With just a few months to go before summer (allegedly) arrives in the US, the annoying emails have begun.
They’re pretty formulaic. A few lines asking about work and family, and then the casual segue to the bottom line: “Say, are you taking interns this summer? Because my daughter, she’s really fabulous. She doesn’t have any journalism experience but she’s a quick study. “
This season of queries unfolds against two other controversies I’ve been watching with interest. The first is unpaid internships. The second is the lack of diversity in journalism. And tech. Oh, and children’s book publishing. Actually, everywhere seems to be hurting for people of color lately—while the overall US population still barrels toward majority-minority status by 2043.
It’s worth remembering that a part of the reason the US Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in 1978 was to “redress” past discrimination. Subsequent rulings have substantially weakened the role of race in jobs, admissions, and special programs. No longer forced to diversify, or perhaps afraid to blatantly do so, institutions are back to relying heavily on their own networks—the very legacy networks affirmative action, unions, and anti-nepotism rules sought to bust in the first place. Meanwhile, managers are stretched too thin to expand hiring pools by pounding-the-pavement at, say, black colleges or minority recruitment fairs—and so they turn to those they know for quick, cheap labor.
Thanks to a spate of lawsuits, unpaid internships are less en vogue this year than last. Their ubiquity during the recession and recovery stemmed from lean companies eager for free help and the unemployed needing some way to gain work experience. The diminishing strength of unions, too, rolled out a red carpet for these shady “hires.” But some amount of helicopter parenting is also to blame.
As a parent myself, I sympathize. This generation of teenagers and college students faces stiff competition; with 6% admission rates at places like Harvard, internships show focus and set candidates apart from everyone else. (Some elite high schools actually auction off internships at prestigious law firms and multinationals for several thousands of dollars a pop.) When faced with the prospect of your children’s generation not doing as well or better than yours, what parent wouldn’t rally to ensure greater success?
But I am begging you to restrain yourself. Especially if you are a liberal who purports to care about inequality in this country. Or a conservative who supports the notion of meritocracy. Or a parent who wants a child to ultimately achieve confidence and independence.
It is the wrong way to hire.
The senders of said emails likely don’t see themselves as the problem. But they are indeed perpetuating one and doing their children no service in the long run. So what’s the friend of a well-meaning parent to do? You can reply, as I did recently to one mother:
“Nice to hear from you. Our internship program is actually very competitive. Further, I prefer to deal with candidates directly and discourage parents from emailing on their children’s behalf. You can have your daughter email me with a resume, some work samples, and a cover letter explaining why she’s such a great fit at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to take a look and see if she qualifies. Good luck to you and your family.”
Or you can just send them this column.