Thursday, August 30, 2012


Detropia: A Film Review

I recently saw Detropia, a new independent film making the rounds of America’s many film festivals. Detropia is a film of contrasts. As viewers we see the advanced decay of Detroit in panoramic views, but also up close as the camera wonders through ruined buildings and abandoned neighborhoods where the grass grows like waving wheat and few homes remain. Some views show summer scenes in colors galore that contrast with winter scenes of falling snow on somber gray streets, and a forlorn walker bundled against the cold. Shots of bulky and abandoned commercial and public buildings moldering in the sun add to the sense of loss. I thought I saw shots of the ruined Michigan Central railroad depot where I used to go with my parents and brother to pick up our grandmother on her visits long, long ago.

The misery of Detroit in pictures contrast with a selection of Detroiters we meet in between, and sometimes along with, the visual images. We meet a former teacher who now runs Raven Lounge, the head of U.A.W. local 22, a starving artist and a few more. They all express a gritty determination to stay and make Detroit revive. These are not a Pollyannaish bunch, they have an edge of cynicism and regret, but they are hometown Detroiters and they will stay and keep an eye on the main chance.

Along the way we meet the mayor, former basketball star Dave Bing, whose words and demeanor conveys good will. His city is broke with the loss of the automobile industry and over half its population, but it apparently has nearly 40 square miles of empty land, which he recognizes as a resource. He announces a plan for urban gardening on the empty land. Later when the camera flashes to a residential front porch we find three weary and dubious gents having an eye-rolling laugh at the mayor’s expense. They wonder if people will want to steal their tomatoes in the new agricultural economy of Detroit.

The mayor’s suggestion has the kernel of a bigger idea, which I would urge him to push further: a more self-sufficient regional economy. When Detroit prospered it produced and exported cars to other states and other countries. The earnings from car sales allowed Detroiters to specialize and then import what they needed from production elsewhere around the country and the world.

In a global economy, specializing in capital intensive industries carries risks and makes any region dependent on the whims of others, both in the corporate office and the erratic marketplace. The guys on the porch would be better off wondering how to produce tomatoes and then sell them locally to Detroiters, creating some jobs in the process, but more important re-circulating the money in the local economy to support other jobs.

Everyone eats, which makes food and food processing a good place to begin developing a less dependent and self-supporting local economy. The enormous companies that are necessary in the automobile industry are not necessary in food processing, nor in other industries and services. The country threw away its textile and apparel industries on the propaganda of free traders. Combined textile and apparel had 1.6 million jobs in 1990; 388 thousand are left in 2011, but it was not inevitable as economists like to say.

Creative retailers are finding small scale clothing production can be cost competitive when it is combined with retail operations. Retailers that produce on site in their own space capture the entire marketing margin and make better use of their employees for the seasonal fluctuations common to the cut and sew industry. Local production eliminates shipping charges from the Far East. Freight charges from China to Long Beach are only part of the expense to import clothing. There are Long Beach handling charges, warehouse in and out fees, forklift fees, customs entry fees, and customs duties, but the clothing shipment still sits in Long Beach. Add the shipping fee from Long Beach to wherever. When it is all added up local production does not look so far fetched.

The mayor needs Detroit banks committed to local lending and development and a readily identifiable Detroit label. Then he needs to convince Detroiters to pool their savings in local banks and to buy the Detroit label. It is a tough thing to do, but that is what I liked about Detropia. The contrast of misery and commitment give the impression these things might be possible in Detroit.

Detropia was a little confusing at first, but gradually clears up because the people who spoke in the film did a good job. They did not fumble and stumble but made their points clearly enough to suggest they had thought about and planned what they were going to say rather than impromptu interviews. The film makers flashed a few facts on the screen but avoided excessive narration. Detropia is an ambitious film worth seeing, but more important, worth thinking about.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jobs for PhD's

I continue to see articles describing the grim job market for those pursing and finishing PhDs. A recent article from the Washington Post from July 7, 2012 (“U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there”) describes a surplus of science doctorates looking for research positions. The article uses examples of four people: a new neuroscientist yet to find work, two chemists laid off from pharmacy research, and a geneticist who spent 7 years as a low paid post doctoral research apprentice before leaving research entirely. It makes sober reading, especially when the politicians still talk about a future with new jobs in “high tech.” However, the bigger picture of jobs for doctorates in all fields gets worse day by day.

The accelerating growth of new PhDs in all fields is the first source of job problems for new graduates. In the year ending June 2000, 44.8 thousand finished doctorates. The number increased every single year until 70.2 thousand finished degrees in the year ending June 2010. (1) The totals come from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. In the years from June 2000 to June 2010, 599.1 thousand new PhD’s were added to the supply of existing PhD holders.

No one pursing a PhD can afford to ignore the college teaching market which has over 80 percent of the jobs certain to require a PhD. From the years 2000 to 2010 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports college faculty increased from nearly 1.31 million to 1.46 million, or about 150 thousand new jobs. A job market with potentially 599.1 thousand new PhD’s looking for 150 thousand new jobs guarantees some very difficult job hunting. Retirements in any field can help generate job openings even if job growth is slow, except that tenured college faculty have a well earned reputation for retiring later rather than sooner.

Any American thinking of a PhD should remember that up to a third of science and engineering PhDs in selected years are foreign nationals, especially over the last 20 years. Many foreign nationals started careers in the United States but more and more they return home to start new companies and work in research and teaching in their native universities. Americans with doctorates need to accept that the job market for doctorates looks more and more like a global market.

Optimists and pessimists both know that some fields are better than others. Take chemistry, a field where chemistry faculty in postsecondary education increased from 16 thousand in 2000 to 21.1 thousand in 2010, or 5.1 thousand more faculty jobs. Nearly 2.5 thousand finished chemistry doctorates in 2010 alone with over 20 thousand new chemistry doctorates reported from 2000 to 2010.

As a science field, it helps that chemists have more opportunities outside of teaching than other fields in social sciences and literature. The chemical manufacturing industry, especially the pharmaceutical industry and also the plastics, rubber, paint, and fertilizer industries, hires chemists. Firms specializing in engineering services and firms doing basic research also employ chemists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports jobs for just over 80 thousand chemists and 27 thousand chemical engineers in 2011.

Some of the jobs for chemists in research and manufacturing need a PhD, but the credential itself is not as important in business and research the way it is for academia. Management decides which jobs can be done without PhD skills, which puts PhD holders in competition with a plentiful supply of chemistry baccalaureate and master degree holders. Worse, jobs for chemists and chemical engineers are both down since 2000. The decline is small but there are thousands of new BA, MA as well as PhD degrees in chemistry, and similarly in other fields.

The surplus of doctorates and their dominant employment as college faculty has generated a dual job market where established faculty with tenure operate separately from new PhD’s. New PhD’s might find post doctoral research in the sciences or adjunct positions with a course by course salary or a temporary appointment, but those positions go for expansion or to replace retiring faculty. Tenured faculty do not lose their jobs or accept lower salaries to hire and pay new faculty. The burden of the surplus falls entirely on new PhDs to accept low salaries for an indefinite period.

Dual markets and the risk of long delays working at low wages make it difficult to forecast a rate of return to funds invested in a Ph.D. Where people leave their chosen field for other work the return drops to zero, but long delays on top of four to seven years in a graduate program suggests minimal returns on a large investment of tuition, time and effort. Those thinking of a PhD should think carefully.

Note (1) The total excludes law, pharmacy, medicine (MD) and veterinary degrees.