Internships: The Next Frontier of Credentialism

 

In one of my morning foray into the Twitterverse, I recently encountered a posting for this  internship: “Help keep children’s camp memories alive AND get $1000 as a Memory Book Designer Intern!” [1]. Click that sucker. Turns out the internship opportunity is one of many posted in a Serving Communities Internship Program – a partnership between the Alberta government, Volunteer Alberta, and a range of student organizations.

This seems like a decent idea on the surface. To its credit, the program does appear to stress meaningful opportunities, and those posted on the website overall seem to emphasize marketing and communication skills, and a project-based approach with clear outcomes and goals. These are sound strategies for experiential learning, and many of the placements do sound like interesting opportunities for young people. The placements also support the always-strapped volunteer sector and encourage young people to engage with these organizations. All good stuff.

There’s an important problem here though. Although the internships are capped by a $1,000 bursary, some quick calculations based on the time requirements posted by the organizations offering the internships show that the “opportunities” on offer pay as little as $3.00/hour. I suppose you could argue that this is better than nothing, given that the work could just as easily be classified as volunteering for no remuneration at all. But in my mind, this is just another red flag pointing to the increasing use of internships as the next frontier in credential inflation. Continue reading

An Awesome Rant About Youth Career Planning

“In Canada, the statistics show that 50% of kids who go to post-secondary will either never finish or never work in the field that they’ve studied in. So is there a connection between how we make kids choose careers and that statistic? I think there is.”    

A couple of weeks ago, I had a great interview with a seasoned youth worker I’ll call “Jack.” The best thing about this guy is that he’s educated up to his eyeballs now, but barely passed high school as a youth. “I had a 52% average,” he told me, “There is probably very little you could have done to motivate me to do anything, other than to play basketball, and that was the only thing that kept me in school really.” Jack puttered around at different jobs after high school, and finally got around to university eight years later, when he was good and ready.

Jack has a unique combination of education, and the “earthier” life experience that tends to come for those who do not spend their early adulthood in the cloistered halls of a university. This makes him especially empathetic when it comes to the youth that most people write off. He gets that high school, with its narrow and seemingly unmovable focus on university-stream academics, tends to alienate kids who aren’t headed in that direction. Schools, says Jack, “try to fit kids into systems instead of making systems that fit kids.”

And he’s right. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief investigations into youth career transitions it is that when it comes to this important phase of kids’ lives, our present secondary school system is broken. It will require the collective and cooperative efforts of education systems, government and industry to make any changes that aren’t just tinkering around the edges of what we’ve got now.

So Jack and I were also talking about a great example of the lame state of affairs we can “career planning” in high school, which as Jack pointed out, is premature for many kids who, fresh out of junior high, still can’t find their asses with both hands and a flashlight, let alone figure out what they’re going to be when they grow up. But anyway. We’re talking about Career Cruising, a spiffy online career information and planning resource that many Alberta students encounter in Grade 10. Jack says, “Yeah they do this online, and they answer all these questions, and the computer spits out a list of careers it thinks the kid would be good at based at how he answers on that particular day.”

Jack goes on to point out that the kid could be bored, confused, or “cruising” on no sleep the night before, for all the computer or anyone else knows. Working as a guidance counsellor, Jack witnessed kids going through this online exercise: “I watched them cross off occupations and I’d say ‘Well, why’d you cross those off?’ And they’d say, ‘Well I don’t know what it is.’” Or they think it’s a career for nerds, or that it doesn’t look too interesting on TV, or that it’s only for girls/boys.

And this, Jack points out, becomes the basis for planning a student’s high school courses and post-secondary aspirations. In Grade 10. Often without any one-on-one follow-up with a knowledgeable counsellor. With a kid who’s already crossed off any options he couldn’t pronounce. So unless a young person has family members who can steer her the right way, she’ll remain locked into two of the Great Lies we tell kids: that a “career” is the same as an occupation (it’s not), and that you should pick an occupational goal when you’re 15 years old and pick it right, or you’re hooped.

