Serf Ready

I participate in a lot of discussions lately about helping our students be “work ready” or “career ready.” We talk about training, mentoring, coaching, and in my opinion, the most effective avenue to workplace readiness, internships and jobs. So it was with some concern that I ready an Op-Ed piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times regarding the problems with internships. Ross Perlin argues that the collusion between higher ed and employers to push unpaid internships exploits students, violates the law, and provides unfair advantage to those most able to afford the privilege. 
In my recent recruiting experience, college and grad students often have resumes that sparkle and shine with blue-chip names. Stints at investment banks, consulting firms, law firms, high-level govenrmental agencies, prestigious non-profits leave me feeling that my summer in a tool-and-die factory was the result of a misspent youth. Yet it nags at me – how many of these internships are hard-earned, and how many are bought and paid for? What Perlin does not mention is that as the market for these experiences grows, their value diminishes. Employers know the game and are increasingly viewing the solid gold-plated resume with a suspicious eye. 

I remember reading about the college admission season, with colleges sorting through thousands of applications from students with stellar summer experiences. Photojournalism trips to Bolivia, agricultural summers spent in South Africa, and other experiences litter the applications. Yet one admissions officer from Yale stated that they understand the game people are playing, and suggested that he takes more interest in a student who spent their summer pumping gas at the local gas station. At least then, he offered, he knew the student had some real-world experience.
The employment market these days is brutal. I talk to highly qualified young lawyers, fresh out of law school, who cannot find volunteer work, let alone a paying job with a law firm, with which to fill their resumes.  Technologists struggle to find work in the information technology field. Sales people are left without jobs as sales have dropped. The solid gold resumes do not appear to help when there are no jobs. 
There are bright spots. I read yesterday that at my alma mater, job offers to graduating seniors are triple what they were a year ago. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.8% last month. There are glimmers of hope. 
So what do we do we make of all this? Perlin’s article points out the need to be vigilant. We have an obligation to help place our students in meaningful internships – most hopefully while getting paid. I still believe being work-ready through experience is the best way to prepare our students for the world of work. While looking for opportunities, though, we should guard against the easy placement into jobs that pad resumes and exploit our students without truly preparing them. Our future employers will value our students when they offer a firm handshake, look in their eyes, and tell their life story convincingly and with passion. When we prepare our students to do this, we prepare them for a lifetime of confidently facing the future.

5 thoughts on “Serf Ready

  1. President Laackman,It's refreshing that a president at CCC is willing to speak so openly about issues of labor exploitation. As I read the article, these lines stood out and seemed particularly relevant: "uncritical internship fever on college campuses — not to mention the exploitation of graduate student instructors, adjunct faculty members and support staff — is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Far from being the liberal, pro-labor bastions of popular image, universities are often blind to the realities of work in contemporary America."–I'd hardly say that universities are blind to the realities of work in contemporary America. Instead, they exemplify these realities. But one of the implications of the above statement is that the problem of exploiting students through internships is directly related to how colleges treat their own faculty and staff. In other words, when a college makes the decision to pay the majority of its faculty members horrible wages then they are making a decision about how much they value students and how much they value work. So, if we don't want to set our students up to be exploited, then we need to not exploit our own employees. In other words, when an institution exploits its teachers it tells students that their mentors and role models are not worthy of a decent wage and the respect they deserve. Sadly, right now, CCC and public education in general, are stuck in a culture of continuous exploitation. I think the point here is that we can correct the situation of our students being exploited when we correct our own exploitative practices.Thank you for starting this conversation. I look forward to reading your reply. —CCC faculty member.

  2. Xavier – You appear to link the exploitation of students in internships to the treatment of teachers. I am not ready to accept that link, nor do I fully understand what you mean when you say our faculty are exploited. We have a special responsibility to students. When a higher ed institution gives college credit for an unpaid internship that exploits a student (by violating the law, and by charging the student for a service the college is not providing), that institution is doing a disservice to that student. That student believes, rightly, that the credit granted is a sign of approval from the institution for the internship. In my view, that is a breach of trust.I view employees differently, but I am seeking to understand your point of view. You state that we exploit our employees. Is this truly the view of our employees? Do our full-time faculty feel exploited? Do they feel, as you assert, horribly paid? I would like to see the evidence. In my one-on-ones, I ask faculty what they would like to change about Harold Washington. No one, to date, has raised his or her pay as an issue. You may mean adjuncts are exploited. Do you have data to support that statement, or is it based on the opinion that they should be paid more? Do we exploit someone if they choose to come to us because they are attracted to our mission, but they could make more money elsewhere? Am I exploited because I left the business world and chose to work here because I am attracted to Harold Washington's mission? I do not feel exploited – in fact, I feel privileged. I don't know if adjuncts are paid too little (or too much.) I often take an economist's point of view and believe in the power of markets to provide us evidence of individual preferences. Do adjuncts work for us because they prefer Harold Washington and working in our environment, or because they prefer to earn what we pay over the other options available to them? I don't know (and suspect they teach at HWC for many reasons) but I am looking for evidence that we have a market failure. One way to understand if this is the case is to understand how well we are meeting students' needs. I'd like to see the data that tells us that paying adjuncts more will lead to better outcomes for students. That is a case worth arguing. I may be missing the point on exploitation. I am open to being educated. I look forward to your response, particularly if you have evidence to ground our dialogue in facts.

