Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Helpful Hints for Hidden Hoops

Over the past week, I've heard three separate discussions of invisible hoops in the job market that disfavor folks who are already disfavored. Since that describes the majority of cc students, it seems relevant here.

The first, which I've seen before, was the recent kerfuffle over unpaid internships. The law stipulates that unpaid internships should be for the benefit of the student, not of the 'employer,' and that the intern can't do things that people are normally paid to do. It seems to be increasingly the case that students who have internships in their background have a leg up in the job market over students who don't.

This is a class trap. On a really basic level, who can afford to work unpaid? Generally, that would be “those who don't need the money.” Second, community college students who do internships frequently find that the academic credits for the internships don't transfer; the four-year schools generally prefer to offer those themselves. So an ambitious and serious student finds herself paying twice for the privilege of working unpaid.

Then there's the educational value, or not, of the internship itself. I admit that my own summer internship in college was useful; it dissuaded me from going to law school. I learned that I don't want to do what lawyers do. That's good information to have at age 20. But too many internships seem to amount to free photocopying.

The second hoop was a confessed bias against the unemployed. I had a conversation with a local business owner who sometimes employs our grads. He was congenial, and supportive of the college's efforts to prepare students for the work world. In discussion, though, he noted without hesitation that part of the reason he likes young graduates is that they haven't crapped out elsewhere. By his reasoning, companies don't lay off their top performers, and top performers at dying companies bail before the collapse; therefore, if someone over twenty-five is unemployed, it's because there's something wrong with them. I was too shocked to ask about older returning students.

As regular readers know, I'm profoundly opposed to characterizing the job market as any sort of meritocracy. It gravely underestimates the importance of luck and timing, and it leads to ungracious attitudes among those who caught breaks. But this version surprised me. If enough people held this position, it would effectively rule second chances out of bounds. To equate “loss of job” with “loss of virtue” strikes me as a category mistake of the highest order, and as likely to do real harm.

It's also based on a factual mistake. Some of the best hires we've made have been people who were out of jobs. In this market, some very good people are without work. Ruling them out, sight unseen, is both inaccurate and inhumane.

Finally, in a presentation by a big muckety-muck from the Federal government, in which he discussed hiring needs in the area of national defense and homeland security – a phrase that still sounds faintly German to me – he mentioned that most of the more lucrative jobs require a security clearance, and a security clearance requires a good credit rating.

To which I thought, huh?

I imagined an argument having to do with susceptibility to bribery: someone in financial trouble is presumably easier to sway with money that someone who isn't. Whether it actually plays out that way, I don't know, but there's a surface plausibility to it. But his argument wasn't about vulnerability; it was about “integrity.” He equated a low credit rating with low personal integrity.

Though he didn't spell it out, one major contributor to low credit ratings is trouble paying back student loans.

Putting the three together, I came away with a roadmap for success.

1. Try to pick parents wealthy enough to support you doing unpaid internships.
2. Try to pick parents wealthy enough that you don't have to borrow much for college.
3. Never lose a job, or go without one, after you graduate. One way to do that is to pick parents who own their own lucrative business, so you always have a job to fall back on.

I hope that helps. Meanwhile, for those who chose the wrong parents...

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