What a Contrast! You’re Either Overpaid or “Free”

It’s a crazy world we’re living in. Truly.

Making the news these days we can see examples of extreme weather events the world over, and the employment situation is not too far behind. It seems that you’re either burning hot or frigidly cold as an employee – or, to put it in less analogous terms, you’re either overpaid or you’re free.

I was blown away when I saw this MarketWatch article reporting on a recent Glassdoor study into the earnings of interns. It seems that, while the ‘average’ intern earns “between $2,400 and $3,100 a month (the equivalent of a $28,000 to $37,200 annual salary)”, there are a lucky few interns who earn “more than the median household income of $53,046” (Fottrell, March 2nd, 2014). Not surprisingly, the top paying companies are largely technology-based and include (respectively): Palantir, VMware, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Microsoft, eBay, Exxon Mobil, Google, and Apple (Fottrell, March 2nd, 2014). At Palantir, interns make the equivalent of $84,144 in annual salary; with Apple they make a measly $68,676 (Fottrell, March 2nd, 2014).

On the flip side, other recent graduates struggle to find paid internships and end up caught for years in a cycle of one unpaid contract after another (The Canadian Press, 2014). Sean Geobey, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the author of a recent report entitled The Young and the Jobless, notes that the number of unpaid interns rose dramatic after the 2008 economic recession (The Canadian Press, 2014). Although to date there haven’t been any efforts to track or prevent this type of employment, the pressure is now on government, private industry, and other stakeholders to effectively regulate and curtail any form of employment which does not provide adequate compensation in return for an intern’s work, effort, and time (The Canadian Press, 2014).

Obviously this is not a world entirely comprised of extremes. I’m sure that there are just as many interns out there who are making a regular, average, yet totally reasonable salary. I would argue, however, that perhaps the entire concept of an internship is flawed. If you look up the definition of “intern”, you will see (roughly) the following explanations:

1. Noun: a student or trainee who works, sometimes without pay, at a trade or occupation in order to gain work experience.
2. Verb: serve as an intern.
3. Verb: confine (someone) as a prisoner, esp. for political or military reasons.
I don’t know about you, but I’m vaguely uncomfortable with the similarities between this word – which we currently use to describe someone trying to get ahead, start their career, and network with professionals – and a word which involves shackling a person to a wall for “political or military reasons”.
The etymology of the word ‘intern’ involves a legacy of French (interner “send to the interior, confine”), Middle French (interne “inner, internal”), and Latin usages (internus “within, internal”) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2014). The French appropriation of the word eventually led to it being used to describe doctors, who were literally “resident[s] within a school” at the time (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2014). This phrasing is first recorded in 1933, though the word was used to describe a person working under supervision to receive professional training as early as 1879 (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2014).
Today very few of us are doctors confined, or interned, to a school to gain knowledge in our professional practice. However, our increasingly specialized and niche careers do demand that we complete training similar to that of a doctor before we can enter into – well, any job, really. We’re living in an era of hyper-specialization (Malone, Laubacher & Johns, 2011). This has brought us increased wealth as a society, but also shackled some of our youngest members to economic confines from which they will be lucky to escape.
What if we lived in a world where interns and internships did not exist? What would the alternative be? I imagine that businesses could instead develop innovative mentorship programs for young workers to learn from established people in the business. The time and resource commitment of monitoring and coaching a new employee is always significant, but can benefit a business greatly if the employee provides substantial returns.
I also imagine a significant reorientation of business operations in a world where internships do not exist. Large, top-heavy organizations are on their way out (Hamel, 2011); several of Canada’s Top 100 Employers (e.g. 3M Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network Inc.) take the time to provide adequate care and attention to their employees. This kind of investment results in rewards for both the employee and the business involved. A world without internships would value employees from the ‘top’ to the ‘bottom’.
I hope that, despite this crazy world that we’re living in with all its contrasts, our future working world involves a more nurturing, mentorship-oriented, and respectful approach to its employees (both new and established).

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