Waitresses and interns

Landismom wrote yesterday about working as a waitress:

"And waitressing seems to cross class lines for a lot of women. I know a number of men–my husband included–who have never had a job in food service. But I don’t know any women who I can say that about–even women I know who have high-level corporate jobs have some kind of waitressing in their backgrounds."

I’ve never worked as a waitress.  Is that really so unusual?  I’ve worked as a babysitter, and as a camp counselor, and as a receptionist/file clerk/girl friday in a doctor’s office, but never in food service.

Part of the explanation is that I grew up in New York City, and I think those sorts of jobs are less open to teenagers there than in suburbia.  (I know Katherine Newman has written about how in Harlem, even fast-food jobs are hard to get.)  And part is that my parents were generous enough that I didn’t have to work while in college, and was able to take unpaid or low-paying internships over the summer.

I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the role of unpaid internships in transmitting class privilege.  Well-off students can afford to spend their summers doing things that look good on a resume, but pay little or nothing.  Students whose families are already reaching to send them to college can’t.  (Or have to moonlight at a paying job or two on top of their internships.)  I used to fantasize about organizing a strike of all the interns on Capitol Hill. I still think that politicians who consider themselves progressive ought to figure out a way to pay their interns at least enough to cover the cost of housing for the summer.

As I think about it, I suspect the main barrier to paying interns isn’t the cost of the stipend, but the time that it would take to wade through the pile of applications that you’d receive if you advertised a decent wage.  I know in my office (which far less a glamorous place to work than the Hill), the only interns we’re able to pay are those who come to us through various formal programs, which serve to prescreen the pool of applicants.

20 Responses to “Waitresses and interns”

  1. Jody Says:

    Oh, don’t get me STARTED about the class privilege of the congressional internship. Or any of the big DC internships. I went to college for four years in DC, and there was a VAST family-income difference between those folks who had the unpaid internships and those who didn’t. Drove me crazy, and was one of my main complaints. Those internships were a major resume-building tool for people at my alma mater, and I couldn’t afford to take them.
    Waitressing was my very first job, I was hired for the hospital coffee shop the fall I turned fifteen. I still have a photocopy of my first paycheck. It was a big moment, too, when I turned sixteen and they had to pay me minimum wage. (Back in the mid-eighties, at least, the 14- and 15-year olds didn’t have to get it.) I paid a big chunk of my exchange year in Australia on the strength of that money.
    Almost no one I know ever waitressed. Calder’s parents wouldn’t LET him work in high school. I worked 20-hour weeks by senior year, and was work-study in college for three years until I got a better-paying job with one of the many associations down around DuPont/K Street in the summer after my junior year. I temped as a receptionist/word processing person every holiday at home until the summer after my first year in grad school, too.
    Very weird when I was at Oxford on fellowship: one week, I’m living the life of privilege in England, the next I’m freezing my butt in my cheap suits and boots over nylons while waiting in the muddy snowdrifts for a bus to take me downtown to cover for all the folks on vacation over Christmas.

  2. Jody Says:

    I should add: obviously I used a lot of my income to acquire some of the experiences and trappings of someone in a higher income bracket than my own. I.e., the exchange year in Australia: I had to pay the plane ticket, travel costs on sponsored tours, that sort of thing. But when I got to college, my parents paid $280 a month to support me, and that included their contribution to my tuition (this was 1988 to 1992), and in my senior year, when my sister started college, it dropped to $100 a month. Everything else I made myself.
    So, thank God for my alma mater’s generous grant funding, thank God I attended college not one minute later than I did, and thank God for the Registrar’s Office and the Office of Performing Arts, both of whom were amazing school-year and summer employers.
    Calder and I have fairly heated discussions about whether the kids should work in high school or not. I still carry some resentment of the kids who could afford to spend their time volunteering and building the resume with high-status experiences, so my first instincts (to allow/promote a part-time job) might be wrong. I know our school district is really competitive, but I look back with great fondness on the work I did (first as a waitress, than in retail at a craft store, then once I got to college, as a temp) and I know it gave me a sense of competence, a sense that I would always have SOME skill I could fall back upon, that was worth at least as much as H.S. senior-year homework.
    Besides, I was still a 500-hour+ scholarship-winning candy striper at the hospital by the time I graduated high school. So the work didn’t completely block me from doing other things. (I had to quit track, but I hated wind springs anyway.)

