The California Community Colleges Crisis

When I went back to San Jose City College to learn computer programming ten years ago, I knew it would be tough. The dot com bubble went kablooey. Computers were out, health care was in. I couldn’t get the classes I needed in the beginning because there were too many students, and the classes I needed towards the end were cancelled for not having enough students. After five years of going to school on a part-time basis while working full time, I made the dean’s list  in my final semester for maintaining a 4.0 GPA in my major.

Unless I won the lottery and returned to San Jose State University to complete my bachelor degree in something (I was a mathematics major before they kicked me out in 1995), I wouldn’t dream of going back to a community college for classes. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the community colleges are so impacted from the Great Recession that many students are lucky to get any classes at all.

Frustrated students linger on waiting lists or crash packed classes hoping professors will add them later. They see their chances of graduating or transferring diminishing.

It’s a product of years of severe budget cuts and heavy demand in the two-year college system. The same situation has affected the Cal State and UC systems, but the impact has been most deeply felt in the 2.4-million-student community college system — the nation’s largest.

Taking forever to get a college degree used to be optional. Now it’s a requirement. If you want it, persevere until you get all your classes. If you don’t want it, work at Taco Bell until you retire.

Perhaps I was lucky to return to school when I did. Uncle Sam paid for my books and classes with a $3,000 USD tax credit meant to transition workers into a new career. Ironically, I never did get a programming job after graduating in 2007. The only programming I do now is for maintaining my websites.

I got a help desk job at a Fortune 500 company in Mountain View in 2005. Unlike finding and reporting bugs in video games, I was finding and documenting solutions for problems that users were reporting. The pay was better ($24 USD versus $16 USD) for fewer hours (40 hours versus 80 hours). I stayed at this job for nearly three years. Help desk, like becoming a video game tester years earlier, became my new career almost by accident.

The only educational opportunities I have is updating my tech certifications. The A+, Network+ and Microsoft Windows 2000 certifications that I got while in school are long in the tooth. The certifications that I need today are Microsoft Windows 7 and Apple Mac OS X. I can study for those without taking any classes. Between working help desk during the day and writing at night, I have very little time to sit in a classroom even if I could get classes.

The Agony Of A Flu Shot

My full time non-writing job is replacing computers at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have zero contact with patients as I go about my rounds to replace dust bunny infested computers that are years past being replaced. But, because this is a hospital, I had to get a flu shot to protect everyone else. If I haven’t, I would have to wear a mask during the flu season—or risk losing my job. Until this requirement was imposed on me, I thought peeing into a cup for a drug test was bad enough.

The first time I got a flu shot as an adult was at a company sponsored event in 2006, where we were herded into a big empty room to stand in line, fill out a form, and sit down for the shot. I made a huge scene as I became indecisive about getting a flu shot, going back and forth like a drama queen. Everyone was or laughing or smiling,  telling me that it wasn’t a big deal.

Somehow I got the shot. Somehow I made it back to my cubicle without collapsing. Somehow I caught the shuttle bus, commuter train and light rail back home without puking. Somehow I allowed a needle to pierce my skin for the first time in years.

I was in the third grade when my back went out in the late 1970’s. For whatever reason, an ambulance wasn’t called. No school nurse available. My teacher drove me over to her family doctor. An old man who seemed to specialized in two forms of treatments: requesting blood tests from a lab and sticking his index finger up my fat ass. I sometimes caught him sniffing his finger. I was too young to know if this was right or wrong.

I threw a screaming fit every time I went to the lab. Two big guys dressed in white would hold me down on the examination table. Somehow I willed myself to stay still as my blood was drawn. Every. Single. Time. I’ve been skittish about needles ever since.

As for the doctor, he retired to Florida. Another family got wind of his preferred treatment for young children and threatened to call the police if he didn’t pay them off. He got out of town just before the district attorney’s office cracked down on paid referrals between doctors and labs.

I’ve been getting a flu shot every other year since 2006. Although I don’t throw a crying fit anymore, my legs still get rubbery and I’m on the verge of passing out. I usually end up with a sore arm and a slight fever after being inoculated.

The flu shot at the hospital didn’t hurt as much as the new needles are more smaller. I did experience a wider range of side effects—soreness, fever, chill and muscle ache—after I came home and went straight to bed. Unlike the $30 USD flu shots I got at CVS, I didn’t have to pay for this one.

