Tag Archives: unpaid internships

Unemployment is not working

Enough said.

Why do we remember?

We seldom give memory a second thought until we find ourselves at a loss for a word or struggling to put a name to a face. We travel to a location we haven’t visited in years and we find our way around as though we’d never left. A familiar scent or aroma reminds us of people and places and times.

It’s one of our most powerful survival tools—if we use it. It lets us compare what is with what used to be. A wet spot on a ceiling where there wasn’t one before usually means that some shingles are missing or that the entire roof has to be replaced. Green, pink or amber fluid under the car? If you own one, you know what that means.

Left to our own devices, most of us would rather live in a steady-state world. Work 5 days for The Man during the week; head up to the cottage or the slopes on the weekend. But we’re not being left to our own devices. And it’s not as though we’re not aware of what’s going on. How can we not be? It’s in all the papers, on the Internet, in magazines, on TV, and streamed live to our iPads and iPhones. Outsourcing, outplacement, offshoring, downsizing, reorganizing, asset sales, shareholder revolts, mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, budget cuts, management shake-ups, plant closures, reduced hiring, unpaid internships, fixed term contracts with no benefits. And we’re not done yet.

As working adults we can be as selective about what we choose to monitor, compare and contrast as we wish, and even then we have to tread carefully. But, to quote Richard Florida in the Toronto Star:  “We are in the midst of the greatest, most thorough economic transformation in all of history.”

Where our children are concerned, we’ve reached the limits of what we can choose to ignore. Ten years ago you could ask what they wanted to be when they grew up and they’d tell you. Now what they’re saying is, “I want to be employed.”

PDD believes in telling it like it is and how it’s likely to be. We believe in educating our children so that they can think critically about what they’re experiencing, without blinders on. We believe in showing them and their parents how to identify what work Canada needs done now and will need done by the time they graduate from university, community college or trade school. Especially work in fields that didn’t exist when we were in our late teens.


The driver in the vehicle shown here is on a one-way on-ramp. It’s a metaphor for how the class that will be graduating 4 years from now is growing, developing and gaining its own momentum. The expressway is a metaphor for where the world is going. They’ll have to pick their spot in the traffic at the bottom of the ramp and accelerate to match its speed as they merge and integrate with it.

It’s critical that we help them meet the world halfway. Expectations about what kinds of work will be available in the short- and intermediate term have to change. We should give our memories of our earlier years their due. But we have to recognize that those days are gone and that the next several graduating classes are going to have to come to terms with the world as it is now—their world. Their careers have to start somewhere. It isn’t hyperbole to say that theirs may well be the generation that turns this mess around. Other than during times of war, it’s hard to remember the last time entire generations were at risk.

In an earlier post, I wrote about how certain people believe that everything that matters in the world should come with a barcode and a price tag; everything else should be offshored and outsourced. For the moment, those people call the shots, but they’re going to be replaced, hopefully by younger people who see and value the world differently.

PDD is committed to helping parents and their soon-to-be university, community college and trade school graduates make that change happen. Sooner rather than later.

Things your parents didn’t tell you

In the opening scene of Disney’s The Lion King, the sun rises over the Pride Lands of Africa as the animals travel to pay homage to Simba, the newborn son of King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi.

The tribute is the first act in Simba’s Circle of Life. It returns to its starting point with the arrival of Simba’s son Kopa. For some of us, the transition from school to work is the first act in our personal Circle of Life. It returns to its starting point the day we attend the commencement exercises of our sons and daughters.

Students graduating this spring will have no personal recollection of the post World War II era when we converted our factories from wartime to peacetime production, the live broadcast of the coronation of Elizabeth II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the launch of Sputnik and the first manned landing on the moon.

What they will remember is the struggle to find work after commencement, the insult of unpaid internships, temporary contracts with no benefits and no immediately apparent future.

Up until two years ago, the transition from end of formal education to salaried, fulltime positions with prospects was taken as a given. What we’re seeing now is that the Circle of Life isn’t necessarily going to carry the next graduating class into permanent, salaried employment—or, possibly, any work that we used to associate with undergraduate and postgraduate university degrees for that matter.

Structural changes to the economy with lifestyle, occupational and retirement implications started to appear in earnest in the mid-1980s as the global economy began to coalesce. I’d begun to track them for my own children in anticipation of the career selection discussions I knew would come, and they did. Other than for a relative handful of people who had a vested interest in doing the same kinds of tracking, people like Akio MoritaKonosuke Matsushita and Lee Iacocca, for the rest of the world it was business as usual as manufacturing and R&D jobs started to disappear.

