Guest Post: The Kobayashi Maru Test And The Job Market

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

The Kobayashi Maru Test And The Job Market

The conventional pathways in the job market aren’t working any longer; the alternative is to exit the no-win scenario.

The Kobayashi Maru test of Star Trek fame is a classic no-win situation. Star Fleet Academy students are given command in a no-win scenario: either ignore a distress call of a Federation ship inside the Klingon (enemy) zone or enter the zone on a doomed rescue mission and lose your own ship in a hopeless battle against vastly superior forces.

Captain Kirk evaded the no-win choices by reprogramming the computers to enable him to win. I think the job market can be profitably viewed as a Kobayashi Maru test: the conventional either/or choice--do something you dislike for job security or go to grad/law school for an advanced degree--is a false choice.

Let's start with some sobering facts. Although what classifies as "essential" is open to interpretation, the secure jobs will likely be the essential ones that maintain the core infrastructures of everyday modern life: water, sewage and electrical systems, the energy complex, public safety and health, agriculture, railways, network security, etc.

How many jobs are essential is anyone's guess, but it is certainly less than 100% of the 140 million jobs that currently comprise the job market. My own guess is 20%, based on the Pareto Distribution (the 80/20 rule). Even if we stipulate 50%, that still leaves a lot of surplus jobs.

Some essential jobs are supposedly going begging, but in general supply exceeds demand. Certain skilled blue-collar trades are apparently short-staffed: pipefitters in oil refineries, for example. It may be a misalignment of people who want the work and the location of the work, or a dearth of apprenticeships in these trades, or some other factor.

This shortage of qualified workers is the exception, I think. In general, supply and demand works like this: when demand exceeds supply, costs/wages rise. Then people respond by entering the lucrative field until supply exceeds demand, and prices/wages decline.

A lot of people are assuming the healthcare field will be permanently short of workers, but if enough people reach this conclusion then qualified labor will be in oversupply. The same can be said of MBAs and a number of other degrees that are widely viewed as "meal tickets" to a secure job. Since millions of other people are pursuing the same path, there is now a glut of MBAs and lawyers.

The problem is that the job market is not causally aligned with education. If we encourage a million students to get PhDs in physics and biochemistry, that doesn't mean the economy will magically create 1 million jobs in these fields. These fields are small not because there is a shortage of qualified labor, but for other reasons: the limitations of Research and Development funding, the limited market for products in these fields, and so on.

While a highly educated workforce can do a wider range of work, it doesn't necessarily follow that the economy has more higher-level jobs. One of the key reasons for the confidence that higher degrees were secure "meal tickets" was their relative scarcity: there are relatively few PhDs in math, relatively few physicians, etc.

But this belief is implicitly based on unlimited funding. When funding goes away, then there is suddenly a surplus of once-scarce "knowledge" workers. As more people get college educations and advanced degrees, the scarcity value of those degrees declines. In many fields, the scarcity value is zero: there is an abundance of people with degrees and a shortage of paid jobs.

That which is unsustainable will go away. As I noted yesterday, devoting 17% of our GDP to healthcare is so wildly out of line with what other nations devote to healthcare and with the surplus generated by our economy that we can safely conclude that U.S. "healthcare" costs (a.k.a. sickcare) will shrink by about 50% in the decade ahead. Either wages will be cut or people will be laid off, or some combination of both.

The only other alternative is to print money with such abandon that it loses most or all of its value. In that case, someone may earn $100,000 but that will at best cover a month's groceries.

That which is unsustainable will go away, and so basing career choices on unsustainable systems is like reckoning you can beat five Kingon warships with your single vessel.

If security is the goal, there will be stiff competition for "essential" jobs, as everyone else sees these as secure, too. This is where graft and corruption come in handy; in corrupt locales, the few plum secure positions are passed on to family members or those who paid a hefty bribe.

If you want to make a lot of money in the Status Quo, the competition will also be fierce. Although various people reach somewhat different numbers, it is generally agreed that the top 1% of earners garner about 20% of the nation's total income, the top 5% pull down about 33% of total income, and the top 10% harvest around 40%-50%. The top 25% skims about 65%.

The top 25% of taxpayers--34 million workers out of a workforce of 160 million and 140 million wage earners--pay almost 90% of all Federal income taxes. Where Do You Rank as a Taxpayer?