Discriminating Against Recently Unemployed

Three Panel Soul Web Comic - On Solid Ground
Three Panel Soul

One of my favorite webcomics is Three Panel Soul by Ian McConville (artist) and Matthew Boyd (writer). This is the post-college version of their former webcomic, Mac Hall. A common theme is cubicle life at technology companies, such as Matt being overheard talking about buying a rifle, being let go for talking about said rifle, and being unemployed in 2007. (The Fleen interview with Matt after the FBI paid him a visit for making “terroristic threats” against his former employer.) Matt now finds himself in an uncertain job market that still discriminates against the recently unemployed who lost their jobs within the last 30 days.

Oh, crap. Here we go again.

As someone who was unemployed for two years, underemployed for six months (working 20 hours per month) and filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy before finding steady work, I don’t want to repeat that experience again.

I had numerous interviews that went fine until the hiring manager figured out that I had chronological gaps in my resume. Many such interviews ended shortly thereafter. I even had recruiters tell me that I was unemployable and shouldn’t be wasting their time. The worst part is that many companies are looking for people who they can hire without any job training. This kind of discrimination eliminates many good people who need help in getting up to speed.

My big break from permanent unemployment came when I started doing blue-collar tech work by physically replacing old computers with new computers. No comfortable sitting on your ass help desk support job. I’ve probably crawled underneath 1,000+ desks this year, including one cubicle where the carpets smelled like someone farted brimstone into them. Another cubicle had 40 cups of half-filled coffee with mold in various states of growth that most people would regard as a potential bio hazard.

With my current assignment ending this year, I’ll have to find a new assignment before the new year starts. Having worked for several different contracting agencies over the last few years, I know recruiters who are eager to get me back into the job market. However, since I’m not actively looking for a new job, my resume is being used as filler for when the recruiter has to submit five candidates for a particular position. Some things never change.

Fewer Young People Want To Work In I.T.

When I became a lead QA tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I knew I was in a dead end job that would last three years and went back to school to learn computer programming. Although the dot com bubble was over by Fall 2002, I couldn’t get into some classes because there were too many students and too few seats as information technology (I.T.) was still hot. Towards the end in Spring 2007, I couldn’t get into some classes because there were few students and too many seats as health care was much hotter.

I graduated with an associate in science degree in computer programming and made the dean’s honor list for maintaining a 4.0 G.P.A. (a consolation prize for not being able to take assembly language programming in my final semester). Thanks to a $3,000 tax credit during that time, Uncle Sam picked up the tab for my career change. My first job out of school was help desk support, where I made the same amount of money as I did as a lead QA tester except I worked only 40 hours instead of 80 hours per week. This wasn’t what I went to school for, but it was good enough to make a living and a career. All I needed was for all these baby boomers to start retiring so I can have job security for life.

Then the Great Recession came to Silicon Valley in 2008.

After two years of being unemployed, six months of underemployed (working 20 hours a month) and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, I’m working full time in the I.T. field. The biggest problem I have now is working with all the baby boomers still hanging on to their jobs, complaining about being unable to retire and/or afford the latest tech gadget, and bossing me around because they are more experienced farts than I am. This wasn’t what I imagined job security would be like 10 years ago when I planned my career change.

A recent study states that fewer young people want to work in I.T., which means a shortage of qualified workers for future I.T. jobs. Assuming, of course, the visa cap isn’t lifted to allow Fortune 500 companies to import skilled workers from India and other countries to take those jobs away from American workers. Between young and old workers, both domestic and foreign, this is the generational war that I find myself stuck between.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. I’m only working in I.T. long enough until I can earn a living as a writer and ebook publisher. My job security should come from what I do as an entrepreneur and not on the current trends in the job market. Or maybe I should go off the grid and become a farmer.

Are Silicon Valley Employers Asking for Social Media Passwords?

Another job search issue came up this week with employers asking for social media passwords to view and asses a job applicant’s private behavior outside of work. I haven’t ran into this issue while looking for my next work assignment in Silicon Valley, which may be a non-issue for most tech workers. My biggest annoyance—besides spending three hours filling out the HR paperwork for each job—is peeing in a cup for a drug test. I did see on my last background check authorization form that a social media search will be conducted. If I asked to reveal my social media passwords, I would say no for two obvious reasons.

