Rise of the Unpaid Intern (or the Systematic Devaluing of the American Worker)

WARNING – some personal rambling and then a succinct summation (I hope).

So there are a number of things that disturb me about this spate of articles I’m going to link to today. Simply (and perhaps crudely) synthesized, all of the pieces I’m sharing pertain to the value of a worker, and more importantly, the effect of the unpaid internship on said value. In my mind, there are three levels to this discussion. Due to the demands of children (and because of them, the number of martinis I’ve consumed over the last few weeks), I’m not guaranteeing complete clarity, but I am going to attempt to connect all these dots.

At the first level there are unpaid internships, usually taken on at the college level, sometimes the graduate level (although in a recent Vince Vaughn film even 40-somethings aren’t immune to this ass kissing, non-forward moving position), with the faint hope that the experience might lead to at least an eventual interview for a position, either in that company or in one similar to it. At this level I can personally remember being more concerned about building my resume and learning skills than actually obtaining the job. At the second level I am starting to see how the unpaid internship cripples the job-seeker. It is certainly easier to give work to one or more unpaid interns than create a position with benefits for someone who is either just starting out or is career switching (in my case career switching just means that you can’t find a job doing what you originally set out to do because somewhere along the way you stopped to have a life (read: babies)). At the third level, and on a slightly more specialized plane, there is the world of the non-profit where the dependence on unpaid interns and a cadre of overqualified volunteers has become much more entrenched than ever before.

I have heaps of experience working in non-profit: As a student intern (Habitat for Humanity, Legal Aid, etc.); As a young person at the entrance level of the working world in higher education (Admissions); As a slightly older and surely more wiser adult serving at the mercy of federally funded grants (in a university while working on a PhD); And more recently, as an extremely overqualified part-timer in a scholarship organization.

As a student, it was all about the experience. In my first few ‘real jobs’ in admissions and financial aid, I just loved what I did so much that I totally took for granted my wage (pretty good) and benefits (darn near awesome by today’s standards). I never made a whole lot of money but I felt taken care of and appreciated. Adventure in SalzburgAt the next level in a more professional atmosphere working in research at an R1 university, I definitely understood and appreciated my wage benefits as slight as they may have been. I had health insurance and I made a part-time salary (I was a full time student) that equalled something like $25/hour. Pretty sweet gig and I earned my PhD while I was doing it. All of my travel and conferences were paid for (see giddy picture of me in Salzburg, post-conference, of course) and I was racking up the professional university experience.

Lastly, I switched back to the much less glamorous world of non-profit work where the emphasis is quite severely on fundraising and ass kissing. Seriously, anyone who works in non-profit knows that no matter how much you truly do believe in the mission, you still feel like an ass kisser most of the time. Now, at my prior R1 I was paid a good salary and benefits even if I worked only 20-30 hours per week. At the non-profit level I worked consistently more than 25 hours per week and received no benefits and an hourly wage that remained consistent to what I was earning prior to my PhD. I received absolutely no benefits (unless you count a warm heart, and that doesn’t go very far when you have a family) and very little room to grow, i.e.: 1. Attend, much less present at applicable conferences; 2. Publish in academic journals; 3. Serve as director of events I had conceived; 4. Distribute or manage funds I brought in; 5. Direct those areas in which I was told to oversee. Instead, I served as an extremely overqualified intern. You can imagine the shape of my ego and confidence after this experience. If you can’t imagine it, here’s a pretty good animation – Squidward at left.

Here are a few articles that I’ve enjoyed perusing over the last few weeks while I’ve been thinking about the value of my own work. I do believe that the unpaid internship has morphed into something that serves a completely different purpose than that for which it was originally intended. It now sits precariously in the way of job creation and the forward movement of the economy (maybe a tad dramatic, but you get my drift). Additionally, for those of us in the world of higher education (proper), internships are a necessary part of the process and without them we wouldn’t have the opportunities we need to grow. In the ‘outside of education’ world of non-profit, the role of the internship has become the extension of the working office. Most small and many mid-size non-profits rely far too heavily on unpaid workers and this inhibits growth and creativity. As an organization (or a business), when you devalue your workers, you devalue yourself and your mission. Full stop.

Level 1:

NPR Piece on Unpaid vs. Paid Internships

Blogger Response to Unpaid Internship Issue (full credit to iloveyougildaradner.tumblr.com) Quote from this blog: “If you are genuinely seeking the perspective of the folks you want to serve, you need to be hiring someone other than a grad student who can afford to live in Manhattan for three months without a salary.” This is one HUGE reason that the scholarship program for which I used to work actually provided cost of living for students to take on unpaid internships. It really helped cut the gap between the haves and have nots; HOWEVER, I know of no program like it to assist middle class kids who simply can’t afford to take on an unpaid internship, even if they’re just trying to make book money over the summer to help their parents pay for college.

Level 2:

An Online Discussion from ProPublica Biggest takeaway from this piece for me –  “I have a friend in PR that went through 2 rounds of interviews for a job before being told they’d decided to split the position’s work between two interns instead of hiring someone,” said commenter Jess. I just LOVE this and I’ve heard it before and I’ve had it happen in a department in which I worked – “We can’t really hire right now, so we’re going to give this work to some interns.” In my higher education world, that ‘intern’ was often an already underpaid lowly person on the totem pole.

Level 3:

Inequitable Salaries at Non-profits From the Chronicle of Philanthropy; Quote that will stay with you: “Women and human-service workers are systematically underpaid, and organizations are increasingly turning to volunteers as unpaid but essential labor. Philanthropy, for its part, tends to reward those organizations with the lowest investment in human resources while simultaneously creating programs aimed at lifting underpaid laborers such as immigrants, single parents, and veterans out of poverty.” TYPICAL – SO TYPICAL. We make enough money to do what we do (just barely), but we’ll never be able to pay our staff. We can make up for that shortfall in other ways, but we often don’t have the time for that.

The About.com piece on recommendations for leaders of non-profits I’m not a big fan of about.com necessarily but this article within an article has some really sound advice for leaders of non-profit organizations – how to collect, groom, and keep really talented individuals.

Advice for leaders:

Pay reasonable salaries and provide good benefits. Financial sacrifice should no longer be part of the nonprofit business model. Passion will not trump decent pay and reasonable work hours.

Engage in succession planning. Periodically ask if you are still the right person for the job, and be proactive in attracting and retaining talented staff who might be eligible for future leadership.

Advice for the BOARD:

Pay reasonable salaries and provide benefits to staff.

-Look beyond the Executive Director and make sure that leadership is being developed deep in the organization.

Advice for FUNDERS:

Avoid behaviors that make things worse for nonprofits and their leaders. In the study, the challenge of accessing institutional capital was one of the causes of executive burnout. Plus, among next generation leaders, an aversion to fundraising was the primary reason people gave for not aspiring to nonprofit leadership roles.*

* “…aversion to fundraising” = ass kissing just plain sucks.

 

 

 

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