The Value of Advice From Do-Gooders

Some years ago I was a member of the local Chamber of Commerce. Like all COCs, it was as much a social organization as a business one; something I accepted, though I’m not really all that social.

This was back in the wild days of the Internet boom, with web design companies springing up like dandelions in a wet season (my own company did access and hosting for those smaller companies). It was also a time of retrenchment of local manufacturing companies and plenty of layoffs were being done among line workers.

The COC was, of course, concerned. Deeply, muchly heart-feltedly concerned…just ask them. So like night follows day, a panel was formed to address the problems of the newly unemployed line-workers. As luck would have it, I was selected to be on the committee.

This committee was composed of folks from the telecommunications and Internet Services businesses (like ours)–no retail or manufacturing people where to be seen. I noted the unusual weighting of the panel, and got a slightly snotty reply that the makeup was intentionally of those growing companies–the ones who represented “the future.”

Our expected product was some recommendation to the newly unemployed manufacturing workers on how to prepare for and get a job in the local area. To a person, the committee (excepting me) came up with a plan to encourage them to take the webdesign and networking classes at the local community college. After all; who could argue with the value of such education?

Me.

Looking around the room, and seeing folks who were graduates of good colleges, many with MAs, MSs, or BFAs, I asked: “If they complete these courses at the community college, who here will promise to hire them?”

You could have heard a pin drop, until one young woman said in a supercilious tone, “We only hire BFAs.”

I replied, “When a guy who’s been working on the line for 10 or 15 years loses his job and then hears the Chamber recommending that he take those courses, he thinks we’re telling him that we will hire him of he does this. He isn’t concerned about self-actualization…he’s on the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy: he needs to pay his rent and put food on the table.

If he spends his money and time on a handful of webdesign classes at the Community College, he’s going to discover that they are worth pretty much squat. We’ll be doing him a disfavor. Tell him to take a machine print reading class, or auto repair, or something in the trades.”

I became a pariah in the room. The meeting broke up soon after–they met later without me and, sure enough, recommended the webdesign and networking classes.

Two things: I was never invited to another committee and I learned that people who are in the social in-crowd typically are more concerned about how they feel about an issue (and how the other in-crowders will see them) than how to fix it. That’s why so many feel-good programs that are shown to be both wasteful and useless, continue on.

I’ve taken in troubled teenagers, homeless folks, and in one case a young woman who had every addiction, but who was working hard to clean up her act. There was even a time we took in an entire family for 5 months. I don’t mention this to get someone to think well of me–we had the means to do it at the time and it seemed the thing to do. Not every effort was a success, but some were and I carry no regrets for kindnesses done.

But I’m the one the committee considered mean and selfish. Go figure.