Sunday, June 30, 2013

 

Of Temps and Trainees

First jobs have changed.  

I’m not referring to summer jobs for teenagers, which are largely what they’ve always been.  I’m referring here to first “real” jobs -- full-time, salaried, open-ended positions that might lead somewhere.

Back in the late 90’s, during the Clinton boom, I used to hear variations on “you educate them., and we’ll train them.”  That was even true working at DeVry, which prided itself on producing “instant on” workers.  When the economy was humming along and labor shortages in certain fields were the order of the day, it wasn’t weird for companies to look for generally smart people and train them in the specifics of what they did.  Given the speed with which the tech sector evolved, that method made sense; by the time you finished a four year degree, much of what you had learned in the first two years was already obsolete anyway.  Beyond some basics, employers wanted to know that you were trainable, and that you had enough workplace sense that they could surround you with adults and not worry about it.

My brother played the situation similarly.  He was a history and religion double major, but he found himself a company that was willing to train smart people to work as technical writers.  He has been able to fashion a successful career from there.  Once the first foot was in the door, he was fine.

In the recent discussion of colleges and workforces, though, I’ve seen a shift.  Employers in general are less willing to train -- they’re much more vocal about wanting the “instant on” employee.  The speed of technical change hasn’t slowed -- if anything, it has accelerated -- but the old “you educate them, we’ll train them” model isn’t as popular as it was.

Part of that, I suspect, is the switch from a labor shortage to a labor surplus.  Those of us in academia know this shift well, since we experienced it first.  When employers are desperate for people, they’ll overlook a few gaps in preparation and fill them in later.  But when you have your choice of great people, it’s easy to sacrifice training budgets and just hire people who have already done the job elsewhere.  Why put up with rookie mistakes when there are experienced people eager to step in?

In a sense, the temp is the new trainee.  That’s where the experience comes from now.  In academia, that means adjuncting; in the corporate world, it means internships or project-based assignments or contract work or straight-up “temping.”  Given plenty of candidates for full-time positions, it’s rational for an employer to prefer candidates with some demonstrated experience over candidates with none.  But candidates are expected to get that experience through an incredibly low-paid sort of pickup work that was never designed to be educative.  

The old apprenticeship or trainee model wasn’t terribly well-paid either, but it was specifically designed to both produce better workers and weed out the hopeless.  And when times were better, it actually led somewhere.  

The graduate student unionization movement that took hold in the 90’s was an early response to the realization that a generation of grad students was getting the worst of both worlds.  Grad school was still designed on the old apprenticeship model -- that’s how they justified the poverty and peonage -- but upon graduation, those same students had to serve time in the new temp-based form of training.  And even after all that, which could easily add up to a decade or more, there was no guarantee of a real job at the end.  The unionization drive was based on a recognition that it’s one thing to defer gratification and another to forego it altogether; if grad student peonage is merely low-paid work, rather than sufficient training, then the workers should be allowed to protect their rights.  Which, in fact, they should.  It didn’t solve the larger problem, but it was better than nothing.

Now that a variation on the academic model has made its way throughout the economy, colleges are getting blamed for not preparing students for jobs.  Yes, there’s always room for improvement, but at a basic level this is a misunderstanding.  The jobs have changed.  All of us -- higher ed, the broader public, political leadership -- are still coming to terms with that.  Community colleges are part of a solution, but the issue is far, far larger.

Comments:
Dean Dad, nice piece of analysis! Corresponds to a lot of things I have noted about the current job market.

The days in which companies would hire fresh young graduates and then train them in the specific skills that are needed on the job are long gone. Nowadays, new employees are expected to be able to jump right in to the work at hand without needing any expensive, time-consuming on-the-job training.

One can see this by looking at the advertisements that you see for these jobs— all of these ads seem to say that they require years and years of experience in the specific skill set needed for the job in order for the applicant to even be considered. Re the job ads you often see that seem to require much more experience than any single mortal can possibly have.

Companies can do this because in many fields there is an oversupply of candidates and a shortage of available positions. Unless you are lucky and happen to have majored in a field that is currently hot or are located in a region where there are companies hiring in your area of specialty, you will be doomed to living at home with your parents and flipping burgers at Wendy’s.

In order to gain this required experience, a lot of students are forced to agree to serve in unpaid internships or to work part-time in their areas of expertise. They hope to build up their resumes with the high levels of specific experience that employers seem to demand nowadays, so that they can eventually land a full-time gig in their discipline. But there are now so many graduates competing for so few full-time openings that many students will be destined to interning or part-timing for a long, long time before they grab the brass ring of a full-time job in their field.

