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.
When I began school, I was put in a class with kids who also had similar troubles. I thought I was just extra smart because I was put in "Special" Education. Even more so because my name is Ed; get it, "Special Ed"?
When I started school I got moved up a grade quicker then everyone else because there was no Special Education class in kindergarten. I was the youngest in the whole school, and no one wanted to hang with me at recess. I was not alone for long. I became friends with He-Man. Actually, I studied the cartoon to learn the ropes of life. I watched on TV how He-Man would fight someone, and then they always became friends afterwards.
In junior high I learned what being in Special Ed really meant. I remember sitting down on the bus and glancing over to some elementary school kid's homework. Since I was obviously older, he asked me for help with his assignment. I couldn't believe it, this kid was on timetables, and I was still in pluses and minuses. He had spelling words like "forbidden;" mine were words like "cow."
Before, I thought the other kids teased me because they were jealous. After the bus ride, I knew otherwise. At parent-teacher meetings they would tell my mom as nicely as they could, "Your son gets along with other classmates pretty well...but he is not very bright."
By eighth grade the Special Ed class had had it with the teasing, and we got together during break times to back each other up. We walked around school like a gang, and the rejection was temporarily made bearable by our unity. We felt like we ruled the campus, until high school hit and we all went to different schools.
The high school education system had given up on me before I even got there. While mainstream classes were having discussions and learning, Special Ed students were stuck watching the "Little Mermaid" for the umpteenth time and having crossword puzzles for homework. My senior year math teacher told me all I had to do was show up and I would pass. I spent that year reading comic books.
Towards the end of high school I wanted to learn a lot of things, but the counselors said I was better off just take vocational training. I pleaded my case, that I wanted to know what others my age knew, but they said I had two choices--take the class they offered or drop out.
I took the class, and it was cool. We all got stoned every day and still passed. At the end of the year in the parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told my mother that "Edward is very well known, but he is still at a sixth-grade learning level." He told my mother I was particularly bad at math, so I should not get a job as a cashier. He said that she should not expect much out of me. At the end, the teacher offered hope: "He is doing well at his welding class, so maybe he should be a welder."
In college, it was called the disabled program. Once I got used to being labeled "disabled" it wasn't so bad. If I wanted to milk it, I could have gotten a parking pass, even though I have no physical disability.
At De Anza Community College I was doing great in all my classes. Hell, I was doing better in the mainstream classes than any of the ones I had been forced into because of my learning disability. I was really looking forward to taking computer classes. Because of my label, they said I could not take them until I completed tests. At the end of a two-week testing spree, they had a meeting with me and said, "Look, we know its nice to go around saying you go to college, but college is not for everyone and you're not De Anza material."
So, once again, I was faced with a tough choice. I could try sticking it out at De Anza until the teachers blacklisted me, or, like many other college dropouts, move on my own and tell all those people to shove it.
That's where I am at today. Just like everyone else my age, I am doing temp work in Silicon Valley. I have had at least ten different temp jobs in the last few years. I never really wanted to do manufacturing and assembly work--it is real boring -- but I have to pay the bills. I have built computer monitors, made boxes for printers, and shipped computers.
None of these jobs offered any training on how to use the technology we worked on. The computer skills I have now, I learned from teaching myself. I am also a staff writer and organizer for "Silicon Valley Youth Outlook," part of a Bay Area monthly publication. We are giving young temp workers a platform to express their unheard voices. I am learning HTML to put Silicon Valley YO! on the web. Oh, by the way, the first thing I did after school was go out and get a cashier's job.