Sunday, July 29, 2012

Unemployed vets, liberal arts majors, and understanding the economy

A few months ago, I read an article on the increasing unemployment numbers for military veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to David Lerman of Bloomberg News, these veterans, especially those ages 18 to 24, have faced an increasing unemployment rate, “even as the national jobless rate declines”.

Lerman writes about several young military vets in the combat arms who fail to find gainful employment because their job skills don’t transfer to the civilian economy or they fail to communicate what skills they have to civilian employers.

Although I feel bad for anyone who wants to work but can’t find a job, here is the problem: too many recruiters are pushing kids to military jobs that have no bearing on the civilian economy. Jobs such as infantry, artillery, or even military intelligence are not jobs that translate well in the private sector. Without attractive private sector skills, young vets are forced to lean on leadership, discipline, and other intangible factors of their time in the military.  Their rationale is that those skills are so important, people would rather hire them and train them for a specific skill than hire someone with the skill who needs to be groomed to be a leader.

From my private sector experience, that’s not exactly true. Not all companies are looking for a military-style manager. And depending on what type of position needs to be managed, military management might not fit. Even as a manager, you still need to speak the language and understand the culture of the civilian job. Those are things people expect new managers to understand, otherwise you start at the bottom, where basic skills and not leadership experience are more important.

The ill fit of recently discharged young vets is not unlike those who graduate with Art History degree who wonder why the private sector doesn’t want to hire them. It’s because their skills are not marketable or they are not looking in the right places for their skills. Both of these groups, the young vets and the arts & sciences majors, need to understand what the economy needs. It needs computer programmers. It needs engineers. It needs scientists and mathematicians. It is also hiring financial experts, doctors, and web designers.

One should not aspire to be a middle manager without a niche.

In both cases, I blame the recruiters or the counselors. These are the people who should guide young people towards a career they will enjoy, yet one that fits the outlook of the nation. Too many of them are guiding people towards dead end jobs or degrees that are nearly impossible to fit the private sector.

Although they are only 18 to 21, individuals who sign up for the military or who are in college need to consider the economy when making decisions that will affect their future job potential. Especially if they think they will be moving on to other positions eventually. If a soldier loves being infantry and wants to be infantry for 20 years, God bless ‘em, that’s a career move. But if they are only considering being infantry for three or four years, and have no plan beyond that, like the art major who only takes classes because they are fun, that’s a problem.

Now before anyone criticizes me for being anti-military or anti-liberal arts, I am exhibit A on what I am talking about. I did four years in the military then received a degree in English/Creative Writing. Both of which are completely not useful in the civilian sector. I have only worked outside of the Department of Defense or affiliates for my time in college and four months. If I wanted a job in the private sector, I know I would need additional training. And that’s what the money from my trip to Afghanistan will probably go towards.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cheap Beer, Chow Halls, and the Cost of Consideration

About a year ago, I went drinking with a friend. Our chosen location of libation was a small, dark, grimy hole in the wall bar in St. Petersburg, Florida. The type of place frequented by college kids, hipsters, and other out-of-the-mainstream scene standards.

Despite their banners for 2-for-1 Pabst and other beer specials, I went for their top shelf and ordered an imported beer that ran me upwards of five dollars. My friend, on the hand, decided on the Pabst special, taking her first beer and arranging with the barkeep to have her second beer ready when she was done with the first.

After we found a table, my friend jokingly gave me a tough time for being one of the only people in the bar who didn’t order a beer special, Pabst or otherwise. Knocked back on my heels and slightly defensive at having my beer taste attacked, I told her I went through my cheap beer phase in college and because I was still living off the savings I accrued from the good job I was laid off from, I was going with a good beer. Since she had once told me she was a beer snob, I flipped the question and asked her why she bought the cheaper beer, implying of course, that the cost was reflective of the quality.

“When in Rome,” she said, smiling and nodding at our less than luxurious surroundings. As the night went on, we continued drinking, her downing two Pabst for half the cost of each one of my beers.

After she poked fun at my selection several times and suggested after each beer that I join her at the level of specially-marked selections, I finally deployed the often-used beer snob defense.

“Life’s too short to drink cheap beer,” I said. I then followed it up with an attack on her selection.

“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” I said.

Looking back, that might have been a little harsh, especially considering we had been drinking for a while at that point. But her cool, calm, collected response immediately made me eat my words off the foot I had so elegantly put in my mouth.

“Did it ever occur to you that this is all I can afford?” she asked.

I was silent. To be honest, it hadn’t.

I’ve been reminded of that night quite a bit lately here in Afghanistan.

On my base, there are two main dining facilities. When I arrived, they were both of the same poor quality. People told me they were among the worst on all the bases in the country. And considering there are over 100,000 troops from all over the world at numerous bases scattered all over Afghanistan, that’s bad. There was a joke that the day people stopped complaining about the over-cooked chicken, inedible lasagna, and meat of the day smothered in mystery gravy was the day they had officially been on the base too long.

