Unpaid internships and the intern economy: Latest work

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A look at unpaid internships and the intern economy

As steady readers here are aware, for many years I’ve been engaged in scholarship, public education, and advocacy concerning the oft-exploitative practice of unpaid internships. I’d like to provide a quick update on my latest activities in this realm.

I just posted to my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page a short law review essay, “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” a followup to an excellent symposium on employment law issues hosted by the Idaho Law Review last year. For those who would like a more compact scholarly summary of recent major legal and policy developments concerning the employment rights of interns and the larger implications of the burgeoning “intern economy,” this piece will provide it. You may freely download it from my SSRN page.

Brief filed by attorneys at Lieff Cabraser

Brief filed by attorneys at Lieff Cabraser

Wang v. Hearst Corporation is one of the most prominent legal challenges to unpaid internships, and the case is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Recently I agreed to be a party to a “Friend of the Court” brief supporting the legal position of the unpaid interns, organized by the National Employment Law Project and authored by Rachel Geman and Michael Decker, attorneys at the law firm of Lieff Cabrasser in New York City. Rachel and Michael did a wonderful job on the brief, seamlessly incorporating suggested additions from parties into their already superb draft. (You may go to this link for a pdf of the brief.)

Enjoying post-filming dinner with Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde

Enjoying a post-filming dinner with Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed for a documentary project on unpaid internships being produced by Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde of Switzerland. During a whirlwind North American trip, Nathalie and Leo are conducting interviews with activists, writers, policy analysts, and scholars on the social, economic, and legal aspects of unpaid internships. Their documentary will paint a picture of the intern economy on a global scale. I was so impressed with their knowledge and depth of understanding of this topic, and I’m very excited to watch this project unfold.

Elizabeth White’s advice for “Jobless After 50”

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Elizabeth White received a lot of well-deserved kudos for her Next Avenue blog essay, “Unemployed, 55, and Faking Normal,” which looked at the lives of unemployed professional women, many of whom were caught in the throes of the Great Recession:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

Now White is back with a new Next Avenue piece, “Jobless After 50? Here’s What To Do First,” which draws upon her new book containing advice, guidance, and resources for those who find themselves unemployed at midlife.

Her first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows another, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

Don’t make the group too big. You will be sharing personal information and don’t need a cast of thousands for that (what’s said at the meetings should be kept confidential).

For those in situations similar to what she found herself in, she further recommends:

  • “Stay active.”
  • “Intensify or reinvigorate your sidelined artistic endeavors.”
  • “Keep a journal or several, each with a different purpose.”
  • “Never accept anyone who thinks you’re old.”

Targets of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

In a 2015 blog post, I related White’s first piece to the challenges that often face middle-aged workers who have been bullied out of their jobs:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

I also cited survey data from the Workplace Bullying Institute “showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets” and noted that I’ve talked to “many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances.”

In sum, there is a lot of overlap between Elizabeth White’s work and the realities that face those who have been severely bullied at work in midlife. I have her book on order and look forward to spending time with it.

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Relevant past blog posts

To find your passion, give it time to find you

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Psychologist Angela Duckworth (Univ. of Pennsylvania), in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, recognizes that many new graduates have not have discovered the passions that commencement speakers so fervently urge them to follow:

If you’re relying on a commencement speaker to set your compass, you may still be confused at day’s end. In my experience, it’s common to hear “Follow your passion” from the podium. This is great counsel if, in fact, you know what that passion is. But what if you don’t?

. . . As a psychologist who studies world-class achievers, I can say the reality of following your passion is not very romantic. It takes time to develop a direction that feels so in-the-bones right that you never want to veer from it.

Duckworth suggests that instead of following a passion, many would be benefit by fostering a passion. In her article, she elaborates upon three pieces of advice for doing so:

  • “Move toward what interests you.”
  • “Seek purpose.”
  • “Finish strong.”

I can relate

Duckworth’s advice rings very true to me.

I have friends from law school who have been in same field of law — and in a few cases have been with the same employer — since our graduation. During those years, they have progressed from novices to masters, fueled by ongoing, heartfelt commitments to what they are doing.

