Working It: The Internship Has Sailed

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.


11 thoughts on “Working It: The Internship Has Sailed

    1. is this just another was we as a society are prolonging adolescence? Keeping young workers so dependent and not creating ladders/networks for them to climb? We’re going to have a few “rock stars” that get paid astronomical amounts of money and a great, unwashed mass of toilers? Not everybody can start their company at age 18 and sell it/go public. Most of us need sustainable work, and a skill set we can carry around to help us find it.

  1. Excellent words, Rosie. Right now i am working to get our apprentices at our plumbing company more pay for what they are doing. They get paid but it is usually low..in exchange for the experience. But in this place in time it is very hard on most of them.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    This is also the reason i tip ABOVE traditional amounts for many of the same reasons.

    1. Here, here! I’m in agreement with you on the tipping philosophy too. And my theory about plumbers is we can’t have enough of ’em. When you need water, or don’t have water works that are working, civilized life comes to a grinding halt.

    1. Right. And why do people feel it’s a selling point to say they’ll work for less, or for free? Like writers, for example. We have to value work. In a past career life I worked for a very small company and the owner/my boss hired my then- 13 year-old to come in with me 3 days a week during the summer to do (in her own words) “valuable, tedious work,” like filing and making binders. It didn’t pay a lot — when I factor in commuting and lunch expenses it was probably a wash for me, but she had to come in those 3 days and work a full-day alongside the staff. It was both a nice gesture on his part, and it got the staff caught up on stuff. Could we have “hired” an intern? Maybe, but the reality was the job was one a 13-y.o could do with minimal supervision, and not something a young industry professional would find either valuable or engaging.

  2. Well said and thought provoking. Not having been exposed to internship programs, I’ve never really considered them or their impact. Thanks for making Monday morning a little more interesting.

    1. Thank you, Donna for stopping by and weighing in. I think the best situations for both the student and the employer are when there are very clear objectives, objectives and quantifiable measurement. It isn’t easy to execute a good program no matter the size of the firm.

    1. I hear you and lady w on that. she can probably argue 3 sides of the issue: from the student/employer/school.

  3. I’m OK w/an unpaid internship IF it’s a h.s. kid or undergraduate who’s getting course credits AND it doesn’t extend beyond the length of a semester – basically if the student isn’t spending too much more time than s/he would be spending in the corresponding class. Beyond that it’s exploitation.

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