As 2013 dawned, the media began reporting on a troubling trend: the economy had begun to shun young people with non-specific, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Those who were “hired” were being offered unpaid internships or short-term contract positions with no benefits and no prospects. In New York City, it takes a bachelor’s degree to be a filing clerk. This has knocked the wind out of the sails of recent graduating classes and, left unchecked, will continue until business people in high places achieve their vision of the perfect world: everything that can be outsourced and offshored already gone or scheduled to be, with profits and bonuses for all, except for the bottom 99%.

On May 18th the Toronto Star published Where Capitalism goes from here. Richard Florida contributed Saving capitalism from Itself. In it he wrote: “We are in the midst of the greatest, most thorough economic transformation in all of history.” This article assumes that capitalism can be repaired and returned to service. We defer to the economists on that one.

It’s ironic that Florida’s article, along with those of Don Tapscott and Roger Martin, appeared in a newspaper. People don’t read newspapers much any more. As it happens, May 18th was the start of the 3-day Victoria Day weekend. People with a critical need to know what Florida and Tapscott and Martin had to say because of the implications for themselves and their children probably didn’t see the article, much less read it.

PDD hopes they do.

The wastelands that outsourcing and offshoring have created are similar to what follows plagues of locusts, with one difference: locusts don’t think, they eat. Certain captains of industry plunder. Their idea of a utopian world is one in which everything comes with a barcode and a price tag.

And if it all blows up? The next generation will be there to clean up the mess. Little matter that the people who created it were once “the next generation” themselves and probably have children of their own. There’s just one small detail: how are they going to clean up if they’re not working?

The “automatic” transition-from-schooling-to-work model is severely damaged. It is broke—bankrupt too, maybe—and we all have to fix it. The story about graduate un- and underemployment has been in the media for 5 months and it has a long run ahead of it. Federal governments and provincial governments have been talking about the miscommunication between employers and prospective candidates for years. If you or someone you know is un- or underemployed, you don’t need proof. You and they are living it.

Einstein said that we wouldn’t be able to solve our problems by thinking the same way we did when we created them. He also said:

Einstein-intuitive mind

Our children are in crisis. We’ve lived through difficult times before. They haven’t. In this buyer’s market, employers are looking for employees with ideas they can articulate succinctly about how they’re going to make money for the right someone’s business. Résumés, interviewing coaches, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are a means to an end. No strategy, no objective, no differentiation? No audience. There are too many people in line ahead of them.

Something else parents are keeping to themselves: many managers resent the recruiting process because it adds to their workload and doesn’t figure in their performance appraisals. Managers have neither the time, the inclination nor the imagination to read between the lines. That’s why they use scanning software. Some managers shouldn’t be managers at all.

Parents can’t speak with authority on the subject of selling and marketing as part of securing employment because many haven’t mastered the skill themselves. If career counsellors were up to the task, we wouldn’t have the problem we do. Work search is a business discipline where sales and marketing of self are applied in a business context. First comes the idea about a product or service. Then there’s the research to see if anyone might be interested in buying. Next comes supporting documentation, promotional literature, first contact, the pitch, the negotiation and the close.

Our children mustn’t forget the gift Einstein referred to. Nor must their parents allow them to. Our young people are the future regardless of their stripe or area of specialization. They don’t deserve to be kicked and insulted when they’re down by offers of unpaid internships, especially when the degree(s) they’ve earned prove that they can think and analyze and create in today’s terms, not yesterday’s.

PDD strongly believes that for their sake and ours, we have to bring all of our intellectual resources to bear on confronting the challenges we face. PDD exists to talk the talk and walk the walk, one-on-one, for as long as it takes.

Many of those resources are embodied in our children. That’s why we educate them, isn’t it?

The economy is the message

Newton dubbed his definition of inertia his First Law of Motion. Simply put, it’s the tendency of objects to resist being set in motion when they’re at rest and to resist being brought to a stop when they are in motion. The change from one state to the other happens when the object “feels” an external force.

We humans also embody inertia. But unlike inanimate objects, we feel the external economic and social forces that impact on us emotionally and intellectually, not physically. We make a conscious decision to resist compromising our principles and to not take calls from telemarketers. But we can be prone to consciously misapplying that resistance, especially those of us with children whom we want to be university-bound because we’re convinced—and want them to believe—that a university degree is still the best way to ensure secure, career-long, high-paying employment with benefits and a path to a comfortable retirement.