Those who have known me for some time would likely attest that I have always had stuff that I was passionate about, especially in the general realm of law, politics, and public policy. I have long harbored the instincts of a reformer and a maverick, though often driven more by a generalized resistance to authority than a commitment to finely honed principles.

However, I didn’t become interested in workers’ rights until I became a union shop steward for the NYC Legal Aid lawyers’ union. I didn’t discover the burgeoning topic of workplace bullying until the late 90s. My deep interest in psychology as a frame for looking at the law didn’t start to sharpen until roughly eight years ago.

Today I find myself centered on multidisciplinary approaches to supporting dignity in the workplace and on efforts to make law and public policy more attentive to psychologically healthy outcomes. This work is likely to be lifelong, yet it was not on my radar screen when I graduated from college or law school many moons ago.

In other words, when I tell my own students that their passions may not come into focus until many years after graduation, I speak from experience. You just can’t hurry this stuff, and I’m glad folks like Prof. Duckworth are sharing that message.

 

Do more Americans need to pack their bags in order to maximize work opportunities?

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Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), believes that Americans must be more willing to move in order to maximize their work opportunities. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, he writes:

Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers.

. . . Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement. As Horace Greeley so famously advised in 1865: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

. . . Fewer and fewer people are taking Greeley’s suggestion. In the mid-1960s, about 20 percent of the population moved in any given year, according to the United States Census Bureau. By 1990, it was approaching 15 percent. Today it’s closer to 10 percent. The percentage that moves between states has fallen by nearly half since the early 1990s.

Brooks offers a provocative thesis built on statistics of which I was previously unaware, and he offers thoughtful policy prescriptions to support greater individual mobility.

On a personal level, I understand the benefits of mobility. I’ve made two major moves during my life, first from NW Indiana to New York City, and then from NYC to Boston. Both helped to open up significant career and work opportunities for me. By contrast, at times I’ve been frustrated when, at my downtown Boston university, some of my students have passed on promising opportunities in places as close as New Hampshire or Connecticut, citing a reluctance to “relocate.” Could my anecdotal experience be connected to Brooks’s observation that since the Great Recession, “mobility decline . . . has actually been the most pronounced among millennials”?

However, we also must assess the reality of what has been called the Great American Jobs Machine. In recent decades, the largest job growth has been in the lower paid service sector. True, marginally better opportunities may present themselves, as Brooks suggests, to people in Mississippi (6.3 percent unemployment rate) who move to New Hampshire (2.6 percent). But that won’t do much to reverse the burgeoning wealth gap and the ongoing demise of good jobs with decent wages and benefits.

Thus, it’s arguable that until we create a stronger base of jobs nationally, we’re doing only slightly more than shifting around the deck chairs on a sinking ship by encouraging people to move where jobs are in greater supply. A greater sense of flexibility and even adventure may help to better match the right people with the right jobs, but ultimately we need more good jobs just about everywhere.

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage

Hard to do without $$$

Hard to do without $$$

“Encore careers” is a term that has come to capture the dynamic of experienced professionals who step off of demanding, if highly paid, treadmills to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website (tag line “second acts for the greater good”) and a book devoted to encore careers. The inherent idea is this: You’ve made your pile of cash, or perhaps invested/inherited/married your way into it. Now it’s time to get away from the grind and do something more personally fulfilling.

I’ve written about encore careers on several occasions here on this blog. For those who can afford to move in this direction, the possibilities are rich. But it is increasingly clear that the option of pursuing an encore career will be available to very few Boomers and Gen Xers, and likely to few Millennials as well. The reason basically boils down to personal finances, including the costs of living, schooling, and raising a family, as well as the challenges of saving for retirement. Too many are already earning a modest income. They don’t need a lower paid encore career to put even more pressures on their financial well being. And for those who are underemployed or unemployed, the notion of an encore career may be sheer fantasy.

This is not to say that vocational mobility and new careers are impossibilities. Far from it. Additional training, education, and certifications can open up doors for people who are returning to the workforce or trying to switch gears. It isn’t always easy, but viable options exist.

However, the encore concept of making a bundle and then switching to a “making a difference” career isn’t very realistic for many people.