Most Silicon Valley companies have a policy that employees should never volunteer and/or ask for passwords, which can be grounds for immediate termination. As PC technician I had the root password if I needed to access the computer. I often had to stop users from giving me their passwords and remind them what the policy was. If a company demands that I reveal my passwords before I get the job, how can they reasonably expect me to uphold their password policy?

I have the opposite problem when it comes to social media passwords: my anonymous alter ego has only an email address and a LinkedIn account. That’s it. A Google search turns up nothing but emails sent to various technical Usenet group in the 1990’s. Facebook, nada. Twitter, nada. Blogs, nada. NOTHING! My anonymous alter ego is so boring that Clark Kent looks sexy and exciting in comparison.

None of my employers or coworkers know that I’m a programmer and a writer working under a variation of my legal name for my own content producing business with a family of websites. A background research company will have to dig deep into the Google search results to establish an a tenuous connection between my anonymous alter ego and my public business persona. (When LinkedIn suggested that my business account should “link” my personal account, I deleted the business account.) As far as everyone is concern in the big blue room, I’m just a boring guy who likes to read books and watch movies.

Someday I expect not to get  a job because my Internet presence fell into the bit bucket in the 1990’s. When that day does happen, I’ll be ready to move full time into my content producing business.

Drug Testing Silicon Valley Workers A Future Trend?

When I first started working in Silicon Valley as a PC technician 15 years ago, you often got the job with a firm handshake after filling out the application and H.R. forms. The paperwork got longer and longer over years, especially the non-disclosure agreements and employee manuals. Then I noticed a new wrinkle in this process: drug testing. Now you get the job with a firm shake off after peeing into a plastic cup.

Was drug testing Silicon Valley tech workers becoming a future trend?

The first time I ever took a drug test was for a new assignment at a Fortune 500 company from a contracting agency that I was already working for. I wasn’t worried about not passing a drug test since I never used drugs. (If I was being tested 15 years ago when I had a roommate with a medical marijuana prescription, where the second hand smoke caused me to have sinus headaches and infections, I would have something to worry about.) Taking a drug test after spending three hours to fill out  the forms was more of a nuisance than anything else.

I drove down to the testing center near Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, drunk four bottles of water, and waited in the car until I was ready to pee. After entering the testing center, presenting the form and my driver’s license, and waiting a short while, I was escorted into a room to empty out my pockets, wash my hands and take the plastic cup into the restroom. A black-and-white sign across the back of the toilet said “DO NOT FLUSH” and the flush handle was locked in place. Despite my strenuous effort to move things along, I only peed enough to fill up to the minimum line on the plastic cup. The nurse took my offering at the ivory throne away. I filled up my pockets and sat down in the waiting area.

The report came back 15 minutes later that I was clean as a whistle.

The assignment at the Fortune 500 company went on hiatus with no prospects for more work. The two contracting agencies that usually alternated to provide me with work had nothing. After updating my resume on the job search websites, I was contacted the next day by a contracting agency I worked for seven years ago for identical work at the same pay rate. The recruiter forwarded my resume to the account manager, who decided to hire me on the spot without interviewing me. Three hours after I finished filling out all the forms, an email popped in saying that I needed to take a drug test.

After turning in my badge and equipment, my former coworker told me that drug testing was a fact of life in Silicon Valley. Not sure how that could be with all the pothead programmers running loose in the valley. I went over to the testing center to give another offering at the ivory throne with a firm shake off.

Surviving A Chapter 7 Bankruptcy In The New Great Depression

If I had known that I would be out of work for two years and underemployed (working 20 hours a month) for six months, I would have filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy sooner and save myself some money.

Eight months after I was laid off from my tech job on Friday the 13th in February 2009, the credit card companies jacked up the interest rates on my three credit cards from 15% to 30% before the new credit card rules went into effect to limit such arbitrary increases. I could either pay the new interest rates or lock in the old interest rates of 16% by closing the accounts. Due to a quirk in the new credit card rules to help consumers pay down their debt balance, closing the accounts meant my minimum payments tripled from what they were before. I couldn’t afford to pay either the new interest rates before or the tripled minimum payments after. I went from paying $500 a month to $50 a month to cover my credit card bills. Eight months later I received my first notice from an attorney that one of my credit cards was deliquent.

