Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The High Cost of Free Labor

When I was in college there was a word that floated around the halls in whispers. It drew people in, it had a story attached to it, and it caught the attention of anyone who heard it – it was the word “internship”.

What Belongs to History

Once upon a time, internships were seen as being set aside for, and granted only to, the most exemplary individuals. The way to get an internship took time, effort, and the ability to connect with the people who could get you to where you wanted to go. It carried an uncommon caché that lauded the intern as the bright eyed next generation. It was a springboard for worthy candidates to help them gain real world experience and prepare to enter the workforce while building on the knowledge they were gaining by investing in their education. In sum, not too long ago, internships were both a rare and effective way to kick-start one’s career.

In principle, an internship is a great idea: A company hires an enthusiastic individual looking to build a career in that field and nurtures them, at little or no cost, into eventually becoming a fully functioning member of their workforce. Internships were once a sort of farm team where a company might have been looking to create a position and would tell the candidate, “Tough it out over the summer and when you graduate you’ll be on the team – we have high hopes for you”.

Times Change

It didn’t take too long for people to learn that the path to a better job and a better life went through the area designated for the intern and the volunteer. So when the cat got out of the bag, everybody was out looking for a chance to get some experience that would often serve as nothing more than a way to fill out one’s resume. In no short amount of time, people who had worked as interns were becoming less and less likely to be taken on by the company they worked for, or would parlay their internship experience to go and work for another, sometimes rival, company. Suddenly companies started experimenting with what kind of tasks they could get away with delegating to their interns, and just as suddenly some companies began to realize that branding a job as an internship could be a quick and easy way to get cheap, even free, labor.

The Rise and Fall of the Volunteer

Not all that long ago, seemingly well-intentioned projects would hire volunteers who would trade their labor in exchange for a meaningful experience, usually overseas, that could change lives. It was a direct exchange of labor for experience, straight up. Because of the rising number of volunteers looking for experience to once again, fill out one’s resume, the opportunities became more numerous and the exchange is no longer so direct. Nowadays, aside from the smallest community volunteer group, all volunteers are pay volunteers as in they pay to volunteer. The volunteer experience of working for free has become an actual commodity that people pay for, and is now a business in its own right.

Where We Are

The net effect of intern-volunteer inflation has been to render their titles virtually meaningless. Tales of internship woe among the young are ubiquitous as they are being charged with doing real work, involving long hours for no pay, and coming away from their experience disillusioned and with little to show for it. Within many companies the intern has become a position like any other usually connoting that they are responsible for all tasks deemed beneath that of the full-time staff. Once reserved for individuals who were otherwise green in the workforce, it is now not uncommon to find college graduates, and individuals with several years of relevant work experience, settling for the role of intern by virtue of the fact that internship positions continually replace what were once legitimate full-time jobs.

What Can We Do?

I wish there were clear answers. The truth is, the following are just suggestions: 
  • Always try to create full-time employment.
  • Make it a policy to pay every employee better than the minimum wage.
  • Let your full-time staff share the load of the less desirable, no less important, duties of the company – don’t create a position specifically for them.
  • Recognize that interns are there to learn, so you are the teacher and your company is the classroom – so offer them an educational experience.
  • If you are someone looking for experience, instead of dropping the big bucks to essentially just travel, find the most local grassroots organization that you can and just say, “I want to help”. The rewards from that kind of community involvement are far more gratifying in the long run.

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