Brave New Field - Notes From a Homeland Security Job Search

One afternoon, when our nation's security color code went to orange, a commercial popped up on my TV screen for homeland security training and jobs. It was from a group called the National Institute of Technology (NIT), and it really grabbed me.

I have a high school degree. I am 22 years old. I have worked at least 10 different jobs in Silicon Valley over the last few years. Most recently, I worked at a medical-pharmaceutical company, running cardboard into the machine that makes boxes, labeling the boxes, making sure each box had the right bar code and then packaging them with human blood and chemicals.

Three months ago, the same morning my grandmother died, I was let go. I have been unemployed for some time.

In the NIT commercial, people in uniforms talked about all the new jobs in homeland security. I thought that maybe I could make money, build a career and help out our nation in a time of need -- all without leaving loved ones. I called and made an appointment with the recruiter the next day.

The interview site in San Jose was packed mostly with male applicants of color from around the Bay Area. The recruiter explained that the school costs about $8,000 for a seven-month program that prepares you to be a "Homeland Security Specialist." They had classes ranging from "Tactical Communications" to "Domestic and International Terrorism" to "Emergency Planning and Security Measures."

The literature stated that the Homeland Security Specialist diploma program "helps prepare graduates for careers in the security industry as corporate and government security and safety personnel." I asked the recruiter if I could get a government job and maybe even become a spy. She said, "Yeah, this would be a good place to start."

I found out that the school used to focus on computers, but now it's all about security. The computer field has shrunk so much that homeland security is where the jobs are. Now, with an Orange Alert in place, is the perfect time to get training. The recruiter also emphasized that there were only two spots open.

I left with two packets -- one describing the program's courses and the other about how to get help with tuition. On the cover of the financial aid packet was a picture of this dude holding a wad of cash in his fist. The paperwork also included listings of the types of jobs that are popping up in the homeland security industry. Jobs like "law enforcement," "border patrol," "Homeland Security Officers" and "Critical Infrastructure Assurance Officer," not to mention "Coast Guard civilian jobs" and "Customs Service."

The pay ranged from $12,776 to $142,498 a year, with all jobs aimed at keeping America safe. The packet also listed private sector jobs.

But I noticed that a lot of the jobs were just downloaded from the Internet -- stuff I could have gotten on my own. Worse, the recruiter made it clear that the school can't guarantee a job after the Homeland Security Specialist degree.

After poring over the paperwork and a sleepless night, I came to the conclusion that this was not for me. The cost alone was enough to deter. When I went back to the office and told the interviewer, she was disappointed. She insisted that it would all be good with the financial aid. But I need cash, I need a job now, I told her -- not seven months from now.

Showing me a generic degree, she said, "Now doesn't this look nicer than your high school diploma?" Actually, I thought, if you changed the color and some of the words it looked exactly like my high school diploma. And since there are people with Ph.D.s out there who are unemployed and desperate, getting any of these new homeland security jobs is very competitive, if not impossible, for someone like me.

I asked her what kind of homeland security jobs she could hook me up with now. She brought in an employment specialist who told me that jobs are out there, and how to go about finding them. She said that they would give me information for a security job at Target if I enrolled.

I declined. Driving home, I concluded that the only thing I would gain from the program would be the ability to say I went to school. In the meanwhile, I sometimes sell my blood for money. As for an under-appreciated security job for $8 dollars an hour at Target, I think I can try to get that on my own.

PNS contributor Edward Nieto, 22, is a third-generation Mexican-American who writes for Silicon Valley De-Bug, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a PNS project.

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