Saturday, April 2, 2011

In pursuit of ______________

Love is patient and love is kind - so says the trusted words of First Corinthians. But there’s another old adage of equal importance and truth that we need to be reminded of just as often - and that is that love is blind.

Many good career counselors will offer one piece of advice to those seeking their fortunes and their dreams, and that is, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I remember heeding that advice as far back as my final year of high school when I was weighing my options in an effort to choose the “right” university. It’s what led me to a liberal arts eduction in communications at the University of Western Ontario (well, that and Western’s reputation for being a bit of a party school, but I digress). I made that choice and over the course of those four years, never once regretted it.

Communications was a field that drew me in; it was an area of discourse that spoke to me and in response I soaked up all that I could. Besides the core classes, I took exciting electives where the course names were items like “Organizing post-war masculinity” and “Killer culture: war and the mediation of reality” and “Witch-hunts in the modern era.” I studied Innis and Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault and McLuhan, Debord and Baudrillard, Chomsky and Ehrenreich, hooks and de Beavoir; I studied the Frankfurt School and marxism; postmodernism, poststructuralism, postfeminism and every other kind of post-ism there was; queer theory and critical theory; hegemony and propaganda and simulacrum; appropriation and globalization and exploitation and the public sphere and “ceci n’est pas une pipe” and the political economy of this, that and the next thing.

And I loved it.

I wrote my final paper on the dominant economy of phallic sexuality in our society and how female pleasure exists only to serve the heterosexual male fantasy, and I felt like I was doing something important. A prof of mine asked me if I was considering grad school and suggested that I think about it, but I declined that opportunity. I thought I had bigger fish to fry. I thought I had to exit the Ivory Tower. I thought the world was waiting for me.

Universities are great places, but they can do that to your ego; they can make you think your ideas are invaluable and that everyone will want to hear them.

I can see now how naive I was then. I remember the feeling of being “done” school, and thinking that the world was my oyster and I could do anything or be anything or live anywhere - and that was all true, I could have. But what I didn’t appreciate was that I was in another world. I was outside the bubble. I was in a place where opportunities didn’t fall safely onto my lap and where pursuits were going to cost money. I needed a life plan if I was going to figure out exactly what I wanted. And that was a tough lesson. I knew what I had loved to study but struggled to find its moneymaking counterpart in the “real world.” I considered the teaching abroad angle but never followed through. I tried jobs and quit jobs that were way below my skill set. I continued to live at Mom and Dad’s for free and pondered ways to “do what I loved.”

And then one fall, off I went to journalism school. And while it led me to some of the most interesting people I’ve ever encountered (one thing about J-school is it does tend to attract the eclectic, true writers; soulful people who dream in colour and live passionately and want grand things - like I did), ultimately I was turned off by the manner by which I felt journalism sucked the lifeblood out of its people. It shouldn’t have shocked me so much, but I didn’t like the way journalism functioned as a business. It seemed wrong to me that while we were learning how to stylistically write for newspapers and magazines, how to take a good photograph, how to set up a website - we weren’t also being asked to read “Manufacturing Consent” as a required text. Where was the balance of ethics? Where was the history of journalism and the purpose and the function of journalists - besides selling newspapers? And maybe all of that was simply a wake-up call to remind me I had long left Kansas - that university was behind me and this was real career training and it was up to me to re-read Chomsky on my own time and balance any ethical dilemmas on my own with what I was learning in school. But I wasn’t ready for that. I felt like we were cogs in the college wheel and we would be churned out with every other graduating class kind of the same - we would all apply to the same internships and then jobs and we would all move to small towns where the winters are 10 months long and work for peanuts because everybody knows that’s the price you pay to do something you love.

So I dropped out. And then I worked for two years in jobs that were below my skill set. But I moved out of Mom and Dad’s and got a place downtown and was able to live the life that I wanted. I paid off my student loans and had disposable income, and even though my apartment wasn’t spectacular, it was mine (and my roommates’). And all I had to do was give myself five days a week to these sad, dreary offices and put up with pathetic office politics and work hard at it. That was the trade-off, and though 9 a.m. on Monday’s were rough, 5 p.m. on Fridays felt like the ultimate freedom and truly, I had everything I wanted.

