Career inspiration from Hollywood and Jimmie Smits

Hollywood does not adequately portray technology careers

Money, glamour, excitement, and an office full of gorgeous co-workers–anyone want that job?  Hollywood may have more influence on career choice than anyone imagines.  Sure, viewers might understand young doctors could be drowning in debt, not all lawyers have hot bodies, and detectives have to do paperwork, but in a perfect world a TV-life could happen!  Well, it doesn’t hurt to dream.

Years ago, I had a graduate school professor who blamed the shortage of engineers on Hollywood.  More specifically, he blamed the hit TV show L.A. Law.
“We’d have more engineers if the top show was L.A. Engineer,” he joked. The legal drama L.A. Law ran for eight seasons (1986-1994) and featured wealthy and good-looking characters, including hunks Harry Hamlin and Jimmie Smits.  Those (fictional) guys had it all!

At about the same time, an action series named MacGyver (1985-1992) entertained viewers of a handsome (fictional) secret agent by the same name with a military background and science degree.  He applied scientific knowledge and improvisational skills to solve difficult problems, and frequently relied on a pocket knife and duct tape to escape from life-threatening situations.

“All we (engineers) have is MacGyver,” my professor used to say.  His implication was clear–MacGyver was too cheesy to be taken seriously.  Like an engineer, the MacGyver character exuded problem-solving skills.  Unlike L.A. Law, however, the situations weren’t real.

I remember laughing at the time.  How many people used TV characters as a source of inspiration for their career choice?

Apparently, a lot.

Also in the 1990s, I had the unusual experience of hearing James Doohan speak at NASA.  The famous actor had played the role of “Scotty” in the original Star Trek series.  I have no idea whether celebrities commonly make guest appearances of this sort, but my early employment at the government agency intersected with the actor’s visit.

I doubt I had the same level of interest as my peers, but the actor held the attention of the large audience with a number of stories, accents (including a Scotsman), and humor.  Amidst his tales as “the actor who played Scotty,” he remarked that many young people over the years had thanked him for introducing them to engineering.  The actress who played the part of Nurse Chapel also received similar credit for representing the field of nursing.  Imagine that!  For all the ground-breaking “firsts” of Star Trek, career guidance ranked high enough to make it into an hour presentation.

When I started working on my now failed career guidance website, I conducted a fair amount of primary research to identify the resources high school students utilized to learn about potential career options.  As expected, most relied on friends and family.  However, when I pushed one rising high school senior on his methods for career discovery, he unflinchingly offered “I plan to watch more TV my senior year to get better ideas on what I could do with my life.”

I suppose every market researcher has a Scooby-Doo moment once in her life.  That was mine.  Yet, I was struck by the seriousness of the boy’s tone.  He meant what he said.  I had assumed YouTube or the web would have been a more highly regarded influence.  Nope, TV.  I guess James Doohan wasn’t lying about his character’s influence on career decisions.

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