  3. Maria Wood Says:

    I know very few women who haven’t waitressed, or at least worked in restaurants in some form. I’m sure it is in part geographical – I live in a touristy area so there are a LOT of restaurants and not much else.
    I swore off waitressing years ago because for one thing I was awful at it (I think I’d be better now, with a little more maturity and perspective – but on the other hand my feet and legs aren’t those of a 20 year old anymore, so it might be a tossup), and for another it was so depressing. Food service is just relentless – serving the same thing over and over to seemingly (and sometimes actually) the same people, day after day after day. You never get anywhere. You work as hard as you can all day, endure abuse from customers and the kitchen, deal with repulsive half-eaten garbage with a smile on your face, and the next morning wake up and start all over. It’s very sisyphean.
    But on a good day, the money’s great.

  4. Sara Says:

    I also have never waitressed. At 16, Dad mentioned that he’d heard from a friend that the public library was hiring teenaged pages to reshelve and run for newspapers, etc. I applied, got the job, and worked that job 15 hours a week for my senior year of high school.
    And I also found the Unpaid Internship economy something that I couldn’t participate in, that therefore limited my options and my employability. My upper-middle-class roommate (from a DC suburb) explained very earnestly that it was hugely important to have these internships on your resume, that it was how you made connections for post-school jobs. I’d never heard of such a thing in my small-town high school. And I tried to explain, just as earnestly, that summers were for earning the money that my financial aid package assumed I *had* to earn during the year to contribute to my education. That I couldn’t afford to go to Big City, pay rent, and work for free — even if I could get a night job (waitressing!), I’d end up at a net loss.

  5. jackie Says:

    This is definitely yet another way class privilege plays into the life of an undergrad *after* they get in the door. It seems like the assumption is often that financial aid gets you to college, and that from there on out, it’s an equal playing field. Not true. The kinds of jobs you hold in college are very indicative, at least anecdotally, of the class status you came from befor eyou got to college.
    To add myself– I worked in high school, during all my holiday breaks in college, at retail or restaurant jobs, because I needed the money. During the year, I worked at our campus’s writing center, which paid well but also built up marketable skills. My senior year, I worked that job in addition to an office aide’s job so that I could pay off some of the debt I acquired after my semester abroad experience. It should be clear by now that my parents did not contribute to my living expenses while I was a student, apart from “helping me” with my books in a majority of my semesters there.
    I remember going to an interview for an internship at the city newspaper, and having a really great interview, right up until they said they would expect me to be driving my own car, so that they could send me all around the city for errands and research. Since I didn’t have a car because I couldn’t afford one, I knew that was not the one for me. I did do an intership my senior year, after I did have a car, and it was such a great experience that I realized how valuable they were, and really wished I could have done more. It’s still a regret of mine from college. But then, summer interships would have rquired transportation *and* rent, which I did not need if I lived at home and drove my mother’s car to the mall to sell Disney store stuff.

  6. landismom Says:

    Thanks for the trackback. The unpaid internship was definitely outside of my ability when I was in college. In fact, I was required to do an internship in college, and ended up going to Idaho to do it, because it was the only place I could find that would both pay me (a small amount, but something) and provide housing for the internship period.
    I had to work the whole time I was in college (mostly restaurants and retail), and also work on 3-5 plays a year (because I was a theater major), in addition to all my regular coursework.
    I have the same internal conflict about part-time high school for my kids that Jody describes. On the one hand, why should my kids have to suffer through crappy jobs, if they don’t have to (like I did). On the other hand, why should they get off doing crappy work in their early lives, so they will (hopefully) always appreciate that it is not their only option?