But then that makes us external influences. What if we’re wrong?

The forces at play today bear careful scrutiny. With certain exceptions, notably STEM positions, university education is no longer a guarantee of securing a dream job, or any job for that matter. Downsizing, off-shoring and outsourcing are directed at all working people, newly minted graduates included. Since the beginning of 2013, the Toronto Star and other media outlets have reported on a labour market in which one half of all employees are working in contract or part-time positions with no paid benefits and few if any prospects for upward mobility. University graduates, some with two degrees, are finding no work at all. They’re either overqualified or mis-qualified.

A growing number have agreed to work as unpaid interns. Banks hear “unpaid” and think, “won’t be able to repay a loan”. Landlords hear, “won’t be able to pay rent”. Graduates take it to mean, “may not be able to get married and start a family”. Nor are these graduates debt-free. Many are struggling with loan repayments totalling between $25,000 and $30,000 each. Some, more.

This is the point at which many parents would be tempted to say, “O.K. We’ve lived through tough times before and we will again.” Once upon a time maybe, but not now.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that employers know that there is such a thing as free lunch. The provincial government is doing nothing to enforce laws that preclude hiring unpaid workers to do work normally done by salaried staff; they have no means of monitoring the situation. Unpaid workers don’t show up on payrolls so there are no tax records to audit showing that they’ve worked or that they’ve contributed to Employment Insurance. Why would an employer who knowingly “employs” unpaid interns illegally want to attract the government’s attention by submitting a Record of Employment for someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Salaries and benefit premiums aren’t the only things these employers aren’t paying. They’re also saving matching contributions to CPP and EI.

If these facts of life aren’t enough to “force” us to re-examine long-held beliefs, we may have just reached the tipping point. Employers are reported to be insisting that their employees be within earshot of a BlackBerry or similar device and that they respond within 60 seconds to e-mails sent after normal business hours and on weekends. And what about vacations?

Deliberately or otherwise, employers are dabbling in social engineering. Not all, to be sure, but some. It might not be stretching the truth to say that, at this rate, there may be no next generation. Some employers appear to be moving in the direction of the farmer who tried to save money by training his horse to pull his wagon while reducing its daily ration of oats one day at a time. The day the horse ate nothing was the day it died.

The carrot-and-stick story I grew up with was a wake-up call for the donkey. For PDD, the antics of some of our employers qualify as a wake-up call. There are already predictions that when the recovery comes, it will bypass new graduates and the chronically unemployed. This as the ranks of the top 1% are predicted to grow by over 30%.

The “victory” of the free-lunch crowd will almost certainly be self-limiting. The door is swinging open for employers who do believe in respect for the individual, no free lunch and no slavery to use that differentiator to outcompete the advocates of something for nothing for our best and brightest. As a society, we need young people with the thinking skills to survive in this economic climate. To be creative, to innovate, to be enthusiastic. What we don’t need is more horse and oats stories.

There’s a P.S. in all of this: all is not sweetness and light in the world of academe either. Please see Bruce Stewart’s post dated March 13th. Then visit the Millenium Project website. You’ll sense the urgency educators are bringing to this undertaking to ensure that their profession remains relevant so that they, too, can continue to work. Relevance will be in the eye of the customer who pays the bills. As parents of the children who will be those customers, we may have to abandon the notion of ivy-covered buildings in favour of forcing our institutions of higher learning to compete successfully so that they might earn their way.

Those that fail to compete will fall by the wayside. The idea of closing unprofitable universities and colleges has already been broached in Millennium Project literature. Given the state of technology and distance learning, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to envision a time when a single university will acquire the status of global centre of excellence for a given discipline and offer degree programmes to students via the Internet that will be recognized anywhere in the world.

We can never be too educated: not now, not ever. But we must be more selective about what education we buy and how we propose to leverage it. According to the media, one generation of young people is already at risk. Can we afford to lose another?

The quasi-slavery thinking that appears to be gaining some traction will benefit no one. In the short term, employers who embrace it may actually come out ahead. But at what cost to the next generation, assuming there is a next generation?

Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Parents in the process of investing in education for their children that speaks to yesterday instead of to today and tomorrow may be the enemy Pogo was referring to. Avoiding that role is a matter of personal due diligence.