  3. Howdy President L.1. The articles says that adjuncts are exploited. It links the exploitation of adjuncts to the exploitation of interns. The point it's making is that colleges are willing to send their students out to get exploited through internships because they are already exploiting their own faculty. I didn't make the link. The article did, right? Or do you read those lines differently? 1.2. You ask: do we exploit someone if the choose to come to us? In the article, students are also choosing to become interns. If we take away the legal issue raised in the article, I'm not sure I see the difference. 1.3.Yes, I mean adjuncts are exploited. And adjuncts are the majority of faculty members at CCC. I'm not sure why you think I”m assuming that you would be exploited. I don't know what you're salary is but I'm guessing it's not so bad. 1.4.You don't know if adjuncts are paid too little. Really? Really? I've had semesters where I teach 7 courses at 3 campuses, and the CCC pay is by far the lowest. I do the best job I can and I respect my students and believe in teaching. But to be honest when I've got 200 students at 3 different campuses that means I don't have as much as time as I'd like to prepare for class and grade student work. I don't know what the research says about outcomes. My students do pretty well in my course. I do the best I can. If I were teaching full-time in one school, I would do much better. Yes, I choose to do this, it's my “individual preference.” But it's also my “individual preference” to eat and pay my bills. If I quit, I don't pay rent. Pretty simple economics here. Long run – I need to figure something else out though – that's for sure. It will be sad for me to do this because I love teaching. FYI – At one school I teach at night I share an office with 4 people I've never seen before. I've never seen the department chair there or any of other faculty in the department. I have no idea where to find a xerox machine, let alone an envelope or a pad of paper. You get the point. 1.5.Are you meeting one-on-one with adjunct faculty? Or just full-time? Does it surprise you that full-time faculty don't talk about what adjuncts make?1.6.It's admirable of you to conduct this forum publicly.

  4. XavierIn re: 1.1 You are right, the article made the link. I still don't agree with it.1.2 I feel the university's responsibility to a student, particularly when they are granting credit, is different that the relationship to an employee.1.3/1.4 Markets determine pay. If our adjunct pay were "too low", no one would choose to be an adjunct. If we paid more, we might attract higher quality adjuncts. In that case, you might find yourself competing for teaching slots with more qualified adjunct candidates. I am not judging your specific qualifications (I am sure you are highly qualified and talented) but there is a price at which you risk not getting the adjunct position at all if highest quality candidates crowd you out. The institution needs to balance affordability against quality. You need to balance the wage against alternatives (starving, working at another institution, working in another industry.) The market pricing signals what those levels ought to be.There are many ways for you to pay your bills. You choose to teach because of a combination of pay, intrinsic rewards, the employment conditions, etc. To the extent we can make your employment conditions more desirable, I am committed to help with that. I know Reinvention is looking at what the research says about adjunct ratios to f/t faculty and the role of adjuncts. No answers yet, but they are studying it.1.5 Anyone at HWC can set up time for a one-on-one with me by contacting Maggie, my assistant. I have met with adjuncts, and pay has not come up. That does not mean it is not an issue.1.6 I am sure I'll learn my lesson.

  5. Yes,Pay is not an issue for adjuncts. No, not anywhere. They really enjoy earning a miserable $1,200 to $2,000 per course taught, traveling a hundred miles or more every week between colleges and trying to survive themselves (and perhaps including some dependents) on a meager $17,000 to $20,000 per year. It is, after all, like the president has said elsewhere, what the market bears. That old wise holy ghost.The market and its glorious businessmen are so efficient and productive that they brought to us the Great Recession, a housing crisis that won't be solved for years, that stubborn real unemployment rate, and plenty of assorted "niceties."Yes, indeed, the adjuncts are not exploited.

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