Enhancing your skills sets you on the road to a better career

The questions I set out to explore in this blog were:

  • Are there viable career paths for humanities-oriented people in the current high-tech dominated job market?
  • Can humanities-oriented people genuinely add something of real value to a high-tech company?”

The questions are closely related. If humanities-oriented employees can bring real value to employers then the existence of viable career paths is more likely.

The answers to these questions are yes and yes, as attested by the fact that thousands of humanities people are happily employed even as we speak. Of course there is also the unfortunate fact that many humanities people are not happily employed. The good news is that there is abundant reason to hope that the unhappily employed can change their situation. How to change from unhappy or non-employment to happier employment is what we will talk about today.

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Based on my research as well as my own experience I find that in order for a humanities person to enjoy a successful career with a high-tech company, most of us will have to enhance our skills beyond whatever we learned to achieve a college degree. We have to be able to offer the company something they need, something that will increase their bottom line. Yes, we are all extremely intelligent, well-rounded, high-quality interesting human beings with excellent writing and communication skills. But often this is not enough to get hired – unless of course you have a personal connection such as being the favorite niece of the best friend of the CEO. Honestly, in my experience this frequently the way people get their foot in the door.

But perhaps just as often employers just want to hire someone who can demonstrate that they understand the industry and the needs of the company and that they have at least exerted effort to acquire skills that will help the company. With today’s technology – YouTube, free online courses, blogs, ebooks, and all manner of social media groups – learning new skills and demonstrating those skills to potential employers easier and more fun than ever before.

About a year ago I helped my son get his first job after high school. Aaron did not want to take out loans to go to college. He wanted to attend community college part time and work, preferably in a job involving photography, something he loved doing. But even his resume-expert mother could not have gotten him such a job if he had not put in the time and effort to acquire photography skills and a portfolio to prove it. He saved his dollars and bought his first camera at a pawn shop. He spent many hours watching YouTube videos on photography skills and he spent many more hours practicing different photography techniques.

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One of the photos that helped my son get his first job.

He volunteered to be the official photographer for a local reggae band. Never mind that the musicians were his best friends. You take advantage of what resources you have on hand. He posted his photographs on Instagram. He socialized with other photographers and exchanged techniques. We started a blog to feature some of his nature photography. Then I was able to help him create a resume, with links to his band videos on YouTube, his Instagram account, and the blog. He emailed the resume to a local portrait studio and got his first job.

If this approach can work for a kid with only a high school education and no work experience, it can work even better for those with a college degrees who want a decent-paying job in a high-tech industry. As James Mulvey explains in his book How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days, it helps to research the kinds of jobs that are out there and what the skills for these jobs might be. (If you are discouraged about your career prospects or just need a little guidance, inspiration, or a kick in the pants, I highly recommend you get this book. I got the Kindle version from Amazon.)You probably have relevant experience for many jobs, but you need to put a little effort into refining that experience so that you have something specific to show and tell and put on your resume.

Mulvey’s book includes a couple of useful lists of career titles (which he got from http://www.payscalecom): one for English and humanities and other creative majors and another for history, political science, sociology, and any filed that is more data- and analysis-oriented. For those of us who are both creative and analytical, some of jobs appear in both lists!

Careers for English/Humanities/Creative Types

  • Web Content Specialist
  • Communications Director
  • Managing Editor
  • Proofreader
  • Senior Copywriter
  • Copywriter (Advertising)
  • Social Media Manager
  • Public Relations (PR) Specialist
  • Editorial Assistant
  • Technical Writer
  • Publications Editor
  • Senior Technical Writer
  • Assistant Editor
  • Web Content Editor
  • Grant Writer
  • Proposal Manager
  • Legal Secretary
  • Paralegal/Legal Assistant

I would add graphic artist, web designer, illustrator, and photographer to this list.