So even if earning a living at a job that provides scant psychic income is in the cards for the longer haul, does this mean that personally fulfilling work and activities can never enter one’s life picture? Nope, not by a longshot. For years, I’ve been promoting immersive avocations and hobbies as potential keys to a fulfilling life. They may include artistic and creative endeavors, outdoor and sporting activities, caring for animals, political and social causes, side gig businesses, intellectual projects, lifelong learning, community and faith-based service, or enjoyable pastimes.

In unusual instances, that avocation or hobby could transform into a decent paying, full-time gig. But even if it doesn’t, it can fill a gap in one’s life left by the intersection of work and personal obligations. Such activities may be enormously fulfilling and meaningful.

The challenges of finding personally rewarding work at decent pay will continue. Against this backdrop, vocations and hobbies will loom larger as sources of individual fulfillment. If you’d like to ponder this topic further, I invite you to read these earlier articles:

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Success vs. significance on the job

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Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber, in an excellent blog piece for Next Avenue, recounts a talk he attended featuring Dr. Aravind Srinivasan, a pioneering eye surgeon:

Here’s what Srinivasan said: “There’s a difference between success and significance. Success is what happens to you. Significance is what happens through you. Success is what comes to you. Significance is what you give away to others.”

The good doctor’s observation caused Webber to reflect:

It’s the kind of distinction that, when you hear it, makes you stop and think. You think about the difference between success and significance. And you think about your own life and the culture in which we live.

We live in a culture that worships success. Money is the default setting we use to measure success: The more money you make, the greater your success. The greater your success, the more you are deemed worthy.

We tend to equate wealth and success with intelligence and talent. If you are rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, you are qualified to have important opinions. You’re worth listening to. You may even be qualified to run for President.

Beware of avaricious success seekers

If “success is what comes to you” and “significance is what you give away to others,” then let me say: Beware of grasping, covetous success seekers.  They rationalize raw ambition to the exclusion of so many other qualities and values. They walk over and through other people; the skillful ones do it with smiles on their faces and may be appear, at least from a distance, as charming or even “friendly.” They may manipulate and bully as necessary, especially if someone is in their way. Whether due to insecurity, entitlement, or some combination of both, they believe that the brass ring should be theirs for the grabbing.

I have seen these folks in higher education, as I’m sure you’ve seen them in your vocation. There’s another odd dynamic that I’ve noticed about this type of individual in my business: They have a knack for racking up accolades relatively early in their careers, even when it’s not clear that they’ve accomplished anything of . . . well . . . significance. It’s almost as if they’re getting public brownie points for building their resumes. These honors and recognitions fuel their belief that future kudos are their birthright.

Instead…

Generically speaking, most of us want to be “successful,” however we might regard the term. Indeed, aspirations, goals, hopes, and dreams are all fine. So let’s pursue them with authenticity, guided by an inner ethical voice that says we should strive to make contributions of significance and treat others with a baseline of dignity.

Charging tuition for credit-bearing, unpaid internships

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I’m delighted that Washington Post reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel is shining a light on the all-too-common practice of colleges and universities charging full tuition for unpaid internships that earn academic credit. In a front-page, bottom-of-the-fold story in today’s edition, she reports on Seton Hall University (New Jersey) students who are mounting a petition drive, calling upon the university to stop charging for internship credits:

Seton Hall University senior [Joshua Siegel] is among a group of students petitioning the school in South Orange, N.J., to stop charging for internship credits.

“It’s unfortunate that the school, which is not providing the service, not facilitating the process, not suffering any strain on its resources, feels it is owed compensation for me performing a function on my own,” Siegel said.

The university is responding by saying that the resources invested in overseeing, supervising, and monitoring internships justify that tuition charges. This response echoes what others within the higher education industry are saying in defending this practice.

True, a university expends resources in sponsoring credit-earning internship programs. However, those resources are largely administrative, with some faculty oversight that doesn’t come close to demanding the time and effort devoted to traditional classroom teaching and evaluation of students. I believe that charging some fee for facilitating and overseeing credit-earning internships is appropriate, but not close to full tuition.

Here’s one of my quotes in the Washington Post article:

“This is a huge ethical issue for universities that they are sneaking under the rug,” said David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “In this era of skyrocketing student debt, the fact that students are probably having to borrow money to do an internship for free is appalling.”

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