About two months ago, however, the food at one of the dining facilities started to get better. It was a gradual change, starting with the appearance of individual boxes of cereal such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Apple Jacks to replace the giant self-serve dispenser of generic corn flakes. Then various flavors of single-serving milk boxes arrived – strawberry, chocolate, and even banana – regulating the generic milk and the styrofome cups to coffee supplements only.

According to word around the base, the improving dining facility was under a new contract, one that spent more on ingredients and brand-name foods. As the dining facility continued to progress, a spaghetti bar arrived, as well as a sandwich bar, a potato bar, and themed entrée nights, with highly passable, if not well-cooked, Mexican, Cajun, and even steak.

Soon the lines at the improved dining facility started getting longer as many people chose to eat at the place with the better selection, ingredients, and taste.

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to partake.

As part of the new contract at the new dining facility, the nearly 20 or so nations with troops on my base were forced to up their per-meal cost. In other words, instead of each country paying X per meal per customer, the new cost was now X+Y per meal per customer. For most countries, this wasn’t an issue. They paid and their personnel were able to eat better food.

But some countries opted not to pay. Perhaps they didn’t believe in the difference. Perhaps they didn’t have the allocated funds. Or perhaps they just couldn’t afford the increased fee.

I work in an office with at least one person whose country didn’t pay the higher per-meal cost. They are forced to still go to the remaining poorer quality dining facility. When it’s time for lunch or dinner I try not leave at the same time as they do to avoid going one way to my preferred location of dining while they go the other to where they have to go.  And if they ask if I want to go to lunch with them, I never say “No, I want to go to the good chow hall.” I join them. It’s not their fault their nations are not paying.

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and realize the situation people are in before judging their choices. Sometimes it’s best to join them and partake in what options they have. Sometimes it’s best to put aside what you would prefer for the sake of friendships. They last longer than the taste of beer or Cinnamon Toast Crunch anyway.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

DJing, Wrestling, and the Art of Illusion

A few years ago, I saw DJ-entertainer RJD2 in concert in Ybor City in Tampa. I was not impressed. In my YouTube review, I said it was boring and all he was doing was pushing buttons. I didn't see the point.

A few weeks ago, highly famous DJ-producer-entertainer Deadmau5 dropped a bombshell on the Electronic Dance Music community when he claimed too many big-name DJs are only on stage pushing buttons. At first, I'll admit I was happy to read someone in the industry agree with me.

However, I am not so sure. Since writing an article on dubstep for the local newspaper and getting to know some DJs, I've grown to appreciate their art. In the last year, I've been to old school hip-hop shows where I could watch old school DJs spin vinyl and big dance/rave/EDM shows where I can't even see the DJ amidst the light flashes and masses of dancing bodies.

Right now, dance music is in. And that's ok. People want to go to a club to forget the outside world. A majority don't care what the DJ is doing. It's just like a wedding DJ in that regard. You don't see wedding DJs trying to steal the show from the bride and groom. The people want to party and that's what the DJ is there for. To put on a good show.

Some fans however, like to know how the trick is done. These are the fans who really don't care about the people, the crowd, or the lights. Those are nice, but these fans want to get down to the source. They want to see what buttons are being pushed. They want to penetrate the mass entertainment illusion and see where the magician actually hid the rabbit. For them, it may or may not be about reveling the trick, they just may want to appreciate the art and give the DJ credit where credit is due. Some might call them fan-boys, others hardcore fans, whatever their name, they are a demographic.

The same dilemma exists in pro wrestling. Like the new wave of EDM shows, most people go to see a pro wrestling show to be entertained. They want good guys and bad guys, storylines and surprises. Give them a good show and they are happy, whether the show is in a backyard or a major civic center or stadium. It's all wrestling to them.

However, like in EDM, there exists a demographic of wrestling fans who want to know how the soup is made. They don't just want to be entertained, they want to discuss storylines and characters, and analyze movements in the ring. They are the fans who chant "you fucked up" when they see a possible flub in motion. They look at wrestlers for their technical ability in the ring, not just how many people like or dislike them. As a matter of fact, more often than not, these fans look down on fans who don't view wrestling as they do. They project elitist attitudes to those who want only to be entertained. Sort of like what Deadma5 did for the EDM scene.

However, it's one thing for DJs to call out other DJs, just like it's ok for wrestlers to call out other wrestlers. It is a bit of hating, and probably shouldn't be done in Rolling Stone or other public venues, but it's inter-business talk among the profession. Especially where illusion is involved.

The public airing of dirty laundry in an entertainment field only feeds to the masses of fans who enjoy dissecting performances. Once that demographic becomes the majority, and the masses see the emperor has no clothes, then the party is over of the entertainment field. Those in the field, especially those who have made it while others are still trying to get theirs, shouldn't try to tear the house down from the inside.