But after two years, my ego caught up with me when it occurred to me that I had a higher level of education than my boss and was being asked by HR (as a favour, not as part of my job description) to write up various internal communications for the company. I knew I could do more and I knew that I deserved to be paid for it.

So I enrolled in a postgraduate corporate communications program. And I’d really love to say that it’s all worked out and I’m on the right career path now. I’m certainly on a career path, and that’s a good thing.

But three months out of my internship and working on a contract, I feel once again angry and dismayed. The majority of the internships available to my colleagues and I didn’t pay an hourly wage. Many of us were lucky to receive a minimal stipend or a transit pass in exchange for our labour.

In theory, I don’t have an issue with employers not paying a co-op student, or paying them very little for their efforts. I appreciate that taking on a student can be a bit hit-or-miss, and may not always be beneficial to an organization. Many companies are small and can’t afford to pay a student. I can also appreciate that the student is receiving invaluable experience (well, sometimes) and networking with important people and overall may receive benefits one may never find in the classroom. In theory, that’s all good.

I just have one little problem with it - and it doesn’t have to do with egos of university-educated people such as myself or greed or impatience to start paying off student loans. It’s really very simple - and that is we are all human beings, and as long as we are human beings participating in this society, there will be a cost of living. Isn’t that the reason minimum wage exists?

The co-op coordinator for our program advised us that employers such as Disney and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment never pay a nickel for co-op students, specifically because we are a dime a dozen (excuse me, $0 a dozen). While it doesn’t surprise me, it certainly bothers me. It’s always the places where people really want to do the work, that the money is mysteriously not there. People will do it anyway, because they love it. And for some reason no one benefiting from it ever sees it as pure and unadulterated exploitation.

Those disagreeing with me often say, “well, an internship is part of your education. If you were in class instead of at your internship, nobody would be paying you to learn.” True. Except when you’re in school, you’re not devoting 40 + hours a week to it. Many students manage a part-time job on the side to help with living expenses. They also benefit from student loans - something not everyone qualifies for once formal classes have ended and the internship begins. There’s also a growing trend in this industry for people to do second, or even third internships, and still humble themselves to make a couple dollars an hour - even though graduation day was months or years ago.

Is this just the reality today?

What about those kids who chose different career paths? Co-op is a very common option for a lot of practices today - in fact, it’s so common that it’s arguably become a necessary gateway to many careers, begging the conclusion that students don’t have a lot of choice about whether or not to pursue an internship, if they want to get their foot in the door. The University of Waterloo’s co-op page states that first-year engineering co-op students can expect to make $500/week. Certainly not a competitive salary in the long-term. But in my PR internship, I made $500/month. No, I’m not an engineer. But I am a communications professional with a B.A., a postgraduate certificate and five years of work experience. $500/month? Seriously?

After my internship, I was hired on in a contract role, and though I now make more than minimum wage, I can still tell you that I’d be taking home more an hour as one of those people who stand on street corners giving out free limes.

And we were told that in school. We were told to be prepared to take entry-level jobs that offer salary ranges that are well below what I was making when I had a job I was overqualified for. I know I won’t be in entry-level all my life (here’s hoping), but it does seem more than a little ironic that after pursuing a higher level of career training and padding my resume with new skills and experiences, I should expect to be making less than I made before, all because I went back to school to re-train so that I might be happier, more fulfilled, and better qualified for my next job. And to top it all off, after going back to school and spending a four-month period scraping by at an internship, I’m close to $20,000 in debt again. And I’m three years from turning 30.

So maybe I’ll be cheeky and say that career counselors ought to revise their instructions to be, “Do what you love, and you’ll be paid shit.” Am I really that far off?

Maybe corporate communications and PR will lead me to something I really love. Maybe one day when I’m older and wiser I’ll have a job that doesn’t feel like torture, will allow me to utilize my talents for the better of an organization -- and will pay me for it accordingly.

Or maybe love is blind, and I should have just gone to Business School.