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Unpaid Internships: Opportunity or Oppression?

8 Feb


 Recently the subject of work internships has become  part of the national conversation.  The topic  has shown up in articles,  books, television shows,  and even a  debate  on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. It hit home as our  youngest son is more than halfway through an unpaid internship at a business in Manhattan.  Like most young people completing internships,  he has been lead to believe and hopes it will result in  a full time job. Ben Zarov,  an intern at Publishers Weekly, recently posted on-line  the  following   joke  which sums up one  current perspective on internships:  “How many interns does it take  to screw in a light bulb? [Answer]  Who cares it’s free.” 

In psychology, social work, and related fields,  internships, field placements, and practicums have always been  a big part of the standard curriculum. They are often closely connected to licensure and certification requirements.  Before she finished graduate school in psychology, my wife Diane had done an internship and four practicums in a variety of settings. I, on the other hand, had dodged all of them like they were the plague. I somehow managed to graduate and get a job with as little practical experience as possible.

 It has been estimated that over one-half  million  young Americans will participate  in internship programs this year.  The number of interns has almost tripled over the last decade. Our   middle son says that most businesses in New York City rely so heavily   on unpaid interns they could hardly survive without them.     

According to a Pew Research Center report,  issued  in February, only 54% of young adults currently have jobs. That is the lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics back in the 1940s.    Youth unemployment   is usually  much higher than the adult rate, but it has been especially  hard hit by an economy which has forced many experienced adults  to flood the entry job market. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of  young adults  have taken unpaid jobs or moved back in with their parents due to the shrinking job market.  

While paid internships almost double the chance of a job offer after completion,  there is less evidence that unpaid internships are nearly  as beneficial.  The unpaid internship,  however,  is becoming  so familiar it has shown up on television.  In April  an unpaid internship  figured in the  premiere  episode  of the critically  acclaimed HBO television series,  Girls.     When Hannah, the lead character asks to get paid, she is unceremoniously  terminated  from  her   literary agency  internship in New York City,   after  giving them two years of free labor.  Upon hearing that she was let go,  her highly insensitive  boyfriend   says, “Weren’t you an intern? So they just asked you not to hang out there anymore?”

Under the U.S. Fair Labor and Standards Act, private sector internships are generally considered a form of paid employment.  Payment,  however,  may be withheld is there is (1) a strong training component, (2) the intern  doesn’t displace a regular employee,  and (3) the employer gains no direct immediate  benefit.    In theory   training and experience are the compensation that the intern supposedly accrues.  Internships are often the only way that young people can garner the experience and job skills that make them marketable in our fiercely competitive economy. Even when they lead to a job, many internships function simply as unpaid probationary periods. 

 It has been estimated nearly half of all unpaid internships are technically illegal and American businesses benefit from them  to the tune of over $600 million dollars annually  in free labor. 

In his 2011 book  Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Brooklyn-based writer  and former intern,  Ross Perlin examines the dark side of  internships, which for all practical purposes  have become the defacto  conduit  to a white collar  job in America.  He describes in  detail various questionable and  exploitive practices which have lead to situations such as a sexually harassed  intern, who couldn’t sue because she wasn’t considered a legal employee, and the Disney intern who ended up owing money to the Disney Corporation  after being charged  for rent. Disney currently has over 8,000 interns at Disney World alone.  Universities  also come under fire  for charging students exorbitant  tuition for participating in  internships under the school’s purview.  Even the White House, with its large unpaid internship  program, doesn’t  escape  unscathed in  Perlin’s exposé.

  Unpaid and exploitive  internships are most frequently seen in the  media, politics, publishing, arts, and entertainment industries. Finance, the sciences, and the law tend to have more traditional paid internship or work study programs.

In a February New York Times Op-Ed piece Perlin says,   “The well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket.” He says  it  is   time to enforce the law.  Other Western countries have also acted   to protect  interns.  In France,  for example,  interns are not paid wages,  but they must be given a  bonus if they work more than two months in one academic year.

