of a crowded space, where Darcy is about to begin one of her seminars.

Darcy is that promise to male sexuality that almost every middle-aged male feels has never quite been fulfilled. She is the high school cheerleader we never nailed in the backseat of the borrowed family Chevy. She is the college Homecoming Queen who only dated the college quarterback. She is the trophy girl you take to the opera.

Nature is ruthless, and sexuality is often a disappointment to guys like us, seldom delivering the promised orgasmic goods. Now, in our 50s and 60s, our bodies have become an affront. Facing the morning shaving mirror with unseen enlarged prostates, we lament that even if the Darcys of this world did “reposition” (see previous business term) themselves in some receptive posture, our once-spontaneous response might be problematic.

As Darcy walks crisply forward to the front lectern, her inner thighs, in their audible chaffing of her fleur-de-lis hose, issue false promissory notes to male true-believers. She wears a short, trim gray business suit, has short-cut blond hair, and smells great: the classic California Girl with a flawless tan that runs down along the eyelet-lace border of her linen bodice, fading deliriously into the whiteness of her beach-bunny breasts. Her subterranean message to bereft males is clearly the gospel according to Napoleon Hill: “See what kind of trophy babe can be yours with success? Stay the course, guys!”

Darcy’s ostensible subject for this master class of wannabe Alpha Males is “Salary Negotiating Strategies.” This assumes that we will actually have salaries again, instead of hourly wages. But Edith tugs on my shirtsleeve and won’t let me stay to hear Darcy’s strategic details. This lecture is only for that select upper echelon of hopefuls who have indeed stayed the out-placement course these past two weeks and who are now playing out their re-employment fantasy to its final flaccid droop.


Having properly completed my indoctrination, Edith now abandons me to my office so I can start revising my résumé. I sit for a time, fingers interlocked on my fake desk. In the ensuing silence I conceive that this whole out-placement operation could actually be a way to assuage the managerial guilt of my prior employer. Over my career I have seen downward empathy, and then upward loyalty, drain away from salaried positions.

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Comments

David Dodd Sept. 15, 2010 @ 8:54 p.m.

I'd have walked out too, that offer of "out-placement" was a slap in the face. My last job in engineering was over eight years ago, laid off for the Nth time. I'm never going back to that. Even the best engineers are so easily marginalized, they'll keep ineffective sales staff and lay off good engineers. Ridiculous.

Next thing I design and build is going to be my own house.

Good luck, Norm Looper, I hope you are wildly successful in your next endeavor.

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MsGrant Sept. 16, 2010 @ 8:48 a.m.

I have a friend who told me that they have a new term for being down-sized. They are calling it "right-sized". Can you believe that? Norm, I wish you the best as well. You sound like a stand-up guy.

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SurfPuppy619 Sept. 16, 2010 @ 8:55 a.m.

At 58 I am VERY surprised you are not discriminated against based on age.

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Reed50 Sept. 17, 2010 @ 3:15 a.m.

This is a very well written article. Signed up just to say that.

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doughardy Sept. 18, 2010 @ 7:53 p.m.

Reed's right, a career in writing could be in your future.

I meet with new clients every week who are twenty years my junior. It's a tough world, but the good news is our generation works harder than theirs.

Chin up.

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acannell Sept. 19, 2010 @ 9:48 a.m.

Guess what my employment tool is? CRAIGSLIST. I have had no trouble finding and keeping employment from when things hit the fan in Sep 08 to today. If you actualy KNOW how to do circuit design and firmware design, people will pay you to do so. If you drank the kool aid and got your middle-quality-colllege EE degree, GOOD LUCK. Why did you even become an engineer? Jesus christ. Pick up Art of the Electronics, PCB123, a PIC programmer, and MAKE SOMETHING.

In my experience, engineers who dont actually like engineering, but went to school and got a degree, tend to be very timid and make EVERY EXCUSE to avoid redesigning or solving any problems using actual engineering. They would much rather band aid and hobble along then actually get into THEIR OWN DESIGN to figure anything out. Its really depressing. They love using student-grade tools and pre-fab design chunks. And strangely they have no idea how to solder or write firmware. Its like they never grew or learned anything once they left college. THIS INCLUDE PHD'S.

The greatest engineers I have worked with may or may not have had degrees, but its absolutely clear they love engineering and the college degree was just a footnote.

This topic connects directly with whats wrong with America, and whats right. If you are a pointless, empty person with no interests and no desires, you will end up at some giant building desperately trying to get through your life because you never had the guts to explore what you might REALLY be good at. Now you feel like you need to piss on the system because it didnt serve you, and you feel like you are in the majority because there are so many like you. Thats true! YOU ARE THE MAJORITY. There are millions of you zombies.

Whats RIGHT about it is that if you actually are very good at what you do in EE work, YOU WILL FIND WORK. PERIOD.

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Evelyn Sept. 21, 2010 @ 11:58 a.m.

Leaving to never return again, doesn't sound very heroic considering the writer arrived at 2pm, then did a 2 hour test. At most, the writer spent 3 hours in the place.

"I do not realize as I sit here at my cheap desk that I am on the threshold of starting my own company, designing and selling industrial process controls."

Does this mean Norm Looper has started his own company?

And reply to #3:

The decision was probably more about Mr. Looper's retirement. The company can't say age. But they can make it a financial issue.

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nan shartel Sept. 21, 2010 @ 1:06 p.m.

the writing is superb...it may not be non fiction...it may be a fictional interpretation "of a man of that certain ages" difficulties and with the roller coaster of anger and disappointment and then personal resolve to take his work life into his own hands and do something about it

if it's true...my hope is all will turn around for u...thx for this excellent piece Norman

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Donald Sept. 22, 2010 @ 8:06 p.m.

Another well written piece in The Reader! It's great to see this kind of quality prose getting printed in San Diego, instead of the usual political talking points dreck.

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DaveTheWriter Oct. 5, 2010 @ 5:09 p.m.

Moral of the story is blatantly obvious:

Self-employment (or temp, agency, contract work) is one of the smartest options for us tech and IT geezers. Even though it is contrary to the get a J O B at some C O M P A N Y indoctrination, we need to think in terms of self-reliance. To our parents, starting companies and being an owner was unusual and risky. These days it is more of a gamble to keep relying on corporate America to care about us over folks at 50, 55, 60. Message to fellow 50-somethings: tech firms don't want us as full-time employees.

Good article.

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jgriessen Oct. 27, 2010 @ 1:15 p.m.

Hi, I enjoyed your article -- laughed -- I'm 50-something too. I'm developing my company making instrumentation for field biologists and also met a man selling continuous process control machinery to semiconductor fabs and equipment vendors and it seemed like an easy market to satisfy. We should talk. You can find my phone number in a flash by a whois of ecosensory.com.

John Griessen ecosensory.com Austin Texas

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