Trillion-Dollar Company: “Have You Considered Doing A Free Internship?”

I REMEMBER QUITE VIVIDLY A SCENE from the late summer of 2017, when I ran into a former coworker at the then-brand-new, since-closed Avalon Café location on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit’s New Center area. I had just been laid off from a job in a department that would soon no longer exist. The new location was one of a few of the local bakery. It promised a biscuit bar– and ice cream, which I somehow took to mean “biscuit and ice cream bar,” which sounded, well, delicious. The colleague in question was a relatively recent addition to the organization. She was in a different department, so we only knew each other through mutual friends and to greet one another in the office. I related to her my story and subsequent struggle on the job hunt.

The conversation was innocuous enough, as one tries to keep it while feasting on carbs in a warmly-colored, sunlit storefront space on a warm afternoon.

I did, however, take particular umbrage at one suggestion she made over the course of the conversation. She asked:

“HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT AMERICORPS?”

[Sound effect. Freeze frame on my face at that moment.]

Well, yeah. Of course. I definitely had thought about it. I thought about it when I was 22 and 23, and I even thought about it when I was 24, after I had bought my first house. I wasn’t thinking about it when I was 29, though, after the sweet promise of having a “real” job that pays a biweekly salary. I mean, direct deposit from a steady paycheck is kind of magical. Money magically appears in your account– without having to do anything! In my past two jobs, it was deposited late Thursday night. I’d wake up Friday morning with a notification from my bank saying that new funds had been deposited. O, sweet world!

That is, of course, great until it’s not a thing anymore. It’s even worse when you 1) lose your job, 2) narrowly escape death, in the same year, in a car accident that 3) totals your car with no insurance payout, even though it was a hit-and-run and you were not at fault, leaving you $9,000 in the hole, and 4) the police try to assign blame to you because you “fled the scene of an accident” (N.B.: “walked three blocks home when they didn’t show up for three hours”). Adding those on top of a particularly ugly falling-out from a brief and fiery courtship with a Mike Duggan technocrat (the root, as I’m sure a therapist will help me unpack in ten years, of all of my cosmic angst and bitterness about the urbanist technocracy), 2017 was the ultimate in gaslighting. (Narrator voice: He had no idea what was going to happen in 2020).

And now, after all of that, someone was telling me I should volunteer my time– mostly for free. I mean, Americorps is a great program. I guess. Or, at least, it’s a great start. But it’s certainly not one that is sustainable for people who have mountains of debt. Nor is it something that people can really do comfortably in their late 20’s and 30’s. Especially if you’re trying to support a family. I was not, but I still had debt. The car situation. Etc.

The erstwhile Avalon Bakery’s midtown location. With a biscuit bar.
THE ROAD TO MAINTAINING THE STATUS QUO IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS

I have no doubt that my colleague’s comment was made with good intentions. I don’t think she was suggesting that I am not worth a living wage. Nor do I think that she was suggesting that I sell myself short. A lot of times, well-meaning advice comes in the form of things that have absolutely no professional relevance.

This company wasn’t really hiring people, it was just posting positions to see who would apply. A hiring freeze. You know, in spite of the $100+ billion in cash reserves this company has– they’re not hiring “because they can’t afford to.”

I think of the Bloomfield Hills type I met at some arts-and-bullshit cocktail event whom I told I was an urban planner. “Oh, you know Urban Science? You should check them out.” I think this guy really thought that because “urban planning” and a consulting agency that does research and marketing analytics, or something, for the automotive industry– shared half of their name. I don’t think he was an asshole. I don’t think he was ill-intentioned. I think we are wont to associate anything we know with whatever subject comes up, or whatever situation comes up. You know, regardless of whether there is a complete lack of substance there. It’s like those conversations we’ve all had where someone is like, “Oh, my sister lives in California, too!” And the sister lives in, you know, Mendocino, while we’re talking about San Diego. It’s an attempt to form a point of commonality. An attempt to relate. I get it. Humans are awkward. The more often we recognize that and submit to the awkwardness, the better we can do by each other. Relish in the awkward! Recognize that you don’t know the answer! And just support someone by meeting them where they are.

THE TRILLION-DOLLAR, UNPAID INTERNSHIP

Such was not what happened in my conversation last week. It was a conversation with a classmate-of-a-friend kind of a thing. It wasn’t a direct connection, but it was one through shared, or at least relevant, professional overlap. It was sort of an informational interview. And it was one I thought might be useful in me moving forward in career objectives. This was through a loyal Handbuilt Patreon donor, who shall remain nameless. And, to be clear, I appreciate the friend making the connection.