To discuss what you’ve just read in greater depth so that you can develop and execute a strategy to deal with it, please contact us—before the 60-second clock on your BlackBerry starts ticking.

Three metaphors

The First Metaphor: Brownian Motion

The year was 1827. As he looked through the eyepiece of his microscope, Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, was intrigued by the random movement in water of the granules he found in the live pollen grains he was studying. His first thought was that these granules were analogues of sperm and capable of moving independently.

Subsequent experiments using particles from dead pollen and inanimate matter convinced him otherwise. Sixty-one years later Léon Gouy, a French experimentalist, concluded that the movement was caused by random impacts with the molecules of the water itself. The phenomenon came to be known as Brownian motion or Brownian movement.

The styrofoam “pollen particle” in this YouTube video is a metaphor for how we’re being buffeted by the rest of the world. Unlike the pollen, we have the wherewithal to respond to that buffeting. It’s called information, deep analysis and risk management. Our motivation should be the quality and ingenuity of the countries that are now our competitors, because that’s where the buffeting is originating. And it’s given rise to two other sources of buffeting: the attitudes and practices of our employers.

The Second Metaphor: A Fable

A farmer had fallen on hard times. Weakening markets for what he grew compounded by crop failures had forced him to search for ways to save money. On this particular day, he hit on the idea of reducing the ration of oats he fed his horse. He reasoned that if he cut back on that ration a little at a time each day, his horse wouldn’t notice. So he began his grand experiment. The results were encouraging. The horse ate less and less but still managed to pull the farmer’s wagon. The last day of the experiment dawned like the days before it, with one difference: on that day, the horse consumed no oats. And as the farmer hitched it to his wagon, his horse collapsed and died.

Employers have found a way to emulate that farmer by “hiring” students as interns at no salary, and experienced workers on fixed term contracts without benefits. Whatever bill of goods they’re selling to both groups—and let’s not forget that some are our children and friends—is succeeding because at this moment, employers have them, and some of us, over a barrel. If you feel compelled to accept such a one-sided relationship, please consider the following:

Rent, tuition, car payments, food, clothing, medical bills, transportation, heating—to name but a few—don’t go away just because someone got the better of someone else in a lop-sided, winner-takes-all negotiation.

Looking back over 1900 meetings with people who lost their job and an income 10 minutes before I walked into the room, I see a cull of employees 45 years of age and older. One such company boasted that none of the employees on its payroll was older than 55. Of those, fewer than 19 (that’s 1%) were in a position to retire comfortably, if at all. The rest faced the prospect of competing for work against younger, cheaper and better-educated, if less experienced, candidates.

Not accepting payment for services rendered is tantamount to paying an employer to hire you. The money they don’t spend on you they’ll almost certainly spend on something or someone else.

Length of service used to be a measure of the quality of an employee and of how much the employee had contributed. We’re seeing the last of people with 30 years service. Soon, there won’t be any left, and that measure won’t matter. Six months exposure to the work habits of an employee may be better than none, but it doesn’t lend itself to a detailed reference.

The Third Metaphor: Building a Foundation on Shifting Ground

No builder may erect a building until they’ve been granted a construction permit. One of the prerequisites is that they demonstrate that the soil under the building will support it. The logic is so self-evident that few people question it. The fact that it works doesn’t hurt either.

Much of what today’s young people believe is owing to them comes from the afterglow following the end of World War II. It’s a lot like the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. North America was first off the mark when it came to catering to pent up consumer demand because its factories escaped the war unscathed and the conversion to a peacetime economy took virtually no time at all. But the rest of the world recovered and North America, for all of its creative genius and energy, discovered it had competitors. It still does, and there are more of them. That’s where much of the buffeting I referred to in the First Metaphor is coming from.

The current generation and the one before it still believe that the old rules of career foundation building apply because that’s what many of their parents believed. The stability rules still apply. How to achieve that stability is different now because the ground under which those foundations are being built is changing. Call it by whatever name you will, building career and lifestyle foundations is more dependent on a deep understanding of what those foundations will rest on than it has ever been and it will be that way for the foreseeable future.

The Moral of the Story

The French poet Paul Valéry said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” And then there’s Gerald Ford’s, “Things are more like they are now than they ever have been.”

No matter how you slice it, the future is just going to keep coming at us. We can’t stop it, but we can prepare to make the best of it. And that’s why PDD is here.

PS: Just when you thought all your ducks were in a row, Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote Globalism Goes Backward in the latest FORTUNE. This is a must read.