Another criticism of   unpaid internships is that it perpetuates class differences. As the  new gateway to a professional career, unpaid internships may block the path for young people who cannot afford to work for free. In a recent lawsuit against the  Hearst Corporation, one intern claimed that unpaid internships  intensify class distinctions, reducing the capacity for social mobility in our society.

Even Perlin, however,  admits that genuine internships still exist that provide both learning  opportunities and  pathways to substantial employment.

My personal lack of an internship or practicums finally caught up with me.  Although I graduated  with a large number of credit hours,  it was almost all theory, with very little if any practice. When I started my first job as a new staff psychologist in Mississippi,   I had never actually seen a real life  client face-to-face  for counseling.  I was pretty much terrified when a surly adolescent boy was hauled into my office, after he had been kicked out of school for smoking.  I quickly discovered three things that college had not taught me: (1) Theory has its limits, (2) maybe an internship would have been helpful  and (3) perhaps I wasn’t nearly as clever as I had thought I was.  



Doodle All the Day Long

16 Sep


  At a   business meeting the other day, my attention began to wander as I sat there doodling. I don’t know if it was the topic, or all the antihistamines I was taking, but the meeting room gradually melted away and there I was in a boat with a refreshing breeze in my face. I heard my name in the distance, and suddenly I was yanked back, as if a bungee cord was attached to the boat. Evidently I was being asked to make some sort of decision. Everyone was looking at me so earnestly that I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. My notes were no help. They were the minutes from the last meeting with all of the “o’s” and “e’s” filled in and some poorly drawn palm trees in the margin. Hoping that I hadn’t been asked to past the bowl of pretzels, I said that I would have to consider the issue and get back to everyone. They all nodded and seemed satisfied.

                 Daydreaming and doodling are closely related phenomena. Doodling, which has been found in early Mesopotamian clay tablets, has been called the world’s most common and ignored art form. Anthropologists once theorized that certain strange stone-age cave paintings must have been created by early humans, while under the influence of indigenous drugs or possibly primitive music. However, one researcher examined the classroom doodles of college students and found artistic elements identical to the Paleolithic productions. This should come as no surprise to any parent of a college student. Doodling is technically the spontaneous production of drawings or markings, when one’s mind is preoccupied with something else. Doodling most often takes place in meetings, classrooms, while on the phone, and on napkins in restaurants. English psychologist Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth found that doodling actually improves memory and attention on certain tasks. People who doodled while listening to a dull phone message remembered 29% more than people who did not doodle. Everyone in England, however, isn’t convinced of its benefits, as a convicted rapist was released from prison when it was discovered that a juror was doodling sketches of the judge during the trial. The case has been appealed on the grounds that the juror was not paying enough attention to the evidence.

               When our brains lacks sufficient stimulation, they may manufacture their own content, like doodles and daydreams. For many people doodling provides just enough activity during boring tasks to prevent escape into full-fledged daydreams. Because doodling is largely unconscious, many believe it can provide insight into personality functioning. After the 2005 World Economic Forum, a reporter was snooping around the seat occupied by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and found papers with elaborate doodles of triangles, rectangles, circles, and words in boxes. The reporter had these drawings analyzed by a graphologist and newspapers throughout Britain gleefully reported that the doodles revealed that Blair was “struggling to concentrate” and “not a natural leader”. One journalist went so far as to call the prime minister “a closet vicar with a death wish”. But Blair had the last laugh when it was revealed that the doodles were actually made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who had inadvertently left them at Blair’s seat. David Greenberg a professor of history at Rutgers recently published a book on presidential doodles, showing that even the father of our country wasn’t above decorating his notebook with checkerboard designs. And the tradition continues today. A doodle by Barrack Obama recently sold for $2,500 on e-Bay.

