Free Labor Thoughts on Labor Day

I never actually had to wear a name tag at any internship. Photo courtesy of Socialimpressions.net

We said goodbye to summer yesterday, Labor Day, so now it’s time to talk about work. Many of you who know me – my husband leading the pack – will agree that most topics out of my mouth are work-related. I’m a glutton for punishment. I like work. It’s my father’s entrepreneurial blood coursing through my views, tainted with my mother’s old English sternness and no-nonsense sensibility that has turned me into a workaholic.

It’s with many years toiling in various fields that I comment on Britain’s movement to ban advertising of free internships.

A recent article in the Guardian states: “The web’s biggest job-boards, including Monster, Milkround and Totaljobs, have banded together to call for the government to outlaw the advertising of possibly tens of thousands of unpaid positions that contravene national minimum wage laws.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg, “rejects call for ban,” stating such action would create a black market for internships.

The general thought from the opposition is only “rich” students are taking unpaid internships while the working class is left to “work.” Clegg actually agrees with his opposition, but argues that the ban on the advertising of unpaid work will lead to an even worse “who you know” mentality making it even harder for average youth to land opportunities.

Many of the points are true. Many I’m not entirely sure I agree with.

I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember (since senior year of high school) and a journalist since I learned how to spell (freshman year of college; still can’t spell). Once I made my mind up, and I realized how tough the industry was to break into, I began the search for free work.

I landed my first unpaid internship at Philadelphia Weekly as a sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA and at the same time, my first job as an on-campus pub hostess.

The free internship was my first introduction to the “real world” of journalism outside the field trips professors had taken our classes on to various newsrooms in the city. The hostess gig was great money, especially on $.25 draft nights when I doubled as a beer slinger. 

At Philly Weekly, I had a shared workspace and an old tan-colored PC computer to work on. I was “in charge” of “compiling the arts & entertainment event listings” (sounded great on my first resume), which meant I manually typed event listings fed through a fax machine into a Quark file. In the first week, I learned that the version of Quark I was using was so old that it couldn’t even save automatically. I lost my first week of work when the power mysteriously went out. I never forgot to hit “control + Alt +S” ever again.

Whether the big lesson was learning how to save files every moment or it was about finding a stepping stone to the next gig, my first internship was one of the most valuable work experiences I ever obtained. I never once dreamed I should have been paid. I could not believe the company would let me do all that work. For free. I wore my badge of free labor with pride.

From Philly Weekly it was off to Connecticut Magazine the following summer where I also “compiled” their arts & entertainment calendar. I had put my time in by internship number two so I was also given assignments to do “features” reporting. That summer I also had a paid part-time job.

After Connecticut Magazine I went to Philadelphia Magazine where I organized a “hoagie taste-test” and became the unofficial keeper of all the young interns. I was seasoned by then. I had also graduated to hostess of one of the most popular restaurants in the city. From dirty college pub to the Rittenhouse Square dining elite; I had arrived.

After graduating, I still worked for free, taking my last internship as a research intern at the Village Voice (still working a part-time job). I went from arts and hoagies to muckraking and digging in political filth. The last free gig was the hardest. I can promise I would have never obtained that job if I had not worked my way through the other internships.  I called the Village Voice almost everyday to “check on the status of my application” when I was applying. I truly believe they got so annoyed with me calling that the editor gave me an interview to shut me up. He threw his legs on top of the desk as he interviewed me – so casual I thought for sure he was blowing me off. I learned later that meant he was comfortable with the situation (or really needed to rest his feet). He told me he didn’t want to hire me because I would have to take the train from Connecticut to New York and he didn’t think I would have the stamina to do it. I did. And I always arrived at least an hour before the “rich” kid whose daddy paid for his apartment next to the office in Greenwich Village.

So I think the Brits have a point: it’s far easier for wealthy kids “in the know” to land free internships. I probably would have struggled to work the ones I did if I had to pay rent and college tuition all on my own. But what I don’t agree with at all, is acting as if working free has no value.

When you sign-on to work for free it shows you’re passionate about what you’re doing. You figure out what your made of and what it takes to accomplishment a task because you love what you’re doing or you’re so eager to learn something new. It’s the hazing period you need to keep you humble as you enter the real working world where favors are never done for you and where people get promoted around you all the time. That’s life. It’s better to learn early.

So what should students get out of working for free beside experience and open doors for future opportunity? College credit in my opinion. Every internship should equal some college credit and students should be allowed to do an internship every semester in exchange for a regular course. I am proposing that students actually pay for their internships!

The U.S. Department of Labor has set up a list of unpaid intern criteria that for-profit companies must follow in employing people for free. Perhaps the most important point, and the one that neatly wraps up my thoughts today: “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern…”

 

So go get a free job kids and help yourself. It many be the only chance you’ll ever have to work someplace so amazing as the New York Times, Vice Magazine or a web start-up creating something brand new and industry-changing. You’ll have your whole life to work for minimum wage and for half of what you deserve at some place that’s average at-best. I promise.

 

By the Numbers

U.S. general unemployment June 2011: 9.2%

Britain unemployment for those two-years post graduate, June 2011: 18.9%

U.S. Min. Wage 2013: $7.25

Britain Min. Wage 2013: $9.46 (6.08 pounds)*

*Britain’s cost of living is 18% higher than U.S. According to Daily Mail article.

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