  7. bj Says:

    I’ve never waitressed — in the only job I’ve ever held out of my field was a newspaper route (and I’d never encourage my kid to do that now, and don’t think they hire kids for that in our neighborhoods anymore anyway).
    My field is science, and the fact that I’ve never held a job out of it shows the many colors of privelege. We were economically middle class immigrants, and there was certainly not a lot of money, but my father was a university professor. My first job (right after high school) was with a friend of his, who was looking for someone to work in the lab over the summer. After that, I managed paid internships for the summer, and never worked during the school year.
    I suspect our life experiences of working won’t really work for our children. School is more competitive and focused than it was for us.
    It’s also interesting to hear the reports here of people who worked for room & board & their college education. I’ll admit that we immigrants usually prejudge you white kids as working for clothes & cars & other teenage amenities, not for “necessities.” Life is changing, but children of educated indian imigrants I knew didn’t work during high school when I was a kid.

  8. ElizabethN Says:

    I’ve never waitressed. I didn’t even do much babysitting as a kid – I earned better money doing data entry for a local dentist, and setting up computers for adults and teaching them how to use them. My first paying job was teaching a community center class on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and I also worked as a math teacher at an academic summer camp.
    In college, I worked as an engineering intern in the summers, as did almost everyone else I knew at MIT. We made pretty good money, and one summer, the job came with both housing and a car. In grad school, I had assistantships for most of it, and worked as a contract programmer during the terms that I didn’t. I worked for a law firm after grad school that put me through law school (while working half time at the firm).
    My brother has a similar record. His high school job was feeding and exercising an elderly man with Alzheimer’s in a local nursing home, and I think his college summers were pretty much like mine, although I don’t remember what jobs he took.
    I also don’t remember my high school friends waitressing, although that may be partly because I grew up in a relatively affluent area where fewer kids worked.

  9. amy Says:

    Agreed on the congressional internship. I was well-funded enough to have that & a few other fancy unpaid internships in college, and they opened doors I wouldn’t have known existed had I been waitressing. The congressional staff job, the Big-8 (OK, I’m old) European-office job offer and the invitation to the LSE grad program were all direct results of the internships & the contacts made. The resume lines were useful in getting other jobs, too.
    Otoh, it’s still exploitation. Good luck with that fantasy strike, there.
    Otooh, I think this is something peculiar to social sciences, humanities, and arts/entertainment. In the sciences and engineering, you get paid, often quite handsomely, to be taught to be useful. Check out some of the NSF-REU stipends & benefits for 8-10 week undergrad summer programs, and you’ll get some feel for it. Law interns get paid, too.
    I did work in a restaurant in college, btw. Late-night hostess at Perkins. Lasted about a month, went back to my library & aerobics-instructor jobs.

  10. jen Says:

    I’m torn on this one. I’ve worked with some people whose first paid job began at age 26 and included an office and a suit & tie. Some of them handled it OK, others not so much. There’s certainly a level of naivete that you encounter with such people that you just don’t get when more real-world experience is in place. Another aspect is work ethic. Folks who have done crap work understand that better work is a privilege, and work much harder at it.
    On the other hand my first paid work was at a fast-food restaurant. At 15 I was spending 6-8 hours a day in a place where the night manager was sexually harassing the girls and selling drugs thru the drive-up window. The “skills” I learned in this environment — such as assuming any man who spoke to me was going to proposition me, or the best way to sneak out back to smoke a joint — had to be actively unlearned later in life. Not optimal.