And I don't think it is ok for fans to use the comments of performers to question another performer's ability. Especially if they have never been of the status of the original commenter. If a wrestler says John Cena can't wrestle or a DJ says Skrillex is performing by rote then that is their opinion based on being in the industry. Knowledge adds perspective and credibility.

I might not have liked RJD2, but I am just some guy with a blog. My opinion does mean squat compared to the opinions of one of his peers.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

33% through my Afghanistan adventure

Dear all,

Well, I have passed the latest milestone in my time here in Afghanistan. I have now been here for four months, 33% done. This month has been interesting to say the least. I started the month on night shift. A lot of lonely nights keeping watch in my office, but on the bright side, I did catch up on my movie watching and book reading. Then it was back to day shift, which makes the days go by much quicker, but are loaded with work. But then again, it's not like there is much else to do here.

When I am not working (or in the case of nightshift, just bored), I have been working on my stand-up comedy routine. I created almost 10 minutes of jokes in the last few months and have been rehearsing and rewriting them to be performance-ready. I made it on stage just the past Wed during karaoke night. Although I would love to say I left the crowd in stitches, in reality, I bombed in Afghanistan, and not in the usual way. It was bad. But I am going to keep practicing in my spare time and hopefully soon I might make someone laugh. It's something creative to do.

Four months also makes me sort of a veteran around the office. As I mentioned in previous emails, most of the people I work with, be they military or civilian, are here on individual orders. There are few whole units running around. So people are always coming and going. And in four months, I've seen almost my whole office turn over. I think by October there will only be two people there longer. And they are also on year long assignments, arriving about the same time I did.

I also actually got to drive a vehicle for the first time in a few months this month. That might not sound like a big deal, but when you walk everywhere on base and never leave the base, just driving a few people from one side of the base to the other gives you a strange feeling of familiarity.

This month's update is kinda short, I guess. Which makes me think that life here is getting kinda dull. But then again, I said it was interesting in the first sentence. Maybe what was once the extraordinary is becoming the routine. Which is a good thing.

Anyway, I am 66% to halfway done. And that means I am one day closer to having to figure out what I am going to do when I get home.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wes Fif - "International Drive" mixtape review

Back in January, Wes Fif, one of the most popular rappers in Orlando, dropped a mixtape entitled "International Drive". The mixtape is "Named for both the happening Orlando entertainment strip - and Fif's goal to be a household name worldwide". If I was grading names of Orlando music releases, this would get an "A". I'm a sucker for double meanings, especially if they mean something special at the local level.

(I know I am crazy late in reviewing this. But I've been busy with the whole Afghanistan thing here.)

Having downloaded Wes Fif's previous mixtape after someone on twitter clued me in to his localness when I asked who was doing quality hip-hop in Florida, I decided to download "International Drive" and check out Wes Fif's latest after he talked about it on his twitter feed.

There are many things I liked about "International Drive". The beats for one, were very catchy. And Wes Fif has a Too Short-type flow that goes nice with the music. Most of the songs have a Florida theme, and I am always about supporting the local scenes of the state. And the production is a lot nicer than his previous offering. If given the chance, I would like to see Wes Fif in concert.

That said, I felt like "International Drive" was very one-dimensional. It's typical southern rap with braggadocio lyrics. There are songs about "hustlin", "cruisin"", being out with his boys, slaying other MCs, his haters, and trying to earn money. That's the whole album.

As I played "International Drive", I started think that there was no way this was an accurate reflection of Wes Fif's life. Perhaps coming from the home of Disney World and Universal Studios, Wes Fif was giving us another fantasy to admire. I'm not surprised, given the state of hip-hop today, and the amount of rappers who lean on these tropes, but I felt like there should be more substance than just materialism.

Wes Fif has a platform I think he should use for more than just fantasy rap. Chuck D once called hip-hop "the black CNN". Here is an MC who lives in the same area of Florida where Trayvon Martin got shot, the same area where Jackie Robinson was once kicked out of town, and an area still strife with racism. And he is rapping about how good he and his crew have it. Escapism rap at it's best. Like a romance novel written by a desperate housewife.

It's ok to have a club banger, a radio song, and maybe even also a song to cruise to on your album. But don't let the only song about a woman be about a girl you slept with who you want nothing else to do with ("Never In Love"). Biggie's "Me and My Bitch" and Apache's "Gangsta Bitch" will never be compared to Shakespearean sonnets, but they do show a level of positive attachment.

I'd also like to hear about Wes Fif's past on a song. What was it like growing up in Orlando? Give me some lyrical versatility. Maybe even some word play, some odd rhyme schemes, something. It's music, not life or death. Have fun with it. Unless the "G"-personality fantasy is Wes Fif's sense of fun.

It might seem like I am down on Wes Fif. Totally not the case. I liked "International Drive". But from Wes Fif the Orlando artist, I wanted more.