Careers for History/Social Sciences/Analysis-Oriented Types

  • Intelligence Analyst
  • Data Analyst
  • Financial Aid Counselor
  • Paralegal/Legal Assistant
  • Insurance Claims Adjuster
  • Technical Writer
  • Operations Manager
  • Program Manager, Non-Profit Organization
  • Human Resources (HR) Manager
  • Grant Writer
  • Contract Specialist
  • Contract Administrator
  • Executive Assistant
  • Personal Banker
  • Employment Recruiter
  • Outside Sales Rep
  • Insurance Sales Agent
  • Inside Sales Rep

Obviously some of these jobs, such as Insurance Claims Adjuster, are industry-specific. Many of them however are needed by different kinds of companies. The skills for many of them can be learned online, by reading, or by going to industry events and networking with people. You can also practice many of the skills you will learn on your own or as a service to someone you know, a church, or a charitable organization.

Perhaps there are some people who think it is unfair that after four or eight years of college you have to go back and do further training. But it’s not unfair. It’s the way the job market is for everybody in a world where technology changes at a rapid pace. Even those with Computer Science degrees have to constantly update their skills and get certifications. If you think you learning happens at one time in your life and a great career happens in another, maybe it’s time to update your expectations. But for most humanities learning new things for the rest of our lives is not a problem. Learning is what we’re all about.

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Great resource for humanities grads in career morass

imageI have discovered a fantastic book about career paths for liberal arts people. In fact it is so fantastic that it pretty much covers what I was going to explore in this blog. The book is called How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days by James Mulvey, who also runs a website/blog called SellOutYourSoul.com.  Mulvey sells the book for 25 bucks on his site by I got it free through my Kindle Unlimited account.

There are a few differences in focus between Mr. Mulvey and me. I do not believe it is ever necessary to sell out your soul, but then he is probably saying that tongue in cheek. Maybe. Also, this book is targeted to liberal arts grads, either BAs or those with advanced degrees, who are in their mid to late twenties, in a career morass, stuck in a crappy job, unable to find employment in a job befitting their excellent education and high intelligence, and unsure what to do next. I am more focused on the rest of us liberal arts grads who are in their 30s and beyond, who are stuck in a career ghetto, and feeling undervalued in the high-tech career market. But I think the advice and guidance in this book applies to both groups.

In the early part of the book Mulvey provides to lists of possible career paths: one for English/Communications/Creative Writing/artsy types and another for History/Social Sciences/analytical researchy types. I found the job title Technical Writer in both lists. Well hello. That happens to be my job title! So since all the great advice I was going to talk about on this blog is already in this book, I got to thinking about my personal experience, how I ended up pursuing the career I did. Then I realized that “pursue” is entirely the wrong word for what occurred. A more accurate term would be “drifted into” and if I have learned anything by being a tech writer it is to be accurate.

At the company I work for they insist we all identify our personal values (and hopefully align them with the company’s values.) Align is one of the many special words I have learned in my high tech career world. Some others with very special meanings are requirement, stakeholder, sprint, and agile. I admit I laughed at some of these words when I was first exposed to them but then I found out the high tech world does not think they are funny. It’s part of working in an alien culture. You have to learn their ways. As G.K. Chesterton says, “A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it.”

So anyway, my top values are truth and honesty. My truth is always expressed most accurately when I am writing. Something about writing causes the truth serum in my veins to go on turbocharge. If I don’t want to be too revealing the best I can do is leave things out entirely. This may be why I have difficulty with writing fiction. So when I tell you the story of how I drifted into a career in technical writing, it is going to be true and accurate. My next post will be “How it all began…” Unless I change my mind.

On the value of humanities in the work place

I’ve been trying to track job opening data but, being a humanities type person, I am more interested in the foundations and cultural implications of the subject than the raw data. Not that raw data is unimportant. I made a spreadsheet and everything, but every time I start working on the research  I sense a question hovering near my ear. It goes something like this: “In a job market like the current one, who in their right mind chooses to major in English, Philosophy, or Medieval History?” The unspoken implication is that if you are that unwise or that stubborn, you deserve to end up underemployed.

So damn it, I am going address that hovering question – even if it is only coming from my annoying superego. (Why yes! I did take Psych 101 in college!) There are as many answers to why people major in liberal arts as there are liberal arts majors. For one thing, the job market has not always been like it is now and will certainly change many times over our lifetimes. When I was an English major back in the 1980s, majoring in Computer Science was an almost exotic choice.

