Unpaid, but….

I know it’s not just me. I know it’s not just me because I’ve talked to an increasing number of parents whose college age (and beyond) offspring have been offered jobs that evaporated when they reported for work. These aren’t the parents of newly minted JD’s or MBA’s or MD’s. (The JD’s would sue; the MBA’s would form a rival company and run the former employer into the ground; the MD’s would pull the plug.) No, the offspring of the aforementioned parents are newly minted ART’s. That’s a new acronym I’ve just coined. It stands for Affordable and Really Talented.

Just spoke to a mom whose son graduated from college with a degree in film and was hired by an outfit in California. Day before he was to fly out he gets a call. They can’t pay him all of a sudden but he’s welcome to come out and work as an intern (read “for no pay”) and maybe if he does a good job it might lead to a paid job. He went out anyway, cobbled together a couple of other jobs and is hoping for the best.

Another friend’s daughter went out to California to work for a PR/marketing firm under the same premise. After three months she’s proven herself to the point where they’ve offered her a certain number of paid days per week. She still needs her parents’ help and is also working another job. One that pays. She’s doing a bang up job and will surely be going places. That pay.

My daughter just returned from Chicago after working for a woman who, two weeks into her paid internship, told her she could no longer afford to pay her. But she was welcome to continue working gratis in exchange for the free apartment she had been offered, and was staying in, as part of the original agreed-upon paid internship.

In the old days this was called indentured servitude. But wait. Not really. Indentured servants received housing (likely a straw mat) and food (meager, surely) and some amount of money when the apprentice had fulfilled his years (!) of work.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Wake up and smell the turpentine, Debra! The phrase ‘starving artist’ didn’t come out of thin air.” I know. I know. It came out of society’s anorexically thin appreciation for those driven by their inner gifts to create. Since Lascaux artists have apprenticed. For experience. For connections. For love of their craft and the inextinguishable drive to express their soul’s vision in music. In film. Paint. Photography. Words.

Anyone who chooses a life in the arts does so with eyes wide open. And in a perfect world those who make something from the intangible spark of their creative drive would earn a rookie quarterback’s signing bonus. Each year. What I decry is the incivility. The bait and switch. The seeming utter lack of ethics that so many employers get away with because they can. Because their ART’s are desperate for a chance.

Googling “history of apprenticeships” I came across this gem. In 1640, Thomas Millard bound himself to William Pynchon as an apprentice in return for “meat drinke & clothing fitting such an apprentise & at the end of this tyme [eight years!] one new sute of apparell and forty shillings in mony…”

William Pynchon, it turned out, was a forerunner to today’s ART’s employers. Millard never received his forty shillings. Four months shy of eight years he was “by his owne consent released and discharged of Mr. Pinchon’s service.” Millard was allowed, however, to keep the “New sute of Aparell he hath at present.” I wonder if Thomas Millard really did offer his consent to be released and discharged after working seven years and eight months. Or if yesteryear’s Pynchon, like employers in the creative fields today, released Millard with no salary because he could.

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2 thoughts on “Unpaid, but….

  1. Cindy La Ferle

    Excellent post — and infuriating topic. As you put it, it’s the bait and switch aspect that’s most unfair. And what a horrible message to send to young people. Our culture has such a bizarre ambivalence attitude toward the arts, and these “jobs turned internships” underscore that. It’s so sad — how we worship celebrity actors and authors on the one hand, yet don’t value their craft/art enough to pay interns and new grads for their talent. Few other professions expect practitioners to work for free, even in the novice years. You said it, Debra!

  2. Elissa Schwartz

    Thanks for the enlightenment, Debra. I will keep that in mind when my artist son is of the age where internships and careers are timely. As of now, he is about to enter his senior year of high school, safe from the grabs and con games of less than ethical employers. His ideal job – becoming a Disney Imagineer – is, I hope, one with an employer who does not play such games. Would Disney stoop so low as to follow the lead of other California-based companies? For the sake of my son, I hope not.

    I can bring some optimism to the table on this topic, however. My daughter, who just completed her second year at the University of Michigan School of Business has one week left of her paid internship at a public relations firm in Manhattan. She has been paid all summer, she has been respected and given respectable work and, in fact, she was even thrown a surprise birthday party at work by the company.

    Now there is a breath of fresh air that will hopefully spread goodwill to other prospective employers to do what is right, what is fair and what is deserved by those students and graduates who are prepared to offer their creativity and hard work in exchange for respect, a chance to prove themselves and fair compensation.

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