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Purich Publishing Blog

Nov 2013

What I did last summer

POSTED BY Pamela Davison

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Prefacing a discussion of employment opportunities for university graduates, Craig and Marc Kielburger write ‘we’ve all heard the joke about the philosophy major who ends up flipping burgers.’[1]  The overeducated and chronically unemployed humanities major is the ubiquitous spectre of liberal arts graduates, even as it exists as comic fodder to just about everyone else. Seen as an act of unfounded altruism at best and suicidal self-victimization at worst, students of the arts have been funny as long as there have been enough employed university graduates to laugh at them.

One global economic meltdown later, and the joke gets more complicated.

Where once the arts student’s hubris ridden idealism may have been the punchline in a running joke of depressed finances, high youth unemployment rates across academic disciplines have rendered the burger-flipping philosopher into a modern day cautionary tale. Less funny and more spooky is the suppressed suggestion that it is not hubris so much as economic determinism which is preventing university graduates from finding employment in their various fields.

In a study authored by CIBC’s deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal, Canadian youth are facing ‘the risk of chronic employment despite being more educated than ever.’[2] Having only ‘decreased slightly since the beginning of the recovery’, Philippe Bergevin maintains that the figure of 14% youth unemployment reflects a potential workforce burdened with skills that ‘are not well suited to the new economic environment’ wherein ‘a large legion of unemployed’ in possession of ‘previous work experience’ and ‘better job-market skills’ are competing against young and untried graduates for similar positions.[3]

To address the challenges of the emerging economic order, the role of post secondary educational institutions has become the subject of public debate, as has the decision making processes of individual university students. With some economists touting a shortage of skilled laborers as the reason for high youth unemployment, universities have been urged to develop more skill-specific curriculums, and students, for their part, have been encouraged to pursue co-op placements and internships on top of full time academic education. On the other side of the debate are university educators and economists such as Don Drummond, who found the skill-gap argument ‘not credible’, and Wilfred Laurier university president Max Blouw, who maintains that ‘if indeed the statistics don’t bear out a serious mismatch between skills and jobs in Canada, the conversations should move away from turning universities into job training centres and toward the role employers can play in preparing graduates for jobs.’[4]

With both universities and potential employers reluctant to carry the costs of skills training for new graduates, anxiety has coalesced around the legality of student internships. What exactly is the purpose of an internship, what kind of relationship is it, and who is it structured to benefit? Without a clear legal definition of an internship under Canadian legislation[5], Americans have maintained their own tumultuous debate on the subject, carried out in courtroom spectacles, and no more definitive in their sluggishly emerging legal outcomes[6].

At the social level, internships have been flagged as vehicles of corporate exploitation, with companies accused of farming out traditionally entry level paid positions to cycles of interns who trade relationships of mentoring for menial unpaid employments characterized by coffee fetching. The recent death of 21-year-old Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt,[7] connected by speculation to harrowing working hours, has raised the question of internship ethics to a pitch of cultural seriousness. Are unpaid internships denying lower income students the ability to attain the adequate skills training to remain competitive?[8] Are students being exploited? Or is the unpaid labor of young people justified by the money and risk employers exert on their behalf?

Amid this cultural din, I found myself (indeed, an English major), fleeing Montreal for better economic prospects out West. I had found myself a potential internship with a small publishing company in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was the kind of opportunity that seemed impossible in a bigger, more competitive metropolis like Toronto, and I looked forward eagerly, and gratefully, for what would come next.  

[1] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/giving/have-your-say-how-do-we-equip-canadians-with-the-skills-employers-need/article11910154/

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