Once a good friend told me she was studying “data processing” and tried to explain to me what that was. I wondered why in the world anyone would study data processing when they could be reading great books or taking Art History. Of course the answer was two words: job market. I was perhaps unusual in that I did not think in terms of job market even though I rarely had two nickels to rub together. I mean God knows I was acutely aware you had to work to get money. I was always balancing two or three part-time jobs with my course load. I simply could not connect the heavenly joys of learning with something as mundane as making a living. Call it a mental gap.

But even among normal people, few of us anticipated the tectonic shifts in work and culture that were on the horizon. Even if we could now assume the job market has more or less stabilized, which we can’t, do we really want all a college students to train for computer engineering or some equally technically-oriented trade? The purpose of a humanities education is to absorb and preserve the best parts of human intellectual history, philosophical thought, and artistic culture, and to be able to pass these treasures on to future generations. Just because the human race has chosen to connect our commerce, institutions, and healthcare to a cyber monster that requires armies of technicians to feed and maintain, does that mean we need to throw all past human accomplishment overboard?  “Sorry Shakespeare – your relevance has expired. We have cool technology now and we need all the smart people to write code.”

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Train container. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Perhaps we have lost sight of the concept that the internet is just a container. The purpose of a container is to contain something. A structure serves the content it is built to deliver. If all our college graduates are co-opted to develop and maintain the framework, who is going to create, analyze, and in the end, even understand the content?

This wonderful global connective tissue exists to display information, video, music, pictures, and words that communicate something of real value to human minds. There are plenty of people willing and able to focus on meaningful content, even meaningful content for purposes other than getting you to spend money. Lots of smart people want to study and interpret literature and art of the past, to generate new ideas and create art for our times, to study human nature, to contemplate the meaning of life, to find ways to make life better for more people. Who wouldn’t want to do these things?

But great numbers of brilliant minds, minds belonging to people who lack independent wealth (i.e., people who need to make a living), are herded into careers they are told the market needs and are then kept busy 60 hours a week maintaining cyber infrastructure. I don’t mean to imply that most computer professionals are not happy in their work. Some people are born for that stuff. But other people are also born for something other than engineering. Many of these other people decide to stay true to their hearts, to study something they truly love. Then they face a job market that is, at best, lukewarm to what they have to offer.

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Railroad tracks in Suffolk Virginia. Photo by Aaron Apple.

 

I saw an article on Monster.com called High-Paying Jobs for Generalists by Paul W. Barada, Monster Salary and Negotiation Expert. The tone of the article makes it clear that the job market is going to be tough for liberal arts majors for the foreseeable future. However, the article says, if you cultivate the correct qualities: “…initiative, self-confidence, leadership, compatibility with others, positive attitude, social skills/interests/involvement, integrity, communication skills…” you just might be able to talk someone into giving you a so-so paying job in management, real estate, sales, or financial services. I have to think the vast majority of liberal arts grads have already developed most if not all of these qualities. These are just the qualities of a decent human being and the study of humanities tends to cultivate some pretty decent humans.

Besides, why would a software engineer not need to cultivate qualities such as integrity and compatibility with others? I may be reading too much into this little article but it’s as if your education, if it’s not the “right” kind, is not enough. You have to be extraordinary in other ways to make up for the flaw of having gotten a degree in the wrong thing. I suppose the author is merely reporting the truth of the job market. I don’t fault the messenger for the message.

I would just like to point out that the job market is very sort sighted if companies fail to seek out and cultivate at least a few liberal arts majors. They are creating a city with no inhabitants, a railroad that goes nowhere, a strip mall with empty store fronts, films that are nothing but special effects, websites with no either no content or not enough substantial content. After a while consumers are going to get tired of toys, bells, and whistles. They may decide to turn off the computer and go out to their backyard or front porch where then can find direct connection with real things, like dandelions and neighbors.

Kicking off my job opportunity research: List of companies

Here is the list of companies for which I am tracking advertised job openings. Most are high-tech because this is the sector I am most interested in.

