Sunday, September 16, 2012

Towards a tip-jar economy

The New York Times, which itself offers unpaid internships, calls out unpaid internships, and questions whether the fashion industry can claim liberal credentials when it so relies on that form of labor. This itself is maybe worth pausing on, but let's press further:

Ginia Bellafante reminds us what we already knew (children of privilege can afford to work for free; the fashion industry's a main offender), but adds something new (a mention, buried within the story, of a specific paid job that has since been turned into an unpaid position, thereby casting doubt on whether there's some fundamental difference between work that merits pay and an educational experience). Also: that you can be an unpaid intern in retail. So add that to unpaid internships at Thai restaurants, for aspiring personal assistants, for academic researchers, for oh, just about everything. If we haven't already reached the stage of unpaid baristas, an economy in which everyone under 30 is paid exclusively via tip jar, via the whim or goodwill of their better-off elders, give it a few weeks.

This is new, but not that new - remember the "Seinfeld" episode where perennially unemployed Kramer gets an intern from a certain university where I happen to be in grad school. The kid is just his unpaid errand boy, until the university puts a stop to it? (Bringing us the line: "As far as I can tell, your entire enterprise is little more than a solitary man with a messy apartment which may or may not contain a chicken.") 1997.

But it does seem to be getting worse. Consider that of 6,599 jobs listed for students at that same university (on-campus, but mostly off-, a mix of jobs and internships), if you narrow this down to "paid," a mere 2,096 pop up. It's possible that some job-jobs aren't thinking to specify that they, you know, pay, when they post their listings, but tentatively going by these numbers, it appears that a third of listed employment possibilities for students at this enormous university are ones for which you get any compensation whatsoever. (Remember that a paid internship is going to mean a stipend, which may be below minimum wage. And those would fall under the 2,096 paid opportunities.)

And we don't quite seem to be at the point where we understand that the existence of unpaid internships itself reduces the number of jobs available, that this isn't (always) simply a matter of employers not having enough money to hire entry-level staff. And that's how the justification goes - it's half that interns are learning, half that In These Economic Times, if you want to fill your days with resume-building, non-vegetating activity, you have to take what you can get. When in fact, what goes on is, not just little artsy and/or non-profit outfits, but also big corporations, purveyors of the most in-your-face luxury, realize that the market allows them to pull an unfortunately-we-cannot-afford-to-pay-but-this-is-a-valuable-learning-experience, and to tag that weak justification onto a posting for a job that was at one time (perhaps until this very job opening!) a paid position.

So yes, it is about whether the employer or employee gets more out of the arrangement, but the employee is getting more because of desperation, because the market is such that many need the job, even unpaid, more than the employer needs the envelopes stuffed, and not (necessarily) because of anything learning-experience-specific.

7 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm also against unpaid internships, but to its lefty cred, the NYT is unionized, and so extensively regulates its internship program. They pay summer interns, and I think all interns are paid for any actual writing/photography/whatever other journalistic products are being made these days that gets published. Also, the academic year internship page you link to says you have to get academic credit for the job, which is a somewhat sketchy way of legitimizing nonpayment (sketchy in that it puts all the onus on the university to investigate whether what you're doing at your "internship" merits academic credit), but in the NYT's case, it is basically a journalism practicum, so if you're a journalism student, that seems credible. Now, why you'd be a journalism student in the first place...

Phoebe said...

I'm going to assume your use of a pseudonym makes it OK to suggest you may have a bias-by-association here? This seems relevant, just like it's relevant that the paper does what it's condemning. Maybe if the paper has unpaid internships, but they're different from these ones in fashion, this should have been noted? My guess is this was left out precisely because unpaid internships, even the best ones, tarnish liberal cred.

But yes, there are better and worse unpaid internships. Ones that follow labor laws are better than ones that don't, ones that pay for at least certain tasks better than ones that either don't provide such opportunities or do but unpaid only. Ones that provide actual skills (i.e. the things listed on real-job postings) are better than either envelope-stuffing or, conversely, ones for which you must arrive already knowing all the necessary html, photoshop, etc. If you're expected to qualify for an internship via prior coursework/internships, and the internship involves getting a chance to use already-acquired skills, then yes, you might improve along the way, but how is this not like a normal job?

Maybe the Times is one of the better ones, but as you say, it's tough to know what makes an internship educational. And the college credit thing, legal as it may be, doesn't make sense - you can dress it up with "practicum," but why are you paying your university to do work for a corporation? What entry-level job, or part-time job in college, isn't tremendously educational? I'm curious whether the journalism internships that don't pay end up teaching more than the ones that do, or whether this isn't just about who can post for unpaid interns and get them, and who can't.

The divide is generally expressed as, if you benefit more than the employer does, you don't need to be paid (so long as whichever labor laws are followed - or not as the case may be), because they're not much benefitting from your labor. But, as I said, desperation on the part of would-be worker shifts the balance of power to the point where yes, the worker will get more out of it, even if the only "education" is in how to fetch coffee. But even if it's more than fetching coffee, there's no intrinsic reason why learning the journalism ropes at a workplace, where you're working isn't paid work. It's only not paid because there are people willing to do this unpaid.

I'd only not apply this critique to the NYT internship or any other if it did just consist of shadowing someone in the profession, or something akin to an actual class, for which the paper didn't benefit and maybe even actually emerged at a loss. If there's learning-to-copy-edit/fact-check involved, and this gets into the paper, not so much.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sure, I'm biased. I saw what some of the interns did, but I was in DC and we were like an outpost of the empire (only summer interns for us), so I don't really know about NY.

