Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Cost of Unpaid Hopes and Dreams

The dubious practice of unpaid internships was designed to provide college students hands-on experience at an existing company or organization in their chosen field, often giving them for the first time a true idea of the daily responsibilities of their eventual career. Now it seems that those who are much older, have much more experience, and more substantive financial means as a result are taking these jobs in hopes that doing so might give them an advantage in taking a brand new career path or to bolster their own resumes. This, of course, leaves many students out of the loop and eliminates their ability to work an unpaid position. But, in true American fashion, for every problem, there is often a solution, provided one can pay enough for the privilege.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, students (but increasingly their parents) are paying internship placement services substantial sums of money to ensure that they locate an applicable position as an unpaid intern. If ever we needed more proof of the fact that we are living in a decadent society, the fact that people are willing, quite voluntarily, to shell out cold hard cash in order to obtain an unpaid job could not be more glaring evidence.

I have always believed that there was something inherently wrong in principle about the very idea of unpaid labor. Volunteer jobs are one thing, but the implicit understanding of volunteer labor from the beginning is that it's meant to be sporadic and meant to be somewhat banal. Volunteers set their own time table and their own hours, which is why the tasks they perform should not be considered gainful employment. Internships, however, are full time occupations that require a serious commitment of time and energy and as such they are identical to other positions in the same organization that are paid and are provided benefits in return for services rendered.

A few months back, I spoke with a young woman who was desperately trying to finish her Master's Degree in social work. In the process of getting her degree she was balancing her remaining classwork with one part-time internship for which she was monetarily compensated, and another part-time internship job for which she was not. She admitted, with no small frustration, that if it wasn't for student loan money, she would not have the ability to make this arrangement work. As it was, she was barely able to sustain herself, pay for rent, feed herself, and cover other basic necessities. Yet, in the same breath she informed me with great pride that she was sure that having worked a prior unpaid internship job at another organization had given her the ability to attain her current position as the hired, but uncompensated help. She might have been able to list an impressive work history on her resume, but I couldn't help but think of how unfair it was that even completely unpaid jobs had their own hierarchy and pecking order.

I recall how I myself wanted to slave away at an unpaid internship position during my undergraduate days. The position was at a non-profit political activist group devoted to finding ways to improve voter turnout among lower income residents. Even though I had a scholarship which paid my tuition (though not textbooks, an expense I am grateful my parents covered), my father could not be convinced that working a full-time job for which I received not even a dime's worth of salary was a good option for me or anyone. Since he alone would have had to cover my living expenses, I quickly realized that I wouldn't be able to accept the organization's offer. Though I was disappointed then, I understand his reservations now.

What I can't help but notice is that in this country, we like to highlight instances of racism, sexism, and homophobia in an effort to hopefully eradicate them someday from the face of the earth. This is well and good and an attitude wrought of high-born, noble sentiment. However, what almost no one ever confronts in our society is the virulent scourge of classism. No controversy rages on the blogsophere, the cable news channels, or the news services about a shameful classist incident that reminds us of our classist past. Classism is a real phenomenon that supersedes and is more pervasive than any of these other societal ills combined. It goes well beyond skin color, gender, or the treatment of LGBT citizens. It clouds our perspectives so much that we are frequently unaware of how we perpetuate classist responses and reactions to situations. We have been known to tilt at windmills on behalf of other problems of prejudice with -ism endings, but we would be wise to channel a bit of that energy towards something else.

It is heavily classist that unpaid internship jobs, assuming they even provide eventual employment, are extended only to those who have the economic means to attain them. It is even more classist that only those who have the finances based on fortunate birth and can afford live off of their parents' nickel while working an unpaid internship job. The implication, whether by design or creation, is that only middle to upper middle to upper class students ought to take these jobs. No deserving working class kid need apply, because he or she simply won't be able to fit the criteria. Since this matter negatively impacts class rather than any other grouping, it affects Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders, Men, and Women. It might be is easier for us to showcase a struggle in two easily identifiable and delineated camps, which may explain why classism isn't often alluded to or pointed out. We are all complicit in its continued existence and thus it is situations like the one noted above that ought to make us aware of just how deeps the roots of the problem lie.


Gail said...

Hi Kevin-

I just want to say that I understand your position well. Also, I have supervised many interns and most now work with me. It is quite rewarding when it all works out on all sides. And I can also attest to the fact that having an intern assigned to me is aHUGE responsibility and I took it on 100% with each one. Also, our agency, is very flexible so interns can work, go to school, etc. - it is a give and take, so to speak and I do understand your concerns as well.

Love you and your mind

jadedj said...

Having worked with many interns both in the museum field and my later profession, special events, I must admit, I never questioned the system. I did however, take their time spent with me/us very seriously. Thanks to this post, I now see this practice in a very different light.

Comrade, as I have said before, I admire your well thought out ideas, and your very real compassion. Keep it up.