All work has value, but I’ve noticed over the last two weeks a lot of chatter about it.
1. Discussion about raising the national minimum wage to $9.00/hour, which we can argue will both help some people and hurt some people. But then, if a person is working over forty hours a week, shouldn’t he be able to cross over the poverty line? How many more hours can a human being physically work to get and stay out of poverty?
2. There is also the up and down conversation about internships. Are they, or should they be, paid work? Or are they creating a type of under-class? I’ve worked for a Fortune 500 apparel company who didn’t pay interns because the “prestige” of working there was enough to get the intern a paying gig in the industry down the line. The reality was only “girls” (because all the interns I ever knew there were female) with financial support from family (or a trust fund) were able to intern. For the most part, these were crummy, tedious, dirty jobs that the divas in PR/Marketing/Design would hand down the pecking order until they landed in the intern’s lap. So we had a type of “pink collar ghetto” amidst the glamor of the Fashion Industry. On the flip side, I worked for another Fortune 500 company that created a very structured internship program placing students in departments where the team was required to give them “real” work, not send them to make copies or get coffee. This company also paid a salary for the summer. One summer we had such a fantastic intern! She was so good that we hired her before she graduated the following year. Which was somewhat ironic, because the next summer we had the WORST intern. Clearly he was a “scrub,” as we later found out he was the son of the CEO’s pal who needed some supervision over the summer while his own CEO parents were traveling. Nice-enough boy, but his “work” was a burden to the team — if he bothered to show up to work at all. All I kept thinking was how this kid was taking a paid job from somebody who really needed one, and that helicopter parents exist on every level. We certainly felt like babysitters, and laughed every time he came back from breakfast of lunch with the CEO. Seems only interns ever broke bread in the C-suite.
3. And now we have talk of “serial internships” in some fields that have replaced what were formerly called entry-level jobs. Their new hiring catch phrase is 22-22-22 (“Hire a 22 year-old who will work 22 hours a day for $22K”). What we are doing is creating a serf class of worker who is young, inexperienced, and so saddled with debt that they devalue themselves by competing in a race to the bottom of the wage pool. Aren’t these young workers supposed to be paying into Social Security to support all us aging Baby Boomers? Don’t we need them to earn enough to do that and grow to be part of the thriving middle class?
4. Now let’s throw two more professions into the mix: law and veterinary medicine. Both of these fields requires years of study and accreditation, and both professions are dealing with a glut of new graduates with poor job prospects. One interesting proposal comes from John Farmer, Dean of Rutgers School of Law, Newark. He proposes newly graduated lawyers complete residencies similar to the programs newly minted doctors follow. In addition to providing work and experience, the focus of the lawyers’ work would be to provide representation to a currently undeserved population: the middle class, ironically. (The argument is that the indigent may qualify for free representation.) The link to his piece published in the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/opinion/to-practice-law-apprentice-first.html?_r=0
The veterinarians have a much deeper problem. Although Americans are spending more discretionary income on their pets, the number of pets are shrinking. In addition, starting salaries for new vets have dropped even as the cost of their education has risen. Flash forward even a few years and consider an older vet hoping to sell a practice and retire. The pool of viable practice buyers won’t be robust enough to take on the investment. Not a good position for either the young or retiring doctor.
My parents and their parents were big believers in education as the stepping stone to a fulfilling life, a life engaged in valuable work ~ certainly valuable enough to be paid a sustainable wage. They respected those who used their hands to physically labor and admired those who used their minds to heal or help those in need. They pushed their children to go as far as they could and to lead by good example. That sentiment seems positively quaint now. But one that still rings as good principle. We stand on their shoulders and should reach back and help the next generation along. We can’t leave them indentured, embittered and withered — not if we want them to care for us in our old age.