As it turned out, it wasn’t particularly useful. It turned out that she was the hiring manager for a job I had applied for recently. The problem? This company wasn’t really hiring people, it was just posting positions to see who would apply. A hiring freeze. You know, in spite of the $100+ billion in cash reserves this company has– they’re not hiring “because they can’t afford to.” (N.B.: they could afford to hire 60,000 workers for a salary plus benefits of $80,000 per year for the next 25 years and still have billions left over at the end). Beyond that, according to her, I didn’t fit the profile of the ideal candidate at all. She needed someone who:

  • Had skills working with in commercial real estate. ✅
  • Had skills working with the construction industry. ✅
  • Had an understanding of the technical processes associated with MEP in construction. ✅
  • Understood smart buildings and energy efficiency. ✅
  • Had experience in all of these things and was an electrical engineer and […] ❌
  • […] had direct experience designing and bringing a smart home product to market. ❌

Bro. How many people would even check all of these boxes? I guarantee you, not even Master Jacob Nest the First, or, you know, whatever.

AIMING TOO HIGH CAN RESULT IN SCORING DISAPPOINTINGLY LOW

Well. I hate to break it to you. But this is what we call a “wish list.” One may even call it a “pipe dream.” You are not going to find every single quality that you desire in a job candidate. I had a similar experience with another Mike Duggan technocrat. We sat in the back of a community meeting I was covering for a newspaper and I told her about having applied for this job she posted. She told me that she really wanted to hire for this position someone who:

  • Had direct experience working in community development in Detroit. ✅
  • Had direct experience working with Detroit-based contractors. ✅
  • Had direct experience managing construction. ✅
  • Understood nonprofits and community development finance. ✅
  • Had experience in green building, sustainable construction and design, and historic preservation. ✅
  • Had experience working with cloud-based relational database and CRM software. ✅ Preferably with DBMS coding. (Wait. What?)
  • Was a licensed builder. ❌
  • And, you know, while we’re at it, preferably a CPA, too. ❌

I mean. Really? You want construction people who know how to use computers? That’s a tall order to begin with. If this is what you’re shooting for, you’re going to fail to cultivate new talent. You’re going to shoot yourself in the foot as you demand perfection and fail to build relationships that matter that can be mutually educational and synergistic in terms of combined core competencies.

So, let’s hop back into the present, a.k.a. my phone call last week with a representative of a unit of a trillion-dollar company.

“Have you thought about doing an unpaid internship?” she said, her 480p face lagging over the poor bandwidth afforded to my inner city internet infrastructure. “I think there are a lot of companies that might find that really valuable, given your background.”

I mean, no. I haven’t thought about it. Just like at the not-biscuits-and-ice-cream extravaganza three years ago, I haven’t thought about doing an unpaid internship. I’m a grown-up. I have an undergraduate degree. I’ve gotten half a dozen certifications and other credentials. I have professional memberships, networks, expertise, and a tremendous amount of patience dealing with people from trillion-dollar companies who tell me to work for less than I’m worth because, they say, that’s just what’s for dinner.

“…we need to stop believing the lie that we as a workforce do not deserve to be paid to do work that matters.”

I want to be clear in differentiating C. in 2017 from this lady. C. in 2017 was well-intentioned and, like I had formerly, worked for a broke nonprofit. The inappropriate conflation of “oh, you work for a nonprofit!” and “oh, you’re cool with making no money!” is an unfortunate, though understandable one. 2020 informational interviewee, on the other hand, works for a trillion-dollar company. She does not have this same excuse. Thanks– but no thanks. If anything, this informational interview was more instructive about the fact that I probably don’t want to work for this division if this is the kind of idea their workers come up with.

EPILOGUE

It’s the late days of summer in what I can safely say has been the weirdest year on record. COVID is old news to which we’ve become inured. Fall is in the air and, as I write this, a peppering of wispy, cumulus clouds is set against a backdrop of what the weather report informs me is smoke in the upper atmosphere from the western wildfires that are currently raging, having displaced a million Americans in three states. The presidential election is a full-on bloodbath. The stock market soars inexorably, inexplicably higher, while the OECD says that COVID could effect a hit of up to 70% on our GDP.

It’s a bizarre time to be trying to do anything new, like re-launching a long-dormant consulting practice. But it’s a path I picked. I picked it in part because I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what to do with messes. I also picked this path because I’m tired of people like the aforementioned corporate apologist suggesting that maybe I should work for free. In the mean time, this path is, for now, at least, paying the bills. And that’s a good thing. It’s also a message I’m trying to advance. Because we need to stop believing the lie that we as a workforce do not deserve to be paid to do work that matters. In the age of corporate hegemony, we need to put the era of the unpaid internship to bed.

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Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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