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.