A few days after my birthday in August 2010, I went to a bankruptcy attorney in downtown San Jose. I had at that time about $30,000 USD in credit card debt, which $10,000 USD came from the accumulated fees of paying less than what I owe. If I hadn’t been laid off and continued to work, all my credit card debt would have been paid off. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to exercise my constitutional right to file for bankruptcy to escape this overwhelming debt I was unable to pay. The attorney told me that I had a straight forward Chapter 7 bankruptcy, where I had no significant assets to pay off my debts and all my debts would be fully discharged so I can be debt free. The next four months I made payments on the attorney and filing fees ($1,299 USD). That was the easy part.

The next four months after that was pure hell as I gathered all the documents required for the bankruptcy petition. The major sticking point with the paperwork was that I had a small business as being a short story writer. If I had simply reported what little writing income I had on the Schedule C under my own name when filing taxes, the paperwork burden would have been significantly less. Since I had a business checking account opened under a fictitious business name, I had to determine the value of my copyrights and provide a profit and loss statement for 2011. These issues I have never considered before. I ended up valuing my copyrights for $375 USD (150,000 words written over five years) at 1/4-cent per word based on a recent short story contract that I signed, and providing a break-even profit and loss statement where I hope to make enough money from writing to cover my fixed expenses. Since everything I owned fell way below the minimum monetary thresholds, it really didn’t matter anyway.

Although I was under the protection of a bankruptcy attorney, the credit card companies sold the debts that I owe them to collection agencies that could care less. The one thing I learned about this side of the financial industry, debt collectors don’t like being treated the same way they treat people and backed off when people fought back. I once called a debt collector five times in a row for 15 minutes until they acknowledged that I had a bankruptcy attorney and to take my phone number off the autodialer. Filed consumer complaints against several collection agencies that were already under investigation to take a hint and leave me alone. One debt was sold to three different collection agencies before the last one found a note in the file that I had a bankruptcy attorney, which meant that the debt was worthless. I was mailing a dozen letters a month to assert my rights under the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Finally, the bankruptcy petitioned was filed with the federal court in downtown San Jose. A month later I got a court date for the trustee hearing. The hardest part of attending the trustee hearing two months later was getting through post-9/11 security screening. The x-ray machines being down didn’t surprise me. I had to unload everything from my pockets into a wooden box, drink from the water bottle that I brought with me to prove that the water was drinkable, and walk through the metal detector. Fortunately my shoes didn’t have any metal in them and I didn’t have to take them off to walk through the metal detector again. The hearing was held in a large conference room with three dozen red chairs in back and a long table in front. I was fascinated by the slice of humanity that I witnessed in the hearing room.

The majority of the cases were split between two law firms with a representative from each one. Only one couple was there who were representing themselves without an attorney. Although you only pay a $299 filing fee with the court if you do it yourself, it’s not recommended. The bankruptcy process is a grueling process. Paying for an attorney to guide you through the process is worth the expense. Most of the Chapter 13 cases were homeowners trying to prevent the bank from foreclosing on their underwater homes (i.e., a million-dollar home was appraised at $800,000 USD) due to being unemployed and/or medical expenses. The only creditor who showed up for the hearing were a retired couple trying to get $10,000 USD in back rent from the DIY couple, where the trustee ordered a hearing before a judge. One older couple who had previously filed for bankruptcy three times before spoke only Spanish and the trustee put a translator on the speakerphone. Chapter 7 cases like mine were done in five minutes flat as the trustee swore the oath, asked a half-dozen questions and asked if any creditors were in attendance.

Two months later and 11 months after I first saw the bankruptcy attorney, I got my bankruptcy discharge notice in the mail a few weeks ago. Except for a $1,600 tax bill to the IRS that I’m making payments on, I’m now out of bad debt. I’ve been working two tech jobs for the last two months to pay my bills and rebuild my savings reserve (half in cash and half in silver). The bankruptcy won’t disappear from my credit record for ten years. However, when cash is king, your credit score doesn’t matter. Like the Great Depression taught my father the value of cash being king, the new Great Depression taught me the same thing.