  11. V.H. Says:

    Coming from a science and engineering background, it’s surprised me that there are so many unpaid internships. In grad school (electrical engineering), they doubled our stipends over the summers so that the hourly rate was more in line with the $16-$20/hr being offered by various internship and co-op programs. As a first generation immigrant, I actually view even being able to study humanities and social sciences as a sign of class privilege. My parents didn’t believe in student loans but also didn’t have money, so I knew that whatever I studied would have to pay me or else I wouldn’t be able to go. Undergrad scholarships for women in science and engineering were easy to come by, and teaching/research assistantships paid for school and living expenses at the grad level. The only children of my parents’ friends who did not go this route were those who chose to take loans for medical school.

  12. Kai Jones Says:

    I worked in high school…to buy food and pay the electric bill, which my mother didn’t always do. Still couldn’t get financial aid for college–my dad was wealthy but refused to contribute to my education, and they don’t take that into account.
    I’m going to college part-time now, in my 40s, paying tuition out of what I earn as a legal secretary.

  13. Mary Says:

    I never waitressed but my first job (age 16) was in fast food.
    When I dropped out of my first attempt at college to “find myself”, instead of waitressing, I went straight into the big leagues: temp office work. This was the early 90s and I always felt fortunate I was able to get into temping during a time when jobs in general were hard to come by, especially without a college degree. But I always suspected that I was able to get my foot in the door because I had two things working in my favor: white skin and the right clothes (hand me downs from my attorney mom).

  14. amy Says:

    vh, I think you’re right. Though currently it’s a sign of either class privilege or naivete/lack of self-preservation. Entry to the programs has been democratized, so around here I see lots of poor kids studying English, history, etc. Often they’re the first in their families to go to school, their parents aren’t paying for it, and their parents have left all the major decisions & fact-finding to them. Many of them get ugly surprises on graduation, esp. when they’ve got thousands or tens of thousands in student loans. Unhappy surprise too when they learn that declaring bankruptcy will not clear the federal student loans.
    Keeps the grad programs happy, though.
    Also keep in mind that the sci/eng intern employers tend to have massive grants and/or actual sales. Theatres frequently don’t have the budgets to pay interns.
    Anyway. All this is one of the reasons I’m trying to put enough away that my daughter won’t have to work much for money in college. Some, but not much. I don’t want the lack of money to be either a distraction (working 20-40h wks while trying to go to school) or a barrier to the kinds of chances I got. And that goes back to WSJ’s series a while back on the lack of class mobility; it’s another example of someone from a privileged background attempting to pass those privileges along, privileges someone else might not even know exist.

  15. Maggie Says:

    Although I also worked at the univesity mailroom, my real part-time job during college was being in ROTC on scholarship – the only way my family could afford private school tuition. That was also my summer job for at least a month each summer – I temped in Midtown during the weeks I wasn’t on active duty. Then, of course, the Navy was also my first job out of college.
    It was different kind of summer/schooltime job, but one that’s just as clearly a vehicle for class mobility. I could never have afforded to go to an ivy league college without the ROTC scholarship, no matter what the school claimed about need-blind financial aid packages. None of the packages took into consideration the 3 kids still supported by my parents.

  16. Maura Says:

    Hot topic!!!
    I am a strong opponent of unpaid internships in the political sphere. When Dean took over as head of the DNC, the first email I wrote them when they asked for suggestions was a letter urging them to eliminate unpaid internships. No Democratic politician should allow it – period. Unpaid internships perpetuate a privileged ruling class. They’re based not on merit but on ability to have someone else pay one’s living expenses.
    I started working when I was 12 – babysitting and a paper route. In high school I worked 20 hours per week, plus I was the president of our school’s Drama Club and had leadership roles in a number of community theater groups. In college, I always had at least 20 hours of work-study employment per week, plus working over the summer. I never waitressed, though — after my paper route, all of my part-time jobs were clerical in nature. I was actually jealous of my roommates who waitressed and bartended, since they usually brought home great tips, but I never really felt competent in the food arena.
    I don’t have children yet, but if I ever do, I feel strongly that I will encourage them to have after-school jobs as teenagers. My income helped our family in a significant way, since we were close to the poverty line. But even my more affluent friends who worked benefitted from the experience greatly. My high school boyfriend’s parents offered to double whatever he earned himself in order to help him buy his first car. He valued that car far more than other friends of ours who just had new cars bought for them. Likewise, in college, I valued my education far more than my roommate, who never had to work and had everything paid for her (including a generous monthly entertainment/clothing allowance from her parents). She’d skip class and blow off papers all the time. I never skipped class – I’ll I’d have to do is think of how much each class cost me and I’d never oversleep. (Granted, I dozed off in some classes…I’m only human!) But knowing that I earned my education meant a lot to me, and I want my kids to have that same sense of values when they grow up.