It’s tough to make a case for any budget priority when schools are already feeling strapped, and are already begging and pleading for the resources they need just to look after kids’ needs in the classroom. Because these latter concerns are so immediate, career counselling always winds up being an under-funded – or even unfunded – “extra”[1]. This is, however, an illusory source of savings, because in the long run it perpetuates an ineffective system that doesn’t meet the needs of kids or employers. High schools need dedicated, full-time career counsellors and work experience coordinators. This might not fix our broken school-to-work transition system for kids, but it would be a great start toward something better.

—————————————————–

 References and Notes

[1] I mentioned this in an earlier post, along with an excellent reference on this topic: Bell, D. & Bezanson, L., (2006). Career Development Services for Canadian Youth: Access Adequacy and Accountability. Pathways to the Labour Market, Series, 1. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Policy Research Network

“Extended Adolescence” is Over-Rated

A number of years ago in my undergraduate program I took a course on the Aging Family. What made the course so interesting was the intersection of what I was learning with circumstances in my own life: as I read articles and books about older sibling relationships, death and dying, and how families manage elder care, my own grandmother became ill and ended up in extended care. So what might otherwise have been rather abstract and removed learning instead became really meaningful as I watched it play out in my own family.

I find myself in the same situation today. As my studies focus on career planning and school-to-work transitions, I am at the same time watching my own kids – all young adults now – try to to get their heads wrapped around some sort of a life plan [1]. Poor kids. They are focused on their own lives and situations, but they might feel better if they understood how caught up they are in social trends that have prompted us to coin a new life stage: “Extended Adolescence” [2].

Extended Adolescence is a term coined about ten years ago to describe 20-somethings who didn’t seem to be engaged in, or headed toward the traditional markers of adulthood: career ambitions, marriage, children, and buying a home. The basic debate in this area is what we might call “material” versus “cultural-symbolic” explanations for this new life stage. Which side of the fence you lean on largely determines whether you are pessimistic or optimistic about where the whole EA thing is heading.

The “material” argument says this: Extended Adolescence is the product of a really crappy economic outlook for young people:

  • Home ownership of any sort is out of reach, for most, until at least one’s thirties, and often requires parents’ financial assistance.
  • Children have become an expensive “luxury” and workplaces still don’t accommodate families very well. This is particularly to the detriment of women.
  • Post-secondary education is necessary, expensive, and time consuming, resulting in growing student loan debt.
  • “Good” jobs that provide secure full-time work, benefits, and growth opportunities are scarce, relative to work that is part-time, temporary, low-paying, or otherwise insecure.

There is, in fact, some pretty solid evidence to back up the contention that “extended adolescence” is a euphemistic way of saying that kids can’t grow up because economically, the deck is stacked against them [3].

The cultural-symbolic argument takes a more optimistic stance, and kind of goes like this: Extended Adolescence is a result of more flexibility and openness in our society. It says young adults don’t assume traditional adult roles as often because they now have the choice to do otherwise. So we’ve reached this more enlightened state where we are not restricted by social norms that tell us what do with our lives, when. You can be gay or straight, have kids whenever you want, not have kids, adopt kids, have a career, have a McJob, stay in school forever, or travel the world working at organic farms for room and board. Whatever works for you! Sounds good, huh? Extended Adolescence, in theory, recognizes and legitimizes a life stage devoted to the exploration needed to find one’s authentic self [4].

The thing is I don’t buy it, or at least not all of it. I have a couple of reasons for this. First, I agree with Cote and Brynner (see the footnote above) that joys of self-exploration are more apt to fall upon kids that come from families with money. The lack of social connectivity that is celebrated in a positive view of Extended Adolescence is a big fat deficit for the poor and the socially marginalized. In fact, traditional kinship ties play a very important role in poor families for economic survival [5].

The other reason I don’t buy into an unblemished view of Extended Adolescence is because I’ve met too many young adults who are confused, lost, and just lacking feelings of purpose or belonging. This is the stuff of anomie – a sense of diconnectedness, even meaninglessness, when the social world is too fragmented to offer any sense of identity to its members. So if we want to look at increased rates of adolescent suicide, adolescent mental illness, and substance abuse and… well I’m no raving social conservative, but fans of Extended Adolescence like Arnett may be too quick to toss out social institutions and norms. Sure they’re restrictive, and sometimes boring. But they also connect us to others in ways that, while not always fun, nonetheless have richness and continuity, and reflect something back to us about who we are, and who we should aspire to be.