I don't disagree with your point in general. However, in the case of practical majors like journalism, the distinction you make seems less clear because doesn't the whole degree consist in paying someone else to teach you things that you could be paid for learning to do instead? That is, you could become a journalist w/o a degree, and with just on-the-job training from some entry level position like news clerk, editorial assistant, person who moderates the online comments sections (actual job, paid and everything), etc. (You may not be able to do this anymore due to credentialing inflation, but I think that's how most people who worked as journalists before 1990 did it.) But instead, you are paying a school to credential you for this practical skill for which you hope to earn money in the future. If that's the case, then how is a for-credit practicum-type internship actually different than a for-credit class in the same degree program, both of which you pay for, and both of which benefit you by moving you towards the desired credential? I can see how this arrangement wouldn't make sense if you major in a real academic discipline while interning at the NYT or anywhere else. The work for which you'd receive "academic credit" is not commensurable to mastering French 201 or differential calculus or any academic course you'd otherwise take. But if you'd otherwise take "Advanced Features Writing" and are instead contributing to NYT features articles, then why not?

Britta said...

I read some article a light years ago (2004?) pointing out that "liberal" organizations tend to treat their employees very poorly and engage in exploitative behavior and even union busting, while conservative organizations often treat them well in terms of salary and benefits. I doubt this is true across the board, and there is a little truth to the fact that devoting your life to helping the marginalized is going to be less remunerative than, say, helping out corporations, but I think the point is a good one, and exploiting the young and idealistic with a bunch of YPIS is still of a kind of exploiting migrant workers (if not of a degree). I refuse to donate to PIRGs for this reason, among others.

I think, and what MSI is gesturing to, is that maybe it's time to revive apprenticeships as an institution, where employees learn skills and receive reduced pay, generally graduating to full pay once they had learned the craft. I don't know if it's possible to undo credential inflation, but I think the US would be better off if we seriously rethink our attitude towards secondary education and its focus on a particular sort of curriculum. The German model is unattractive in that it sorts kids into tracks early on in which they are stuck, with all the predicted socio-economic and race bias factors, but I think that we ought to make trade schools and apprenticeship programs a serious option in high schools and greatly expand hands on community college training programs for those who want it. That way high schools could provide study-to-work programs that segue-way into paid apprenticeships while the person is young enough that they're not expected to fully support themselves.

Of course, to semi-contradict myself, we also have to seriously think about how technology and global finance capital have changed the shape of the working world, and how we can strive for full livable-wage employment in a new environment. (I mean, barring the apocalypse, we'll always need plumbers and electricians and hair stylists and x-ray technicians, but we won't need as many skilled machinists as we probably could produce.)

Phoebe said...

MSI and Britta,

It could well be that the main problem with unpaid internships is that they exist alongside, and not in lieu of, expensive BA and MA degrees. And, I had more thoughts on this (including wondering how things like Harpers' internship, which is unpaid but not evidently for credit, are legal), but Blogger ate that.

The difference between school and work, though, is that a) with school, your homework doesn't lead the institution (which is ostensibly non-profit anyway) to profit, and b) with school, your work leads to a degree. Whereas work goes on a resume, and that's it, the pay generally being a pretty important part of the compensation. If it's especially prestigious work - NYT, say, or Vogue - that's less the case, but that's the exception.

Does it make more sense for a journalism student to do an unpaid journalism internship than, say, an English major? It would almost seem the reverse - if your major is just about the life of the mind and critical-thinking skills, you may need that boost. There seems to be an HYP exception where some do get hired at that kind of job without anything but a BA, but otherwise, I know of very few such cases, MSI's being one of them.

I'd also consider, if we look at this in terms of apprenticeships, that these days many internships are for jobs that aren't especially skilled, where they otherwise would have hired someone at minimum wage or close, but now there's this pool of low-skilled workers prepared to work for free. This would be the Thai restaurant, retail fashion jobs, an internship (likely unpaid) I noticed being advertised to work at a bookstore. It's one thing if you're learning skills, ala school, but also doing some work, and this all evens out to something approximating breaking even, so they don't pay you, but you don't pay them. It's another entirely if the job market is crap, in part because of the norm of unpaid internships, and jobs that aren't educational just stop paying because they can.

PG said...

If you're doing work for academic credit that requires the close supervision of paid employees, that sounds like the last year or so of medical school. Part of the shortage of physicians in the U.S. is due to the expense of running a teaching hospital (and thus the hospitals limiting the number of students), so evidently medical students are not making these places profitable, but it seems unlikely that they don't contribute some useful labor. And then MDs in hand, they spend several years getting paid very little on a per-hour basis so they can get more valuable training.

I can't find the paper right now, but there was an analysis years ago -- around the time of antitrust litigation over The Match that tells MD graduates where they'll be working and leaves little variation in pay, benefits, hours -- claiming that certain residencies were so sought-after, not only in a free market would they not need to pay residents more, but that applicants would pay money to get to work there.

I think what's really objectionable about the internship economy is its lack of structure. It might suck to be working 80+ hours/week in medicine, either for academic credit or meager pay, but there's a set number of years in which you do it and then you can make boatloads of money as a radiologist or whatever. It's more like the old apprenticing systems. In contrast, pretty much every other sector guarantees you nothing after your years of free/underpaid labor. That's what seems really sucky about it -- not that you might spend a few years "paying your dues," but that your dues never actually get you into the club of secure professionals.

i said...

@Britta: I'm not in a position to judge liberal companies more generally, but I will say this (as a kind of evidence by anecdote):

The worst, most psychologically cruel case of workplace bullying that happened to anyone I know personally was in a firm run by a top worker's rights lawyer. The lawyer didn't do the bullying, but s/he completely overlooked it. My friend did not feel s/he had many options, unsurprisingly.