This is true with a vengeance in academe. There are so many people with Masters and PhD degrees being churned out by the graduate schools and so few full-time academic positions available that most of the people want to pursue a career in higher ed must settle for adjunct, part time positions just in order to pay their bills. Many of them will never be able to find a full-time academic job, and will be doomed to freeway-flying for the rest of their lives. After several years of this, they now realize that instead of being in an entry-level position, they are in a dead-end job with no future. At some time, they will have to wake up to reality and recognize that they have made a bad career choice and will have to consider doing something else.

 
In order to gain this required experience, a lot of students are forced to agree to serve in unpaid internships

Which are illegal except under certain narrow conditions.

Frankly, it's about time the government stopped obsessing about "union bosses" and started enforcing employment laws. When companies break the law, whether it's unpaid interns, illegal immigrants, insider trading, or whatever, then there needs to be real, meaningful consequences for the folks who made those decisions. Personal consequences, not corporate fines that get paid out of company revenues (and shareholder profits).
 
I did some digging into unpaid internships. Here’s what I found.

For college students seeking full-time jobs upon graduation, an unpaid internship at a company or organization in their particular field can be a useful method of gaining valuable experience, in networking, in getting additional job-related training, and in obtaining good recommendations. In addition, they are seen as a possible way for a student to get their foot in the door at the company, to get experience, and to improve their resume, in the hope that they can eventually land a full time job there. In many cases, unpaid internships have effectively become the equivalent of entry-level jobs for students seeking employment in their field.

In many industries — including media, communications, writing, publishing and film production — unpaid internships are practically a rite of passage for many students. This is because people in these fields rely on their experiences, achievements and portfolios far more than in a field like engineering or business. The competitive nature of these fields also means that students are often more than willing to work for free in order to get a leg up. Up to 1 million unpaid internships are offered each year. About 55 percent of the class of 2012 had an internship or co-op at some during their time in college. Almost half of those — 47 percent — were unpaid. A third of internships at for-profit companies were unpaid. Many employers say that a documented record of internships (either paid or unpaid) is one of the top reasons why a graduate is hired.. Many colleges grant academic credit for internships.

Although unpaid internships are not illegal, in order to prevent potential abuses, there are strict Department of Labor guidelines that are applied to unpaid internships. The internship must be for the purpose of actual training (similar to that that would be obtained in a college classroom), the intern must not displace regular employees, the employer must not derive any immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, both the employer and the intern must clearly understand that no payment is to be made, and the intern must be made aware of the fact that there is no guarantee (explicit or otherwise) of a full-time job being made available at the end of the internship. The rules for non-profit organizations are somewhat more relaxed, since non-profits are allowed to have unpaid “volunteers”.

Anyone looking to hire unpaid interns needs to have an appreciation for the nebulous area of the law they are entering, understanding the difficulty of complying with the Department of Labor’s specifications. They are entering a potential legal minefield, since there have been several lawsuits brought by disgruntled interns. Critics of unpaid internships allege that employers are using unpaid interns for their own benefit, and in place of regular employees. It is extremely difficult for an employer to demonstrate that they are in full compliance with all of these DoL guidelines, and unless they are extremely careful, what they are doing could actually be illegal and could get them dragged into court. This uncertain legal environment may discourage companies from offering unpaid internships at all.

I guess that the bottom line of all this is whether the intern actually acquires valuable learning experience from the internship experience, that they made good connections, and that they have added useful achievements to their resume, rather than simply doing menial, grunt, or gofer work.

 
No, the switch isn't to "labor surplus". The switch is from an environment in which managers were paid by their wealthy patrons to make a profit to an environment in which managers are paid by their wealthy patrons to prosecute the Class War.

So they ask the impossible, then claim that they cannot be expected to pay middle-class wages when their requests are not being met.

You saw a perfect example of this when Georgia farmers let their fruit rot in the fields rather than pay Americans to pick them. It just wasn't worth either paying a dollar more an hour or giving the Americans time to build their bodies up to the task. Profits, schmofits. They've got to PROVE that their hatred of the average American is justified.

 
They have to be prepared to move. The great migration in the first part of the last century was due to similar economic stresses. If your part time excellence doesn't lead to a job in one place, take that training to another place. We get far fewer applications at my CC than you get, I would imagine.

PS to P.M. -
I don't think a dollar an hour would be enough.
 
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