An adjusted gross income (AGI) of $66,193 or more puts you in the top 25% of earners. The top-earning 25% of taxpayers reported 65.81% of all AGI and paid 87.30% of total federal income taxes ( $755.9 billion).

If we look at wealth, the top 20% own 85% of the nation's private wealth.

What is striking is how concentrated the earnings are in the top of the pyramid. Those between 11% and 20% earn between 15% and 20% of total income, less than half what the top 10% earn.

That means almost half the national income flows to the top 10%--14 million earners out of 140 million. (As noted here recently, 38 Million Workers Made Less Than $10,000 in 2010-- Equal to California's Population The Atlantic magazine).

Most of the top 10% are those you'd expect to be there: corporate managers, physicans, attorneys, business owners and high-level knowledge workers such as researchers and professors. But the pool of people with these credentials and training is far larger than the top 10%: competition is fierce.

When competition is fierce, you not only have to possess the requisite drive and perseverence, you also have to love the trade. If you're just hoping for a secure job but could care less (or even actively dislike) the work itself, you will probably lose out at some point to someone who wakes up excited to go to work.

I am not in the top 10% nor am I in an essential field. I am one of the other 70%. For me, it's enough to be useful and avoid being a burden to others. In my view, life can be very good indeed in the bottom 70% if you have a very low-cost lifestyle that enables you to live on a modest income.

I recently received a request from a young man for my two cents on a career choice he faces. He explained that he has two opportunities: Option 1, gaining acceptance to the local nursing school, and Option 2 an exciting new MBA program that focuses on sustainability and the green economy that cost $55,000, to be funded by student loans. The goal of this option would be a career in clean tech. Since he already has a bachelor's degree, the nursing school's cost would be considerably less.

My two cents of advice was to seek a third path. Since I have started and operated small businesses and hired a lot of people, my perspective is that of an employer as well as that of a potential employee:

I suppose this may sound like cheating, but I view the choice you present as a bit like the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek-–a no-win situation.


It seems clear you are not attracted to the day-to-day work of nursing, so you would be unlikely to feel fulfilled in that career.


You seem enthusiastic about the MBA but $55K in debt for a program whose practical impact in the real-world job market is unknown is risky. I would find out as much as possible about the curriculum of this MBA program and then set about learning it all on my own. No credential will be issued, but if you can actually do the work, then somebody who has moxie will hire you over the person with the credential.


Perhaps you can apprentice with some real clean-tech company in the real world based on what you learned on your own. I personally would be much more impressed with someone who learned a curriculum on their own and avoided debt entirely than with someone who loaded up with debt in a conventional fashion. If someone can creatively solve the problem of learning without acquiring a mountain of debt, then they will probably be pretty good at solving whatever problems I have in my business.


Or I would start a dialog with the school and say you’d like to take the program but can’t borrow any money—are there any jobs on campus they could give you? I would email the professors directly and start a dialog with them—how can I do this without debt? People rarely ask outside-the-box questions or make outside-the-box suggestions, and as a result alternatives don’t get explored.


You already have a B.A., so that is sufficient evidence of your academic ability. Having hired people myself, I am always looking for the self-motivated person who can do the work, regardless of their credentials or lack thereof.


In general, the conventional pathways aren’t working any longer. They may seem to be working, but that’s a temporary illusion. The most important skill is to be able to get the work done in a competent manner without imposing needless difficulties on your colleagues and those who are paying you.

Here's what you get if you play the Kobayashi Maru test as programmed: a $200,000 education and a $700/month job I've Got A $200,000 Education, A Great Resume And An Empty Inbox, or a PhD and a $700/month job The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.

Will an unconventional approach succeed? There are no guarantees that any approach will work; security is always contingent, and all we really have is opportunity. Failure is an integral part of how we learn.

Nobody knows what the future holds, so in my view the most secure strategy is not to look in the rear view mirror for an elusive security but acquire a broad spectrum of skills. This quote from Charles Darwin embodies this perspective: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change."

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ihedgemyhedges's picture

We definitely have a surplus of economists/strategists.  Brusca and Abby Joseph Cohen come to mind as "non-essential"....................

RacerX's picture

Ah, but they are most essential for doing their Master's bidding.