  • Microsoft
  • Apple
  • IBM
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Verizon
  • Xerox
  • Comcast
  • Lockheed Martin
  • General Dynamics
  • General Electric
  • AT&T
  • United Technologies
  • Google
  • Wal-Mart
  • Home Depot
  • Walgreens
  • Amazon
  • Hilton Worldwide Holdings
  • Mariott

This initial sampling of companies is to get a feel for existing job opportunities for liberal arts people. It is far from scientific but I think it will get my research started. I will probably add to the list. I work for a much smaller high-tech company that employs about 300 people, including me with my B.A. in English. I know there are hundreds and hundreds of small tech companies, and these are where most people will find employment. I guess I figure smaller companies look to the big ones for models of success. I suppose you have to be successful to become big. Also big companies pay a massive amount of money for advertising and also get a lot of free press, so they have the platform to be trendsetters in industry.

So here goes. I’ll let you know what I find out. Currently researching Verizon.

Humanities students in a high-tech world: Who are we and why are we here?

contemplationLet us consider a special person: the student of liberal arts. I am including all the traditional areas of humanities education: history, English, classical or any language studies, linguistics, literature, comparative religion, theology, philosophy (especially philosophy) – anything that is about getting at the truth and understanding the big picture rather than focused training in a technical skill. The tent I am building is wide and tall – all you gender studies, psychology, political science, and communications folks come in. Heck, I’ll even include some of the less practical sciences– astronomy, theoretical physics, anthropology people – all are welcome. And of course I welcome with open arms all creative people: visual artists, musicians, performance artists, and especially creative writers of all kinds.

In fact if you are dedicated to learning for the sake of achieving a better understanding of the human race and not just going through the necessary steps to get a paycheck or cement your social status, come on in. Lawyers, doctors – you guys probably have more important things to do. Unless of course you are studying law because you are purely interested in law as a concept – I would be happy to accept a sincere legal philosopher, but would prefer legalistic philosophers to keep their distance.

In today’s high-tech world and employment environment, who is this person who ignores conventional wisdom and chooses to spend time, effort, and money to study a subject that is not, shall we say, strong in market value? She is the person who has the determination, vision, or simply the desire not allow the current marketplace dictate all the important decisions of her life. In my case it might have been stupidity, but that was a long time ago and we need not go there. I got a degree in English and only later learned the full value of this kind of education.

The student of the liberal arts is someone who follows her heart. She wants to invest her time in the study of something she knows has longstanding, even eternal, value – something that reveals something important about being part of the human race. It’s not that she ignores the necessity of making a living. She simply chooses to rely on faith that a study which reveals something true about being human must surely have relevance to anything humans do, and what humans do includes work.

My current project is researching possible career paths for liberal arts or humanities people. I say “people” and not “majors” because I do not want to focus only on current college students or recent college graduates. I include workers of all ages with a humanities rather than a technical orientation. I have a theory that we are a different breed from the technical crowd, although I also believe there are plenty of hybrids. And some of us who have been in the work world for a while have become hybrids out of necessity.

I also include under my umbrella another group: the self-educated. I firmly believe that it is not only possible but common to become a well-educated person without getting a college degree. All you have to do is read, think, read some more, and consciously interact with humanity. And then you have read some more. And if you have conversations with other people about what you read and think about, all the better. If you write about it, better yet.

My initial research about career paths for was discouraging. I know I talk idealistically about the value of learning for its own sake, but the point of my project is to find out if people who value such learning can also make a decent living.  Because artists and scholars have to eat too, and I don’t think we should all be condemned to lives of ramen noodles and thrift store wardrobes. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with those things. Anyway, all the articles indicated that if you get a liberal arts degree you better also learn to code. Or get an MBA.

And then I ran into a genuine ray of sunshine – in Forbes Magazine of all places. In the August 17, 2015 issue Forbes ran an article entitled That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket. The article says that job growth in things like marketing and tech educators is growing and expecting to balloon in the coming years, and smart CEOs are beginning to appreciate the abilities of liberal arts graduates in filling these kinds of positions. The article features an innovative software company called Slack Technologies, the CEO of which has a degree in Philosophy. Here’s a quote from this encouraging little article:

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2022 some 1 million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators. Another 1.1 million newcomers will earn a living in sales. Such opportunities won’t be confined to remedial teaching or store cashiers. Each wave of tech will create fresh demand for high-paid trainers, coaches, workshop leaders and sales people. Be contrast, software engineers’ ranks will grow by 279,500, or barely 3% of overall job growth.”

