Friday, November 29, 2013

"[F]unding [...] entry-level positions"

David Carr takes on internships. He seems to mean well, and I like his conclusion, but I can't say I follow his argument. How exactly have interns who've sued the places they worked for free "won the battle but [...] lost the war"? Because now these companies don't have internship programs? Many programs as they exist do need to be chucked, certainly now that "internship" is a word that can be tacked onto absolutely any task anyone wants done for free. (As parodied on "Seinfeld," so not all that recently, when Kramer had that NYU intern; it's just gotten worse since then. Although my favorite remains one from a real NYU listing, some vaguely famous person looking to take on the unpaid services of an "aspiring personal assistant.") Certainly when what's meant is full-time post-college employment.

The internship discussion always seems to go off course at the same place: people accuse unpaid interns of thinking they're too good for menial tasks, of being ungrateful. This is the sentiment Carr evokes with "Pity the poor interns, or tell them to get over themselves [...]" But the grievance is with not getting paid for these tasks. "Paying your dues" shouldn't literally mean paying for the opportunity. People seem to miss that non-payment creates a sense of entitlement. The idea with an unpaid internship is that you get something else from the experience - connections, a line on a resume that matters, and/or knowledge of an industry. Someone might expect the same of a paid job, but if it doesn't deliver, at least there was the paycheck. Remove that and you get perfectly reasonable entitlement.

In any case, it seems obvious that organizations getting rid of unpaid internships will still have lowest-rung positions. Does Carr think getting rid of them means companies will hire mid-career and on only? "The people who know someone who know someone will probably still get a low-paying gig," he writes, which is partly true. As long as family connections don't account for all hiring - and as long as those with connections but without the ability to do the job keep getting gently channeled away - this is something it's more or less futile to address. Carr admits that his own 17-year-old daughter had a three-day unpaid internship at a fashion mag. Nepotism along these lines isn't actually the greatest concern. If anything, unpaid internships can exist as favors to important people, without any promise that the kid ever actually gets a job or has any influence in an organization. Once a salary's involved, a company may be more inclined to go by merit. I mean, one would imagine.

"The people working with only their bootstraps will be out of luck," Carr adds, but there I'm not convinced. Low-paid - assuming something above and beyond the proverbial Metrocard - is fundamentally different from unpaid. It's possible to budget once you have a small salary to work with (ahem, grad school); not if you're working full-time for no pay.

Which... Carr then seems to get, when he switches over to praising paid internship programs, which then becomes a discussion about how this will make journalism less lily-white. But isn't this precisely the idea with getting rid of unpaid internships? He encourages "funding fellowships and entry-level positions," which just seems odd. Funding entry-level jobs? Isn't that just... paying employees? Is it something akin to charity, or a scholarship, to pay someone for their work at a for-profit organization? Is there some reason diversity couldn't be taken into account when recruiting for jobs? How would lawsuits against companies that don't pay interns in any way threaten the kind of opportunities Carr rightly encourages?

I suppose what I can't wrap my head around is how what Carr wants to see is any different from what would inevitably result from scrapping unpaid positions. Businesses would still need people to do menial tasks, as well as a first rung on the professional track. There is of course "value" in recruiting new employees. Each business/industry would need to sort out for itself how much to merge the two - whether there's any sort of advantage to forcing the future professional elite to demonstrate willingness to get coffee for higher-ups, or whether symbolic dues-paying is a waste of time and division of labor means hiring someone not on that track to do such jobs. Which is how it already works with internships - some are more 'substantive' than others, but it's not necessarily an inaccurate picture of what really needs to be done at a company if you're running errands. The only difference would be that the first rung would be paid.


fourtinefork said...

I will admit that I quit an internship at a major art museum once because, I suppose, I had a sense of entitlement that the internship should provide a useful introduction to the field rather than just unpaid secretarial labor.

I had other internships where I spent a lot of time photocopying, but that was useful because I was compiling artist's files or learning about the exhibition planning. I've typed letters, but I was being taught how one drafts loan requests. I've faxed with the best of them. But those tasks were coupled with mentoring and field-specific learning, and I never felt like I was being exploited as free admin support.

Once it became clear that the museum-- which was in a foreign country (non-English speaking; I spoke the language extremely well)-- wanted me to write basic business letters in English AND fetch the director coffee, I quit. Seriously: the first morning I was there I was told how he preferred his coffee. (Also important: I had previously had paid office jobs, so I already knew how to answer phones, use Excel, process invoices, write formal business letters, and the like in both English and this other language. So I really wasn't going to learn new business skills.)

In previous summers, I had made between $12-$25 as a temp working in offices. The Evil Museum wanted a free office temp. I decided I wasn't going to work for free, even at a prestigious place, doing work that should have been paid. I don't regret it at all. Also, this is roughly the same time as the Kramerica internship: probably the summer of 1996. Entitled Gen X represent!

Phoebe said...

I hadn't realized unpaid internships were so pervasive in and before 1996. Although this is reminding me that some high school friends had internships at the Met (museum, not opera) during high school, and I can't imagine those were paid. That would have been 2000-ish.

The idea that one needs unpaid internships to acquire basic office skills strikes me as a mistake. Not because recent grads necessarily have them (clearly not), but because if you're not getting paid, you're that much more likely to view what you're doing as basically more school, and to think it's ridiculous that you're being asked to do filing, etc. Whereas if that's a regular job (or part-time/temping, or a paid internship), it just seems normal that you'd be doing work, and that work won't always be scintillating or specifically educational.

fourtinefork said...

In my field (art history), internships have been around a long, long time. And unpaid internships were common enough in the mid-to-late 90s that my college offered summer stipends to low-income students who were taking an unpaid internships. So none of this is terribly new: there was an awareness back then that the playing field was not level. Of course, my college's program had its limitations: one-time only, $2,000 for the summer, which was going to be a stretch in someplace like New York (where most people were going for publishing or museum internships) AND most annoying, your financial aid package for the following year still expected that you made a student contribution that you would be earning the previous summer. (I guess the well-meaning intern stipend people never sat down and talked with the financial aid people.) But still. I remain proud of my undergraduate institution for having that program in place.

The Met, at least, pays (or used to) its graduate student interns. Not well, but something. Not sure about the high school ones, who I assume would all be local, or the college ones.

For the record, I did not have that stipend for the internship I quit.

Phoebe said...

Programs where schools pay students to do internships - either as need- or merit-based scholarships - are obviously better than non-payment (if, as you point out, still crappy for students who actually need to work in the summer, for more than a symbolic token), but don't end up challenging the notion that it's fine to hire someone and not pay them.

These funds may be the best colleges can do, and it does at least address the most-discussed problem with unpaid internships, namely their disproportionate availability to kids from rich families. But ideally any workplace where anyone's working, including a kid (or 25-year-old) from a rich family, the worker's being paid. Bringing us back, then, to what I highlighted in this post's title. It's not an act of charity to pay someone for work. And as long as those are the terms, what emerges is a system where a few young people from poor and working-class families "win" payment for their work, while on the whole, the myth that you need to be 40 to be prepared for office culture just grows stronger.