I started working at 15, and except for brief periods since, have never stopped. Most of my Gen X peers have had the same experience. Tuition may have been a lot lower in the early 1990s but we, not our parents, had to pay it. The end of August brought lineups outside the registrar’s office, cheque proudly in hand (a time before iPhone bills and online payments, when tuition rang in around $2,000).
I have been reminded of standing in those back-to-school lineups this month by the growing debate over unpaid internships, a debate that assumes that the skills built in unpaid labour will be more useful than those gained waiting tables, working retail or landscaping. If that’s true, though, it is entirely the fault of how employers read a resume, looking for graduates who fit exactly the requirements of a particular job rather than being willing to train those students whose main job experience has been in the service industry. A 40 per cent drop in training investment over the past decade, the number cited by the Conference Board of Canada last week, suggests as much.
The renewed discussion has been sparked by a major win against the unpaid internship practice by two former interns who worked on the movie Black Swan. Their argument rested on the contention that they performed exactly the same work as paid employees and as such, should have been paid in the same way. Eric Glatt, one of the plaintiffs in the case, is now in law school – as he said in an interview, he doesn’t care if he burns his bridges with the creative industries.
Even for students doing an internship as a labour of love, a point seems to come when they no longer want to contribute for free: A former New Yorker intern also sued its parent company this month alleging that he was paid $300 to $500 for his summer work vetting submissions to the mag’s Shouts and Murmurs section.
The case against unpaid internships is easily and clearly made: Coming from a wealthier background makes it easier to work and live for free in the summer. An education is supposed to provide a step toward social mobility – if that education can’t secure a career without another unpaid stop on the way then it’s promising something it can’t deliver. For everyone else in the labour market, having new graduates work without a salary devalues their work. Some industries are so prestigious or in demand that the supply of people willing to put in a free stint for the ability to forever say “When I worked at the New Yorker/Fox Searchlight” is greater than the number of people who can’t afford to buy the privilege of that kind of party conversation. As a letter writer to the New York Times put it, “Unpaid and low-paid internships gave me an undeserved edge later in my career.”
Most defences of unpaid internships argue the flipside of that: A good internship, one building houses in Ecuador or running publicity for a sports company gives young employees exposure to a level of responsibility far beyond their experience. And for parents who can afford it or have planned for this, helping kids find and fund those internships is a major vote of confidence in their future and their talent.
Yet there’s something about putting in resumes, going for interviews and having to behave like an adult who is earning a paycheque that is more valuable for teens and young adults than a lot of responsibility but no money. I can’t say that my financial skills are any better for having started working relatively young; possibly, they’re worse, having been accustomed early to think in small bills. But working unglamorous jobs, you learn resilience - to go out and do another interview if the labour market is tough, to find another job after being fired for sleeping in - and you earn respect and trust from your co-workers, who come from a much wider range of ages than your peers. A paid service job is often much better preparation for work at any level than an unpaid internship where the intern is shielded from the reality of workplace difficulties because after all, they’re not getting paid.
So rather than debate the worth of unpaid internships, perhaps we should be talking about the value of low-paid, low-status work and why we undervalue the experience and training it provides.