Big Picture

23 Mar 2004

Paul R. Potts

So… lots going on. I have not been called in to my hourly work for a week This means a money crisis, as we have no savings and no heath insurance, and some ongoing medical issues in the family. My hope was to continue in this hourly position for a while longer, earning enough 1099-MISC to keep us afloat, and spend the rest of my time looking for a more secure job or at least securing more freelance work, and possibly plan a bigger career transition.

Now… I don’t know. Taxes are going to be a stone bitch this year, and next year, if we haven’t abandoned our apartment and gone underground, even worse. I was earning enough to live on, but not enough to pay the taxes on my take-home.

I have applied for a position at the University of Michigan again, this time in Bioinformatics. I got myself a copy of the O’Reilly book on BLAST to study up a bit. It could be an interesting job. The description primarily asks for C++ and object-oriented design experience, which I have, but also mentions Linux desktop support. That seems a bit unfocused, but it could work, I suppose. It seems to me that if the hiring party understood current Bioinformatics tools, he or she would be asking for Perl experience. I’ve used Perl some, but not all that much. I started looking at some of the BLAST algorithms and they look interesting; I could see working on optimizing them in C++, or even implementing them in Dylan, which would be a lot nicer, and could be speed-competitive.

I’m also concerned because I’m not sure the University can pay me enough anymore. They advance salaries very slowly; 15 years of experience may not count for much where U-M pay grades are concerned. I can’t be earning what I was earning ten years ago. I should be applying for grade 9 or 11 jobs. I haven’t seen a grade 11 technology position on U-M’s web site in a long time.

To put it in perspective, in 1990 I took my first serious job (ignoring a year’s internship after graduation and a brief stint as a word processor) at the University of Michigan’s Office of Instructional Technology at about $25,250. After three years I took my first job in the commercial sector starting at $40,000. After seven more years and a couple more jobs, by mid-2000 my salary had crept up to $48,000 at the University.

I had a spike in income while working at InterConnect, a small web services company, during the 2000 boom, but that position only lasted for a year. And since then I haven’t really earned any more than I was earning in 2000. I have also not had a retirement program of any kind, decent vacation, or good health coverage (and now I have none).

Plot it against cost of living in Ann Arbor: my income is going down. I know that there are a lot of people here who make less than I do; I’m not blind to that. But with the bulk of my disposable income going towards debts, both mine and the debts Grace and I consolidated when we got married, and several thousand in medical bills incurred last year (while I was supposedly fully insured), we sure don’t feel secure, or like we will ever be able to own a home here.

And, yes, I know there are a lot of people around here making far less than I am (or was). I don’t mean to whine. I’ve blown a lot of money over the years and been very irresponsible. I started racking up debt right out of college, and I’ve been fighting against my spending tendencies every since. It seemed that Grace and I had established some patterns and economies, finally: we have no credit cards; we’re in a consolidation program; we no longer really spend all that much. But with no protection against medical expenses and no income security our best efforts are apparently not enough.

I moved here in 1990, and since then housing prices have continued to inflate at a ridiculous level. Outlying suburbs have also become out of reach. Basically, Ann Arbor has failed to properly manage its growth; the city has not insisted on affordable housing and failed to fight sprawl. New development, rather than increasing the density of the town, seems to be appearing mainly in the form of suburban McMansions. Despite their increasing distance from downtown, they are no cheaper, just larger. Nothing has mediated the phenomenon of home-sellers treating their houses and investments and home-sellers apparently willing to take out every more outrageous mortgages to pay for them.

So, we’re considering moving. I liked Ann Arbor, but the decision’s pretty much been made for me. Grace likes Hartford, but I have no real attachment to the Northeast. I’m considering Pittsburgh, because it is inexpensive and seems vital. Carnegie-Mellon pays tuition for staff. They post a lot of tech positions, but most of them appear to be either entry-level or require a Ph.D. I want to see if I can establish some contacts there; I’m not really happy applying for positions cold (for one thing, it never seems to work). I’ve heard good things about Vancouver.

Adding to all this is the fact that I don’t feel Grace and I have our roles straight in this marriage. When I have to focus on housekeeping and homeschooling I can’t put my time into freelance work or job- hunting. This week spent at home has not been very productive. I’m mostly trying to clarify my thoughts and figure out what to do next. That isn’t earning me much money.

Here’s to free-fall. Cheers.

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