So for my own personal collection of kids, “emerging adults,” “kidults,” or what have you, I do wish all sorts of amazing, interesting and diverse life experiences. I do want them to “find themselves,” and gain a sense of authenticity. But I also wish for them a world that creates spaces for young adults to work, love, and contribute in meaningful communities and settings. And they need both economic opportunity and at least some basic social norms and supports to ground their futures upon. Authenticity doesn’t just spring up from within; it’s tied, for better or worse, into how we connect to the world around us. Figuring that one out is the best part, and the toughest part of being a Grown Up, no?

Notes and References

[1] I’d give them advice because I *study* this stuff, for Pete’s sake. But I’m a Mom and therefore am not sought generally sought out for this. I am, however, sought out for trips to the mall.

[2] Extended Adolescence might not be the best descriptor. It implies a kind of moral failure on the part of youth: active, potato chip eating, vodka swilling, basement dwelling avoidance of adult responsibilities. And some do interpret it thus. We could call it the “kids these days” argument. The short of it is this: kids these days are self-centered, even narcissistic. They aren’t committed to anything or anyone. They aren’t interested in contributing to society, or much of anything else past the next weekend, or the next trip to Cabo. This is a gross generalization, of course, but is is one opinion “out there.” See The Narcissism Epidemic and learn the words to “I am Special” sung to the tune of Frere Jacques.

[3] More references for geeks who want ‘em! OECD (2009, September). Tacking the jobs crisis: Helping youth to get a firm hold in the labour market. Retrieved March 12, 2010 from http://bx.businessweek.com/unemployment/view?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.oecd.org%2Fdataoec. Ainley, P. & Allen, M. (2010). Lost Generation? New Strategies for Youth and Education. London: Continuum. Cote, J., & Bynner, J. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), 251-268. doi: 10.1080/13676260801946464.

[4] Jeffrey Arnett is a prominent spokesperson for this view. See Arnett & Tanner (2006) Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century. Cote & Bynner (2008) are critical of Arnett’s claim that this life stage is developmental. They favour the material/economic explanation. See Cote, J. & Bynner, J. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), 251-268.

[5] See Katherine Newman’s Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low Wage Labour Market for a long-term study of poor youth and social mobility. Very cool book; great read. Also Granovetter, M. S. (1983). The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. (P. V. Marsden & N. Lin, Eds.)Sociological Theory, 1(1983), 201-233. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/202051?origin=crossref. Less cool/more dry and academic-y but also good stuff, and important.

High School Work Experience Needs Work

I recently discussed work experience programs with a school guidance counsellor, and I must admit it was discouraging. Listening to this person tell me about sending kids out to make cold calls, serve coffee, or move boxes around a warehouse in order to receive high school credits really highlighted, for me, the complicity of schools in making sure the marginalized kids stay marginalized via early grooming for low-skills work.

When I went to high school (some time ago now), doing work experience was as stigmatized as W.P Wagner High School in Edmonton. It’s now a science-focused magnet school, but in my day it was where all the “dumb kids” went to do vocational programs. Nothing appears to have changed: The non-academic routes are still the dregs and leftovers in the high school pecking order. And work experience still sucks: Instead of giving kids opportunities to be challenged and learn useful skills in workplace environments, educators and employers alike are inclined to regard these placements as a convenient win/win for schools and employers that ultimately leaves students’ best interests out of the equation. Employers get some cheap labour out the deal; schools get to keep their grad rates up for at risk students – whether the kids learn anything of value or not.

This is a harsh analysis, I realize. One could counter that students, too, are often just fine with this arrangement. Not everyone is cut out, ready, or interested for some form of post-secondary education coming out of high school, and work experience credits accommodate this reality. A kid with a diploma is still further ahead than a kid without a diploma. So I need to stress that it is not work experience itself I take issue with so much as the way it seems to be implemented. Let me explain.