You say you don’t relish the idea of working in sales? Well sure, I get that. But the point is high-tech companies are beginning to recognize people you are looking at the big picture and are able draw on a broad education to seek innovative solutions to marketing challenges. Software engineers are great people but their job requires them to bore down deeply into narrow tunnels. Some of us prefer to climb out of the hole, look at horizons, and follow untraveled paths. This is a real ray of hope those of us who love to study truth and things but still need to pay the rent, raise a family, and even someday drive a late-model car.

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Beginning my journey: Exploring career paths for liberal arts people

It is sometimes difficult to perceive the vaguest connection between my current job as a tech writer in a software development company and my liberal arts education, but occasionally the pathways of my mind and the requirements of the job meet up in interesting ways. Currently the company I work for is interested in improving its career development program, and I have a special project to explore the role of liberal arts people in high tech companies. Yay. A project I can (sort of) love.

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My first foray into the research has been both encouraging and discouraging. I perceive that high-paying employers are not exactly living up at the doors of English majors. No surprises there. But I have found an article or two that seem to indicate that some companies do value what they call “soft” skills like communication, critical thinking, and writing. I am guessing the situation is similar for history, poli-sci, communications, psychology and many other disciplines – but I’d plan to look into several majors and compare experiences. My research has really only just begun. I will leave no stone unturned concerning the employment situation for liberal arts people by the time I am done.

I happen to have my degree in English. It has actually served me fairly well in my career but then, I graduated college way back in the 1980s when the job market was vastly different. When I got out of college I actually used the Washington Post Help Wanted ads as my primary source for job leads. Also I typed my resume on a Sears Selectric typewriter and pounded the sidewalks seeking a writing position without a computer skill to my name.

But have liberal arts or any arts ever really been in high demand in any job market? My guess is rarely if ever. I suspect that artists and writers who have become famous are the few, and those who have become rich are the fewer. Drawing on my knowledge of history, it seems to me that artists in past centuries relied heavily on finding patrons, rich people willing to hire or fund their work. Or they were dependent on government or church funding. Regularly paying jobs for artists, writers, and historians were never abundant and people who loved artistic and scholarly disciplines loved them for reasons that had nothing to do with the necessity of earning a living.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful book Big Magic she cautions creative people not to ask their art to support them financially. Financial support, she says, is too heavy a burden for the creative muse. Creativity responds to things like curiosity, passion, and love. It freezes up, cringes in the corner, or simply flies away when mean old Mr. Necessity comes to call. Sometimes it ends up felicitously that your art does end up paying the bills. But don’t ask it to. Just feel thankful if it happens.

But we artists, history lovers, and pure scholars need to eat too. Gilbert advises us to find some other way to pay to the bills. Free up your creativity to do its thing without that pressure. She herself worked as a waitress until she found some success with her writing. I find this idea liberating. A big part of the angst of creative people is that we think someone ought to pay us to do what we want to do, and we get discouraged when the world doesn’t comply. Well the world has never complied with such demands, and maybe that is a good thing. Creativity that is strictly tied to the marketplace must necessarily be limited to the very narrow needs of the current marketplace, and the muse or the scholar angel will always chafe with frustration under that kind of restriction.

Before we go forward, let me stop to define some terms because I seem to be lumping “liberal arts people” with “creative people.” These two types can overlap but do not necessarily overlap. You may be a historical scholar or a curator of artifacts or a political philosopher who does not consider yourself particularly creative. You may think of creatives as crazy flighty people who favor tye-dye clothing and that is not you at all. Fine. I am talking to both groups. I am talking to people who love learning or creativity or life in general in a way that does not fit into the grooves of the current high-tech and customer-service oriented job market. I am talking to people whose personality and abilities do not tend toward engineering or programming computers: people who want to do what they love and dream of getting paid for it. Somehow.