Colombian Gringo's picture

I think we should reset the entire game, starting by deleting the Illuminati behind this entire mess. Then I would reengineer the entire human race since clearly this version is f@cked.

GenX Investor's picture

I thought the Kobayashi Maru was a Japanese whaling vessel.

Manthong's picture

Maybe that was the code name for the UK JPM CIO.. it was about fixing the game, too. 

Boy, Kirstie Alley was one hot little Vulcan in that movie.

..gave a whole new perspective to inter-species relations.

The trend is your friend's picture

Life without a stockmarket....that type of change or life without a banking cartel

Buckaroo Banzai's picture

Higher education is the greatest scam of the 20th century.

Well, behind banking, that is.

For bonus points, can anyone here put their finger on why higher education was so relentlessly promoted after WW2?

"Promote Student Debt" and "The GI Bill" are not correct answers.

Alcoholic Native American's picture

Son I want you to go to college and get an education so you don't have to work as hard as I do.  My 30k bullshit job  and my government retirement check can barely pay the bills!  It's a tough life for us uneducated babyboomers.

***After child graduates***

Why don't you have a job yet? You think you are too good to work at mcdonalds?  

flapdoodle's picture

Buckaroo, I'll take

"keep GIs out of the job market and busy" for $100


Or, at least, keep them out of the job market long enough for the propaganda campaign to get newly empowered women workers at the factories to go back to the kitchen to start gaining traction.


Buckaroo: any relation to William?



Confused's picture

Social conditioning. What else could it be? Student debt is just an added bonus.

Ludwig Van's picture

@ Buckaroo --


To create another social tier linking Regular Guy to Elite Guy, that social tier for and upon whom TPTB market via status based diffusion...





slackrabbit's picture

Lots of thinkers not many doers

Alcoholic Native American's picture

Jobs are for losers.  Welcome to Disneyland for trustfunders.  



Big Corked Boots's picture

Actually, it was the Romulan neutral zone.

Git yer nerd on, bitchez.

Clueless Economist's picture

Wait, I remember that episode, that was the one when that Red Shirt dude Ensign Expendable was killed.

pods's picture

Love the landing party:  Kirk, Spock, Bones and Bob.

Hmmmm, who do you think is gonna get it?


Praetor's picture

@ Corked  Boots. Wrong, it was the Klingon Neutral Zone. Demoted from Big for nerd failure today.

RacerX's picture

Funny, the new dry cleaner dude that picked up my shirts today has a PhD. Goes without saying, he probably has a valid drivers license as well.

Confused's picture

I stopped reading at "picked up my shirts." Because something told me you were about to pass judgement.



Temporalist's picture

I know there are too many attorneys but I think, if things go the way they should, there will be a massive dearth of them when legal counsel for the kleptocrats is needed.

Sue everyone!

DeltaDawn's picture

Young lady in a former East Bloc country was working for $20/wk and asked what I thought about going to Germany to get a Economics Master's Degree. Her father is a surgeon but does import/export because no one can afford his services, she speaks no German, would have to take on debt, etc.  I said her country needed 2 economists and those positions would go to insiders. My advice, "Go into a necessities business." She married a soldier, I guess that counts.

GMadScientist's picture

UE without degree: 11% UE with a degree: 4%

There's the problem with your thesis, Charles.

$200k education!? If you go to a private school, in another state, for several degrees...maybe, but I had my loans paid off before I graduated and got my first job out of college through an internship program run by the school of engineering in concert with local tech companies.

Your anti-education bias is incredibly daft, but by all means drone on pointlessly a little longer.


sgt_doom's picture

Reading Chas' blog post gives me a headache, all the myriad number of essential items and factoids he conveniently ignores.

Aside from those doods having offshored all those jobs, technology, R&D work, and investment to China (which is still a totalitarian state, last time I checked, which every douchetard stenographing wannabe newsy seems to forget), let's examine the fundaments:

They have been doing Milton Friedman Economics since at least 1980, and now hope-to-Hell a half-assed Keynesian solution will suffice (as in a pathetic stimulus, much of which was waived and the monies ended up offhshore:  Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke signing the waivers; now Ambassador to China Gary Locke.)

malek's picture

 anti-education bias

Supporting the shills, are you?

