Swapping experience for money – when working unpaid becomes the new normal…

When I was in my teens someone gave me a poster with a picture of a rather frustrated looking panda bear.  The caption read “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want”.  True enough, when I was in high school and college I would seek out part time work that paid some money.  But in the early 80s   interest rates were sky high and inflation was up there right there along with it.  Paid work could not always be found.  However, we could get “experience” by volunteering or creating an internship.  Back then, unpaid internships existed but they they were self-limiting, did not serve to “replace” actual  paid employees.   The duration was limited to a semester or a summer.  Students got  “experience” at a level that they could not obtain if they were compensated. This was particularly true of internships in research labs.

A few days ago, I ran into a blog about “volunteerism” in laboratories.   The article brought back memories of “interns” and “summer students” that I trained in the labs I worked in.  10 years after my interning gigs were a thing of the past, it still seemed a relatively benign practice.  Young people needed experience and the learning curve in a lab is rather long, even for experienced personel.  As long as they weren’t replacing paid technicians with slave labor and rank exploitation,  where was the harm?

Walking the line between value and exploitation with internships…

But those were comparatively innocent times and since then unpaid internships have exploded to the point where even THEY are becoming hard to find.   So what happens when an oversupply of qualified labor bumps up against a trend for serial-indentures? Where does one draw the line between giving a “student” valuable experience and rank exploitation?

These are all valid questions.   Sadly, in an economy with so many people struggling just to keep a roof over their heads,  that fine line between providing valuable experience and exploitation becomes quite blurred.  Appropriately, the issue of fairness and what constitutes an internship or “learning experience is asserting itself more and more in the lab.  A blog entitled “Unpaid Internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam, in science labs too” drew  a major debate and rancor in its comment thread.  To put it bluntly, it struck a raw nerve that wouldn’t have been there 10 years ago.

Unforeseen consequences…

There are several problems here, and the issues aren’t limited to science and laboratory research.  Its  part of a bigger, more systemic problem in our society.  The mentality of “free” has become an epidemic.  People want everything for free, or close to free.  This results in more and more  people being underpaid, which in turn perpetuates  the incessant demand for more “freebies”.

The vicious circle continues.  There are even people on TV offering “free” websites to businesses in order to secure a monthly hosting fee. Huh?  That’s right, there are people PAYING big money to advertise on TV something for free which generally costs thousands of dollars!  How much can you imagine that they are paying their…ahem…”staff”?  There are so many issues here that I can’t wrap my arms around all of them, but here are a couple of additional thoughts.

1.  Fields of work that demand extensive use of unpaid interns prior to qualifying for an actual “job” make pursuit of such fields literally impossible for young people from the middle and working classes.  A young person with grinding debt from school loans may never make to the first rung of the ladder.  They have to hit the ground running in the financial sense or they are doomed.  Unpaid internships are not an option for them.  This seals them off from entire career paths.  The last thing we need now is more fields of work become the exclusive province of the monied elite.  This doesn’t encourage the best and the brightest, merely the richest.

2. The inability to secure gainful employment  upon graduation will dampen interest in many essential fields of work that require a long educational pipeline.  Believe me, after 6-8 years of grinding poverty in a doctoral program, graduate students are looking for some bloody compensation for all that hard work.  This is going to lead to an actual shortage of workers in essential fields.  Glutted markets become deserts eventually.

3. Internships were never meant to replace actual employment.  Yet many companies and institutions see fit play the “internship game” to the hilt.  This trend is as damaging the lives of the young people who seem to be stuck in perpetual volunteerism as it is to those who would be employed in their stead.  It hurts the inexperienced and experienced alike.

4. Finally, if you haven’t looked at job descriptions online or even in the newspaper lately, you should.  Its quite an exercise.  The list of “required skills”  runs from the ridiculous to the absurd for an “entry level” job.  If you have all those skills, you are not entry level and should expect to be compensated appropriately.  There used to be this thing called  “on the job training”.  We need to bring that back!

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