One of the great hustles of the post-Crisis economy is the insinuation that every person entrenched at a powerful institution ascended to their post after a long period of getting “exposure” by producing high-quality work for free. Since the average 23 year old intern does not have the experience to automatically detect this as the Three Card Monte flim-flam that it is, let me briefly provide my experience as a 38 year old who is well entrenched in his career.
I did not ever work for free as a young man. You should not, either.
I began my career at my father’s farm store in Rutland, Vermont back in 1987. I was paid the princely sum of $3.30 per hour, the Vermont state minimum wage. My duties included stacking bags of cow manure, horse feed, seed, and of course the GIGANTIC MENHIRS OF ICY PEAT MOSS EXTRACTED STRAIGHT OUT OF THE FROZEN CANADIAN SHIELD.
Starting at age 13, I was paid as an official employee – nothing was done under the table. My father then confiscated 50% of the post-tax compensation to place in a fund for my first year of college, the rest being allowed to finance guitars. For those of you adept at math, my post-tax, post-college-fund income was around $1.00 per hour – but it was something.
Every single job I had after that icy, filthy experience also included compensation – Kentucky Fried Chicken, The Super Store (appliance warehouse), Video Superstore, the Radisson, and ultimately, upon leaving university, my first job in the world of competitive intelligence, which I obtained with a bachelor’s degree at age 23, paying $27,000 annually.
The only exception was my internship in Paris working at the American Chamber of Commerce in France, where I was not paid, but I received far and away one of the most important educations of my career.
Coming from rural Vermont and lacking anything that resembled professional, sophisticated polish, working at the highest level of European society was like a sudden bath in Lake Champlain in February. I learned with brutal rapidity how much I lacked in terms of poise and social grace. My position at the front desk of the Chamber required me to immediately interact with any member of francophone or anglophone society in English or French on the phone or in person – on any subject they chose pertaining to American business interests. My English was riddled with an awkward informality typical to young men in general and Vermont in specific. My French, though fluent, had been picked up from grandmothers, truck drivers and hockey commentators from nearby Quebec, and so I sounded like a 20-something lumberjack. These linguistic inadequacies were cauterized from my speech pattern through mockery and the sheer discomfort that came with my growing awareness of what I was lacking – in both of my languages.
My written French was subjected to a training regimen I would have received nowhere else. In 1995, the Internet was not yet prevalent in French business, and the old system remained dominant – utterly formal written communications. The United States had long since jettisoned the notion of formality in business writing, while the French still ended even simple letters with “Je vous prie d’agréer, cher Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments les plus distingués.” (“I beg to you to recognize, dear Sir, the expression of my most distinguished sentiments.”) Il n’y avait pas de LOLs, mes amis.
I tried releasing a business communication once without sending it through three layers of proof-reading, so young and cocky was I. The following morning, the dapper and sophisticated Executive Director of the Chamber came silently by my desk and floated ever-so-gently my fax from the day before, marked up in twenty places with blood red correction ink. The errors were subtle, but numerous - subjunctives, adjective gender agreements in secondary clauses, misspellings. The French have a saying: c’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute. It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.
He did not stay for the boucherie to follow, leaving the task of brutal grammatical discipline to my immediate superior, who informed me with extraordinary gravity that, Mister Garland, this is an international chamber of commerce, and we do not ever release communications that exhibit even one single error in any language.
Ouch. OUCH. Lesson learned.
For this experience, I paid $13,000 for six months, an outrageous sum for the time. It was the costliest investment of my university years, and the best. This investment was defined: it was a specific set of enriching experiences I could get nowhere else, lasting a predetermined duration, with a single price tag.
Less than two years later I turned this experience into a series of jobs that required such unusual skills, all of which paid enough money for me to meet my daily obligations. I did not, nor have I ever done work for which I am already trained for free.
Compare this with the modern scam of asking trained adults to do work for which they are qualified for free as a way to introduce their faces to the industry. This “exposure” is often not a particularly rare commodity, it could last indefinitely, and the amount of free labor is never agreed upon in advance.
That’s not an enriching experience. It’s an impoverishing experience.
Young people, I hope you recognize the difference.