                  Like the Rorschach test, there is little agreement about the specific meaning of doodles. For example, some authorities believe crosshatching and repeated patterns suggest a methodical approach to tasks, while others see it as an indicator of obsessive compulsive behavior. A house with smoke coming from the chimney means a welcoming fire for some experts, while for others it may signify sexual problems. While doodling represents a minor retreat from reality, daydreams are fully developed visual fantasies experienced while we’re awake. Research by University of Minnesota psychology professor, Eric Klinger, revealed that most daydreams are actually about ordinary events. They help remind us of everyday tasks. Less than 5% of daydreams involved sexual thoughts and violent daydreams are quite uncommon. Klinger’s research showed that over 75% of people with “boring jobs”, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, frequently use daydreams to ease the tedium of their workday. Daydreaming has often been judged as a non-productive pastime.

                    When I was growing up some psychologists even cautioned parents that persistent daydreaming could lead to a break with reality and even psychosis. But daydreaming has also been associated with major creative break-throughs in many disciplines. For example, in 1862, German chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in a daydream about a snake seizing its own tail. Walt Disney was well know for his frequent day dreaming and even today the Disney Corporation recognizes outstanding young people with its “Dreamers and Doers Awards”. Star athletes have long employed visualization as an effective training technique. For many practicing in imagination is as good or even better than real life and visualization is essentially the same state of mind as daydreaming. Of course day dreaming can be detrimental when a task demands our full attention. A Wisconsin survey found that daydreaming was second only to fatigue as the cause of auto accidents.

                     I once found that doodling can also be hazardous. I had just started a job and my new boss was briefing me about the employees I supervised. As he gave me the rundown, I idly doodled on the back of a stack of papers. He cautioned me about one of the women, describing her as “not a team player”. Later that day I met with all the employees and passed out a memo about supervision times. It went very well, but an hour later I got a phone call from the woman my boss warned me about. She demanded to know what the doodles on the back of her memo meant. She said she recognized palm trees, but she wanted to know why her name was written in what looked to be a traffic caution sign and why it was next to a box that contained the underlined words “Not a team player?”


Wayne and the Mayor: Another Steeltown Story

15 Feb


               Like many local politicians in Steelyown, it wasn’t exactly clear how Stan Mayer made his living but it had something to do with insurance and real estate, although Stan never seemed to actually transact any business. He spent mpost of his time in back booth at the Trojan Cafe. Wayne Flynn was a harmless and delicate  delinquent and Steeltown’s number one Beatles’s fan.  He was basically too intelligent to work for the cityand annoyed everyone by roaring around town in a silver Corvette he had tricked his father into buying. The deal Wayne made was that in the unlikely event he graduated from high school, his father would pony up for the ‘vette’. 

            Wayne had spent less time in high school than Abraham Lincoln, but somehow   graduated anyway. For four years he never knew his locker combination, which was fine because he didn’t know where his locker was anyway. No one knows how he managed to graduate. The day after graduation he got the silver corvette. He had a local sign shop paint a discreet “Loner” on the back fender and became a local legend.

            The summer after graduation Mayor Stan spotted him in Glik’s Department Store and asked,  “Well Wayne, have you found any honest employment yet?”  Reflexively Wayne replied, “Nope, have you?”

            Despite the  bravado,  Wayne desperately needed a job to pay for the expensive car insurance the fiberglass corvette required, so he went to the Illinois State Employment Office, with his Steeltown High School diploma proudly in hand. Wayne’s diploma would have been more functional if it had been printed on the back of a shop towel. 

            The State Employment Office people took one look at Wayne and quickly sent him to a green block building on the outskirts of town. Inside were dull-eyed men who were taking long metal rods and putting them into a machine that bent them into 90-degree angles. On the other side of the building another group of zombies were taking long metal rods, that were already bent into a 90 degree angle, and putting them into a machine that straightened them out. Wayne didn’t like the looks of the place at all and immediately roared home and and spent then next two weeks listening to the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour.  Later he told us  it must have been some sort of government job.