Alberta Education’s curriculum guide for Work Experience 15-25-35 states that the program is intended to help students “discover their career interests and aptitudes in meaningful work activities, situated in community-based work stations and work sites in business, industry, government and community service”[1]. So the purpose of work experience is for students to learn some basic, generic employment skills, but it’s also intended to help students work toward a satisfying and suitable career path. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be much of a focus. A recent review of youth career planning [2] gives our existing practices a good spanking, identifying a number of problems that interfere with good planning for high school youth. Among these:

  • Guidance counselling is often under-resourced, and counsellors aren’t trained much for career planning beyond simply presenting information to kids. School counselling tends to focus on personal and crisis counselling, which is terribly important, but leaves little time for career counselling
  • The kids most likely to need career advice are also those least likely to seek it out. The “if you build it they will come” approach to career counselling is thus ineffective
  • Work experience is not structured as a learning experience. Schools tend to be “hands off” here, and workplace mentors more often than not lack the time and training to structure good learning experiences for the students. Further, if they view the student simply as an extra pair of hands, they are unlikely to go the extra mile to ensure the work experience student’s experience is as per the curriculum guidelines for work experience, “meaningful” [3].
  • I’d add that teachers are university educated. This contributes, I expect, to the cultural biases, so prevalent in schools, against trades and non-higher education routes. This marginalizes many students for whom these are the best options.

The sum of this is that work experience programs, and high school career counseling practices in general, have a long ways to go in terms of helping kids manage the crucial journey out of high school and into something kind of a like a real world. Some students get great support from their families, and this can compensate for haphazard school policies and practices. But lots of our youth don’t have that support, and too often they are let down by their schools as well. I just think we can do better here.

—————————————————————–

[1] Alberta Education’s curriculum guidelines for Work Experience 15-25-35 (1995).

[2] Bell, D. & Bezanson, L. (2006). Career Development Services for Canadian Youth: Access Adequacy and Accountability. Pathways to the Labour Market Series, 1. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Policy Research Network. Also, assuming you have all sorts of free time, see Grubb, N. and Lazerson, M. (2004) The Education Gospel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Thanks to Dr. Alison Taylor for supporting notes on this book.

[3] For an analysis of the contribution of weak linkages between schools and work that disfavour work-bound youth, see Rosenbaum, J. (2001). Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half.

Making Work Matter for Youth

I recently interviewed a health care provider who had mentored high school students in paid summer internships over the summer holidays. The internships, coordinated through CAREERS the Next Generation, are opportunities for students who have completed Grade 11 to work in health care settings to gain work experience, and learn about potential career paths in health services. The kids earn money and receive high school credits. It’s a great program. The only significant criticism we encountered – if you could call it a criticism – was that the program was not accessible to more students.

So I asked this mentor – “What do you believe is the most valuable learning for students in this program?” Hands down, he said, it was “people skills.” Providing patient/client care exposes these young adults to people of all ages, from all walks of life. The mentor – I’ll call him Hal – compared his high school students’ learning experiences to post-secondary students he’d worked with. This latter group, he noted, had more formal education, but were often sorely lacking in their ability to interact with colleagues and patients. Continue reading

Tough Times for New Grads

A recent episode of The Agenda, Job Creation in a Recession, discusses the present labour market participation trends and the effectiveness of government driven job creation post-economic meltdown. It was interesting to hear that people under thirty are increasingly describing themselves as “self-employed.” The panel participants speculate that this is a consequence of new graduates hanging shingles as an alternative to unemployment, or underemployment.

Don Drummond, Chief Economist with TD Bank Financial Group, cites statistics that young people entering careers during recessions start at lower wages, and continue to receive less money over their career trajectories. Peter Coy, author of a recent Business Week article on what’s being dubbed a “Lost Generation” calls this post-graduate purgatory of underemployment or unemployment “scarring,” and states that it has long term negative effects on work.

Even more disturbing on the Agenda episode, given Stats Canada’s recent report on rising student debt, was the suggestion by a couple of the panel’s members that staying in school longer was the best strategy for riding out the recession. Can further credential inflation be far off? It only makes sense that a surge of graduate level credentials in the market will water down their value.

For some years now, expanding higher education has been treated as a panacea for social and economic inequality. Few, it seems are willing to state the obvious: credentials decrease in value when too many educated young people are chasing too few jobs. Perhaps the price of staying in the education game is still lower, overall, than the price of getting out, but there is a price either way.

Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but remain frustrated that post-secondary education is enthusiastically expanded with near-zero accompanying planning for effective labour market planning, growth and transitions. The result? PSE warehouses our youth, while we collectively fail to address the disparities of the “new economy.”