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.


Graeme C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Graeme C. said...

Well I'm 3 years past 30 and still more than $20,000 in debt, so it's all relative!

Seriously, good post. Go back to your Chomsky and read about wage slavery. Then again, at least that involves a wage. One of the reasons I never seriously pursued internships out of school was because I couldn't survive on nothing. I don't know many who can (though these positions are obviously filled by someone). After grad school I started going after some of them more intently, but by then I was in debt so it would have been harder to take a position had one been offered, and I was also older than most other people applying (with particularly few positions available in my field), and wasn't offered any anyway.

After that I got desperate and tried the government route until I became disillusioned with that, did the foreign teaching thing for a while and eventually ended up in a resort town as a ski bum who doesn't ski, working a $14.50 an hour at a job a high school kid could do, with 2 degrees and 7 years of school behind me, still deeply in debt. Gotta love our system eh?

Living the Dream said...

Yeah, good post. Speaking of good posts, I keep reading articles (who am I kidding, you guys know I don't read - it must have been a CBC passionate eye or something) about people who blog as a job. like seriously, people are blogging and making money at it enough to support whatever lifestyle they do have. Since you are a really good writer (don't take my word for it - see above comment about my lack of reading) you could blog more often and possibly attract more followers - plug yourself shamelessly across facebook, twitter, and every other social media site, choosing a new blog title to race up the organic google search list in hopes of generating enough interest that pure volume somehow translates directly to valuation and you become rich based on an idea. Sounds ridiculous, but somehow Mark Zuckerburg is able to pay his employees and live a pretty high cost lifestyle without really generating very much "revenue" at all. And this was the case before he even let the dreaded advertisers into/onto fb.

Like Graeme said it's all relative. I've turned 30 and just got out of debt. For the 2nd time. While my first crack at a 'career' provided me a decent disposable income and a way out of debt the first time, I was not only willing to throw it all away, but in many ways I had to, as I was not willing to accept that the path I was on was the only one I was capable of. What I thought I left all behind - a 'trade school' college education as a stepping stone to be able to contribute to really interesting and fun design work, which i thought i loved, so that it would would satisfy me sufficiently while allowing me the lifestyle i wanted - i managed to re-create the same situation in the most unlikely of places here in Whistler. I work for arguably the worst employer i've ever encountered in ResortQuest Whistler (in case anyone is doing an organic search of RQW - see above - generating traffic to this blog) and have still been willing to sacrifice on average close to 60 hours/week for basically the same salary I was able to command in architecture. The cost of living is arguably higher in Whistler but the lifestyle that I was able to create was the difference for me. for a while. I racked up another few thousand in debt, re-lived some of my partying days surrounded by young twenty-somethings, and felt kind of like a big fish in a small pond. for a while. Blessed by a wonderful financially responsible partner, I have crawled out of debt and into savings just in time to start another adventure and ultimately gain some really exciting new opportunities and life experiences.

For me, now, I view a 'career' like a plan B. you can always go back to working for nothing for a faceless company that affords you just enough to create the lifestyle you think you are happy with, in the hopes that at some point an opportunity will come up and you will be astute enough to recognize it and you will finally be in a place where you love what you do and get paid well to do it. and even if/when that does happen, how long will it last. for a while. and then what?

I will leave your (fondly) urban pessimistic blog with the following optimism. Luckily for all 3 of us (and our entire generation) we have sharp minds and strong hearts. We have the power, ability and desire to script our very own plan A.

keep blogging.

Flux said...

Howdy former neighbor - awesome blog.

Trying to relate my story:

I went to U of T Scarborough and lived on residence for the five years as it was relatively shitty and cheap town housing they have there. U of T Scarborough is in the middle of a forest (pretty much) and it's a fifteen minute walk to the nearest bar and a half an hour walk from anywhere else. I went there for the co-op so I could understand how my education was applicable sooner rather than later (that was my thought).

If your education was paying for somebody to tell you you're a genius, I would have to say that mine was the opposite. Weekly assignments, quizzes and unnecessarily tough grading techniques - often both process and solution need both be correct (not one or the other). My marks would sometimes be 15 to 20% but due to the bell curve I would get 60% or better. If Profs told you something wasn't on an exam that meant it was and other such psychological games. I stayed awake for days doing work, weekends were work. I even remember working all night after thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's on assignments. In the end I learned they purposely gave you more work than is humanly possible to accomplish. I guess just to see how you deal with it or because they think that's what you paid for? I learned marks can be irrelevant numbers sometimes. I learned that I wasn't as clever as some people.

After a while I got fed up with paying for abuse having learned my lesson. I opted to leave and work and work has been like a vacation comparatively.

For a while I worked on a farm north of Brampton delivering hay to horse farms. It paid nothing but it was such a nice job and I loved it. Then I got a job with Canadian Tire because my brother in law needed help and then got a job with Loblaws doing thinking and problem solving for them.

I never sought advice from a career counselor because I am very shy. However I assumed that people would only pay me if I did something they didn't want to do, were too lazy to do, or couldn't do for themselves. Conversely I figured nobody would get paid for doing things they love unless they were extremely lucky or unless they liked things that others didn't want to do or couldn't do or were too lazy to do.

I've always liked problem solving so I'm lucky I guess.

I hope you find your niche.