Meanwhile we do have skills and we do have value that can get us a bill-paying job in the marketplace. This purpose project is to find ways to both be true to ourselves and also make a living, maybe even a good living. Sorry I have not gotten down to the nitty-gritty yet, but bear with me. I’m working on it, but first I have to define terms and lay the foundation. It’s just how I am. I am hoping that by looking into some history of life for artists and scholars I can burst open some pathways and find new insights. I do not want us to start inside the tight little 2016 job market. I want us to begin our journey in the vast universe of possibility and bring that vast knowledge with us when we begin dipping our toes into today’s marketplace. We may find we don’t fit. Maybe just a big toe or a pinky finger of our true selves will fit into that container, but that may be enough to get us a job that pays the bills.

An interesting article:

Attitudes toward traditional education / Common Core / colleges as techno-vocational schools (by Peter Lawler):

Silicon Valley: Trashing the Liberal Arts

 

My project: Researching Liberal Arts Career Paths in a High-Tech Marketplace

agile documentation cartoonThe software development company I work for has a strategic goals for the year to improve its career development program. We’ll call this company Softco until I decide it is safe or get permission to reveal its real name. To support this company goal I have a project for the next few months to research the role of liberal arts people in high-tech industry, both in general and as it applies to Softco. What a challenge! So I thought I might get started by jotting down some initial thoughts on the subject. I should mention that my degree, dating from the 1980s, is English and for the last 20 years or so I have worked as a technical writer/editor and as a graphic artist. I feel fortunate that my English degree has enabled me to put food on the table and pay the mortgage, but I have often felt a bit limited in my job prospects. So without further ado, here are those initial thoughts…..

Thousands upon thousands of people are going to college or have gone to college to acquire computer and business degrees because everybody knows these are the skills employers want. I am somewhat distressed that the concept of education has so completely descended to the level of preparing to market yourself to employers but I guess that train left the station long ago. So far all the articles I have found about education have focused on how to prepare for the job market. I may comment about it from time to time – just to get it off my chest – but let’s not spend to much time bemoaning the sad state of affairs and figure out how best to live in the world  as we find it.

A co-worker at Softco once said to me, “I have been interested in technology all my life.” How fortunate when one’s personal passions coincide perfectly with the needs of society. I’m afraid when the interest cards were dealt I did not draw such a fortunate hand. Not only have I not always been interested in technology but I am still not particularly interested in technology per se. Oh, I think technology is cool enough. I am happy with my iPhone and thrilled that whenever a stray question passes through my mind I can immediately Google it and satisfy my curiosity.

Unfortunately, today’s question: “What is the role of liberal arts majors in high-tech industry?” did not immediately yield any satisfying answers. If you are hoping for a list of fantastic high-paying employers eagerly seeking Philosophy majors, we are going to have to dig into the situation a little more deeply and it may take a while. I promise that any information on this blog is going to be as real as I can make it. I am not trying to make money here or entice readers with castles in the sky. If there is anything encouraging in the job market we will ferret it out, but the main thing we are going to ferret out is the truth. Once we know the truth, we will be in the best possible position to deal with it.

An outline for this project is beginning to form in my mind. I thought starting a blog would help me to stay motivated and organized. Also if I find a reader or two, maybe someone will have something to add to the conversation. I am afraid the developing outline could lead to a book rather than a mere paper. Being a holistic big-picture liberal arts thinker I cannot separate the topic of “Liberal arts majors in high-tech industry” from”What do we mean by ‘liberal arts’?” and “The role of education throughout history” and also “education versus training.” Also, how are humans valued in our culture apart from the pay we can draw in the marketplace?

I wasn’t born yesterday. I understand what business is and what it means to be employed by a business. No one wants to pay you for being a well-rounded well-educated person with a deep understanding of poetry – unless you can show them that you can help them increase their profit margin. To be employed you must serve the purpose of business, which not matter how it is dressed up and whatever cute façade you put on it, is to make money. Of course you can work for a non-profit or for government, but you must always be aware that government and non-profits ultimately get their funding from business. And then there are different kinds of business: real producers such as farmers and manufacturers, and business that serve the real producers, and businesses that create needs where no need existed before.