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Posts tagged ‘employment’

Stop Telling Students How Much More Money They’ll Make With a Degree

I would prefer not to live in a country in which rhetoric about the purpose of college urges kids from privileged backgrounds to be innovators and creators while the poor kids who do very well in school are taught to be educated, capable employees.

This quote comes from  this article, titled “The Danger of Telling Poor Kids That College Is the Key to Social Mobility” by Andrew Simmons. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in educational issues and socioeconomic differences. The whole thing really hits the nail on the head.money_on_string

Simmons argues that focusing on the monetary rewards of a bachelor’s degree does a disservice to the other, more attractive qualities of college. These are the liberal arts benefits — experimenting with new ideas, expanding your outlook, and learning how to think and communicate critically. We’ve talked about that same point on this blog before, only our focus was on the idea that focusing on how STEM majors earn more money does a disservice to the potential for curiosity and innovation among STEM majors. Simmons indirectly refers to that same point with this statistic: 32% of college students pick a major that doesn’t interest them. Then, big surprise, those 32% are less likely to graduate.

But Simmons’ primary focus is on economic background. While he’s vague about his exact credentials, he makes it clear that he teaches students from lower income families. Again and again, he asserts, the message that lower-income students receive throughout middle and high school is that going to college leads to more money. It’s just assumed that this will be the primary motivator for the less financially privileged.

And that’s ridiculous. Students who have grown up in a household where money is tight already understand the value of a dollar, moreso than their more affluent classmates. The last thing they need is a reminder that money is the end-all, be-all of a career. It’s like we don’t trust poorer students to imagine big, and that’s incredibly disrespectful to their imaginations.

Once you’re out of school and in a career, you really start to see the limits of money as a motivator. Money can motivate you to get out of bed in the morning to go collect your paycheck for a day’s work. It might even motivate you to push yourself a little further for a promotion.

But money can’t motivate you to pour your heart and soul into a project you truly believe in. It can’t motivate you to break the mold. The former is good enough for most people to get by, but the latter is necessary for the people who really want to make a difference or create something great. As Simmons points out in his quote above, that’s the difference between employees and innovators.

Students going into college deserve both more honesty and more encouragement about college. We need to be honest that a degree doesn’t lead directly to a job. We need to be honest that college isn’t for everybody. But we also need to foster bigger ideas in the students that do want to go to college. It’s not about earning potential. It’s about whether a student can look back on his or her college career and feel like they took full advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

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It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

How Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Hands holding a sign reading "Will Work for Credits"

The further along students get in their education, and the closer they get to entering the workforce, the more the line between the two starts to blur. College athletes, for example, aren’t getting paid for their athleticism, other than the lucky ones offered scholarships. But in many cases, their hard work is still making truckloads  of money for their universities.

Internships are the tipping point between education and career. But if higher education is something that you pay to do and employment is something that you are paid to do, which of the two is an internship?

It’s a point of contention, for sure. A group of former interns recently sued the Hearst Corporation in a class action suit, claiming they were owed back-pay. The judge threw out the case, saying they didn’t meet the definition of a “class,” since the work done varied too much between individuals. But if the case had been able to play out, it would have come down to an argument over the nature of the work. Were the interns primarily there to receive instruction and experience, or were they there as a free source of labor?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, there’s a few criteria an unpaid internship must meet to be legally acceptable:

  • It must give educational training.
  • It must be for the benefit of the intern.
  • It can’t displace regular employees.
  • It can’t give your employer a competitive advantage.
  • It isn’t a lengthy try-out for a full-time job.
  • Everybody involved has to know and agree to the fact that there’s no paycheck.

As you can see, a few of these definitions are more than a little fuzzy. (Though keep in mind the phrasing used is mine.) Every job benefits the worker on some level, even if it’s just another line you can put on a resume, so I’m not sure how even the most mind-numbing internship would fall short of that requirement. Also, every intern does work that ties back into the objectives of the company somehow, otherwise no company would hire interns. So while “displacing employees” and “competitive advantage” might be a little strong, in one way or another all interns will be doing work that someone else could be doing. That being said, these vague rules are probably about as fair as they can be, considering the already vague definition of the word “internship.”

So should companies pay for internships or not? It’s a tough question. The classic anti-unpaid argument is that unpaid internships only offer opportunities for employees financially stable enough to work for free. Therefore, if an internship is the expected entry point to a career, that career is only available to people in good socioeconomic standing.

But, fair or unfair, how is that different from any form of higher education? At least an intern doesn’t have to pay the company in anything other than time. Sure, college students can take out loans, but that just leaves them saddled with debt. Either way, isn’t the ultimate objective of both the same: to gain the experience and credentials to help launch your career?

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I took an internship with a newspaper. It didn’t pay and I couldn’t use it for credit. Still, I’m happy I did it. It gave me a major leg-up when looking for entry-level positions after graduation. It got me my first job. But I also only did it for two and a half months. Long enough to get what I needed: experience and recommendations.

I have no doubt that there are a lot of businesses out there exploiting their interns as a source of cheap (or free) labor. But interns should keep in mind that they might be able to exploit those businesses too. Find the business that will give you experiences you can use as future leverage.

The key deciding factor should not be money, but should be variety. If the internship is just repeatedly doing a single, simple, and boring task, it’s not probably not worth doing. If the internship means you get to be shoved into a dozen different bottom-level tasks, then there’s educational value, as well as a dozen new things you can put on a resume and spin into something bigger during future interviews.

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