Charles might have an anti-debt bias, if you want to attack him correctly.
And the guy he was talking about didn't sound like he's interested in engineering.

adr's picture

End Wall Street, problem solved.

The entire US economy is based on producing stock returns, nothing else. There is a lot of motivation to overproduce non essential items in order to overload retail inventory to make it look like you "sold" a massive amount of product. The publicly traded retailers are in on the scam because their corporate directors have all invested in your company. They stand to make millions on the stock options they bought. As long as they can channel stuff their stores with your product and make it look like your company's revenue is going to the moon, they will. That is until they decide to sell their stock and cash out. Then you find yourself needing to take back $250 million in inventory you'll never be able to sell.

But what do you care. You never actually invested in your company or cared about your employees. You were running a scam all along and granted yourself millions in stock options to sell off the whole time. You bankrupt the company an move on, checking the balances on your Cayman Islands account.

This is business today. If Wall Street is ended every corporation would need to actually produce items based on demand, and sell items to actual consumers in order to profit.

If you believe any numbers coming from any publicly traded corporation you are either a narcissistic criminal or a complete fool.

Bluntly Put's picture

I followed the path of academic conformity in engineering getting a bachelors and then a masters degree and suffered a twenty year career of layoffs and pain in the "corporate" system. If you are an independent thinker, then the corporate world is not for you. Then I tried consulting, for that you need marketing saavy something you don't learn in the technical education system, and being able to golf a decent game helps along with various forms of nepotism.

These problems have been lying beneath this sham of an economy for 30 years as the credit bubble was blown, fake money (err credit) destroys sensibility and undermines talent and skill. The real talents in our economy are deception and fraud look around people.

A guy I knew in High School never went to college, he began working with an architectural salvage firm. I laughed at first at his choice, now many years later he is looking like a fricking genius.

tedog's picture

This...I followed the exact same path- bachelors and Ph.D. in a hard science and all I got was an economy that doesn't appear to value anything more than an ability to bulls**t people...hopefully someday this will all change, but I won't hold my breath...

FrankDrakman's picture

You are both a pair of whiners. I studied engineering as well, and worked in telecom for many years, usually in a sales support role. I used to sneer at the salespeople for being glad handers, and bullshitters, and muffin men, and yes, golfers, who didn't know a damn thing about the technology they were selling. I thought they were overpaid - vastly - for what they did.

Until I went into sales. That's where I found that a whole bunch of skills they can't teach you at school are very important - how to create rapport with a total stranger (hint: It's way tougher than "Hot enough for ya?" or "How 'bout them Dogs?"), how to lead a prospect to a sale at the prospect's pace, not your own, and how to close a sale so that it seems like the natural evolution of things and not a gimmick ("Would you like it in red or blue?"). After many years of scraping by, I'm only just getting a modicum of success, and I still don't consider myself an excellent - hell, I'm not even good - salesman. A truly good salesman is fairly rare, and they earn the money they make.

Note well: I do not include con men in my definition of salesmen. If you are knowingly selling stuff you know is crap ("AAA mezzanine CDO's", 'gold' ETF's stuffed with paper and not bullion, etc.), then you are a con man, and deserve whatever the mobs dish out to you. Unfortunately, in today's age, we seem to venerate con men (cf Kardashians, the Lloyd and Jamie show, Bambam, etc., etc., ad nauseum) much more than we do salesmen. More's the pity.

drcherry's picture

All you have to do to be sucessful is have the best performace in your chosen field of endevor. Probably the only way to acheve that is to enjoy what you do. I worked in water reclamation and several of the treatment plant operators regularly earned over $100,000 per year through overtime. 

tedog's picture

Bulls** least that's my experience

El Viejo's picture

High Speed, future through the windshield, Drive-In Kabuki Theatre.