Being A Working Stiff Again

After two years of being unemployed, five months of on-and-off-but-mostly-off contract work, and a Chapter 7 bankruptcy still in progress, I’m a working stiff again with two PC technician jobs. The first job is at a local Fortune 500 company that I had previously worked at in the past, and the other job is for a moving company in San Mateo county that does business with other Fortune 500 companies on the weekends. Both of these jobs are $7/hr less than what I was making in my last full time job before Wall Street cratered the economy in the Great Recession. With bankruptcy eliminating my credit card debt, I’m making enough money from both jobs to cover my living expenses and rebuild my savings. I’m hoping to work six to seven days a week from now through the summer.

I’m not kidding about being a working stiff. These are not comfortable jobs where I’m sitting down to stare at a computer all day. These are jobs where I’m running around, crawling underneath desks and hauling new/old computer systems. I haven’t worked this hard since I did construction work with my father for two years after my 18th birthday. I’ve been soaking in epsom salt baths—sometimes before and after work—to relieve my stiff muscles.

Not surprisingly, writing blog posts and short stories have taken a hit from my new work schedule. During two years of unemployment and five months of underemployment, I had 25+ short stories published in eight anthologies and published 14 ebooks with 32 short stories (new and reprints), poems and essays. That pace will slow down as turn my attention from creating new short stories to revising my first novel during the summer. My goal is to write/edit/revise for 90 minutes per day and do admin tasks in whatever free time that I can find. I’m already missing being an unemployed writer and looking forward to the day where I can write full time without having to crawl under someone else’s desk.

A Shooting Underneath The Golden Arches

I was driving out of my apartment complex when I turned right on to Fruitdale Avenue this afternoon when the radio announced that there was a shooting at McDonald’s on the corner of Fruitdale Avenue and Bascom Avenue. Not surprisingly, I was driving towards it as I was heading over to the freeway to go to HP campus in Cupertino for a job interview. Passing by a dozen police cars and forced to drive through hospital (which isn’t as bad being forced to drive through the airport), I started stressing out. Not because the shooting would break out again. The shooting that took place underneath the Golden Arches was several hours old by then, and the police were still documenting the crime scene. I was more concern about being late for the job interview. By the time I got to the HP campus, I was no longer nervous about the interview.

That is the second murder in the general area, and there were two rapes at San Jose City College, in the last six months. I have lived in this area for nearly six years. The worst reported crimes before these recent events was probably gang graffiti, teenagers pulling the fire alarms at my apartment complex, and several Christmas time house fires. Of course, most crimes in the neighborhood probably go unreported by victims for fear of retaliation or underreported by the news media looking for the big story to drive the headlines.

What prompted all these recent murders and rapes?

The two murders are probably gang-related. Someone walking up to someone else to shoot them dead on the street is a somewhat common gang initiation on the east side of San Jose. Anti-gang prevention efforts are probably pushing gang bangers out from that side of town. Every time I see gang bangers hanging out in the back parking lot and gang graffiti on the walls of my apartment complex, I’m quick to report these incidents to the leasing office. The leasing manager will yell at the gang bangers to leave and the graffiti is painted over by the maintenance staff.

The rapes were done by several men under the care of nearby medical clinics for mental illness and drug abuse who wandered on to campus. I don’t think rape will become a reoccurring event like it was at San Jose State University in the 1980s, where school officials later installed the emergency phones with blue lights. I still find the live blogging of the De Anza rape case to be disturbing, especially now that the plaintiff is on the stand.

A more ominous trend in the general neighborhood is people panhandling for change on the street corners and intersections. There used to be only one or two people who were doing it any given time. Lately, as the cratered economy muddles through for ordinary working-class Americans, I’m seeing more and more people panhandling for change. A husband-and-wife tag team at one intersection. A string of military veterans at every freeway entrance. A postal clerk chased away a pregnant woman who stood outside the post office with a sign pleading for help. What do these people do when they’re not panhandling? Are the looking for jobs or committing crimes?

I had the interview at the HP campus and came home the other way to avoid the crime scene at McDonald’s. I’m hoping to get the job there or at another HP location to do desktop support. After two years of unemployment, I’m  working part time as a PC disconnect/reconnect technician for a moving company. That won’t last for long. The interviews are coming at a steadier pace than it has in the last two years. That gives me hope that I won’t need to start my career as a professional bank robber. Although there is good money to be made in panhandling (about $45 to $90 per hour at the right intersection), I don’t like standing around and doing nothing.