Rube Goldberg runaway chain of events.


penexpers's picture

These are the voyages of the Scamship Lenderprise...

tony bonn's picture

"...I am always looking for the self-motivated person who can do the work, regardless of their credentials or lack thereof...."

god bless you!!!! and thank god that someone has critical thinking skills!!! when i was a hiring manager, i had to turn away over half of my candidates because they could not pass a company mandated iq test....they all had at least one degree and some were actually qualified for the job....bottom line is that a credential in many cases is not indicative of capability....besides, a bacc only indicates entry level competency - if that.....yet so many hr / hiring managers make decisions based upon the degree...

as for the value of advanced degrees - again it depends upon the business it is mostly a much work is highly prescribed that a fucktard could (and frequently) do it....

and then i see fucktarded recruiters and hiring managers looking for masters in computer science for managers and directors when the job profile is all about managing responsibilities and technical requirement something which any 2-5 year programmer would posess....the last time i looked, such programs were heavy on math, algorithms, and technology and very light on unless the companies want to hire a fancy programmer, it is all a complete waste....

which leads me to my final point - so much education is misallocated and a horrible waste of capital.....i am not in favor of ignorance but requiring the first 2 years of college for any job is grossly irresponsible from an roi perspective....i have yet to use anything but rhetoric - political science, math, science, history, art, etc etc have no market place value for most business jobs.....roi is negative on a strictly tangible is a racket and its peddlers should be prosecuted on rico charges...


sgt_doom's picture

Well, all I can say is thank goodness you're not in charge of appoint the Speaker of the House (John Boner, or Boehner) who washed out of US Navy boot camp, then falsely and fraudulently claimed military service during Vietnam.

Yup, otherwise we might have ended up with a non-douchetard in congress.....

Ident 7777 economy's picture

According to the Wikipedia article on him, he got discharged from the Navy because of back problems.


But that shouldn't stop you from spreading Bu**sh*t across the internet ...


Gringo Viejo's picture

I'm currently enrolled at Heald in the Piss Boy curriculum. My student advisor tells me after 1 year and $20,000, I should be able to "make it there, make it anywhere".

Beam Me Up Scotty's picture


sangell's picture

I worked for a municipal utility and we often found it hard to find qualified candidates in the blue collar trades. In part this was because they thought they could make more in the private sector ( and at the time many could) but also because of the requirements we had to impose on our workers. Random drug testing, mandatory overtime, being on call and  working in a more bureaucratic organization didn’t make up for being recession proof to many ( at the time).


The other problem was few young people wanted to work in blue collar trades. It was  seen as low status work even if you could make more money. The work wasn’t in an office but outside, often at height or in dirty confined spaces and , on occasion dangerous.Not what a lot of young people had come to expect from life. Still, you made $50-80k a year, 20 days vacation you could actually take, and after 30 years a pension.


therearetoomanyidiots's picture

WHo cares about working, President for Life Obamney is giving me food stamps, welfare and Obamacare..."who could ask for anything more..."


Actually I love the CHS columns and he tends to hit the nail squarely on the head just about every time.

New England Patriot's picture

The secret to work is to find things that people need help with, and offer your services.


Today's economy is needlessly complex. In many ways, it is about administrating a convoluted system, of divying real resources over and over and over again by people who A) create little to nothing of real value, or B) add little to no real value to what has already been created.


As the economic situation deteriorates, real demand for labor is going to descend Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. People are always going to need food, water, shelter, and then safety, security, and community. Facilitating these things will always be in demand. The trick is that many people get duped into wanting a more "advanced" economic lifestyle, and get bought-off by the "system" to become needlessly specialized on the upper echelon of the Hierarchy. It worked in the 90's, but maybe not in the 10's.


My recommendation to my peers (being under 30 myself) is to find something that will always be in demand. That way, even during hard times, people will still look to you for help, and you won't have to become a drain on your community. Young people need to resist the urge to make themselves so specialized that they become a poor fit for simple, lean times.



DavidC's picture

Great piece and genuine thinking outside the box.


carbonmutant's picture

The trick is to acquire "Transportable" skills...

bourbondave's picture

The example of unfairness is some fool who gets a PHD in Medieval History complaining about not getting a job?  Seriously?

robertocarlos's picture

Core jobs can run the economy. The rest of us will have to make do with govt credits. However, there will be no govt jobs at all, not even to administer the credits, just credits.

robertocarlos's picture

Taxpayers? We don't need no stinkin' taxpayers.

jonjon831983's picture

Essential jobs, probably aren't that secure.  If in worsening scenario neighborhoods start crumbling, the need for these essential services will dry up.  If a neighborhood forecloses, why would the city pay to keep infrastructure running in that area?