  17. amy Says:

    maura, if I had to think about how much each class cost every time I sat in one, I’d be a very, very angry woman. ;)
    I do see your point. However, you’re assuming that the freedom to blow off classes means useless screwing around. While I did work in college, I didn’t pay my own way (faculty brat, tuition was a benefit), and I didn’t go to class when I had something more interesting to do. That meant I spent a year or so doing the glamour-puss Bright Lights Big City thing with a rich Manhattan boyfriend (having a ball but learning, to my own surprise, that I didn’t want that life, saving myself five years of struggling to pay rent in NYC post-college); I learned to fly and discovered that much as I love flight, I had no business being a professional pilot; I had a lot of luuuv and learned a thing or two about myself and men; and I discovered that I wanted to write & stayed home from class writing and trying to read every major novelist I’d heard of. I travelled so much I had no appetite for it and dreams of public transport systems for ten years afterwards, getting on buses and planes and just going places; I hitchhiked through Britain and spent many, many afternoons in museums, coming to understand 20th-c painting in a way few people have the privilege of doing. I read philosophy, history, economics, things I understood and things far over my head. I learned how (and how not) to drink. I also killed my legs running, recovered, taught aerobics and began what’s been an ongoing physical education that’s left me far healthier than most other 40ish American women, despite (This is not the same as going to English classes, which are frequently useless for writers.) Did some literacy tutoring and a few other things too. I made a lot of mistakes and experiments, in other words, and I had the freedom to make them at a time in my life when changing course was relatively dirt cheap. I had priceless adventures no grownup in her right mind would embark on, and I developed an artistic foundation that serves me today. I also walked out with an education and degree in international relations, which is suddenly worth something again these days. I had a truly liberal education.
    My family was not wealthy, btw. My dad was a professor and my mom was SAH, and while I was in college they divorced and my father paid out of pocket for experimental cancer treatment. But my father believes firmly in making lots of mistakes while they’re cheap, and while he required me to submit budgets (also valuable), he gave me the money to make them with. Sending me off to a summer program in England, he handed me what seemed a giant wad of cash and told me to spend it having fun, and not to save it. It shocked me, but I complied, and I’ve been grateful for 20 years. (My willingness to ignore my college-arranged internship and classes there, btw, resulted in a more valuable internship with a member of Parliament, and contacts that proved useful later.) I see the value in his ideas about early mistakes now, watching my husband go through a long white-knuckle period as he attempts to change careers without ever having really flopped or experimented before. I hope we can give our daughter what I got.
    Post-college, btw, the same follow-my-nose mode had me quitting my yuppie job to go write, which meant feeding myself, a boyfriend, and two cats on ten bucks a week in a gunshots & dealers neighborhood. In the depths of rust-belt recession, with the beginnings of chronic health problems and a wifebeater upstairs. My college-girl polish and my hooters landed me a $5.25/hr job when min was lower, and I beat out 50 people for it on the first day it was advertised. I know the value of a dollar and the impossibility of American ordinaries like a house and sick days and health insurance on 3 part-time minimum-wage jobs, Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t have to tell me that. But I also know what one can do with a few million dollars, seriously and frivolously. That kind of range is something worthwhile, I think.

  18. jen Says:

    Pardon my bluntness, Amy, but the things you learned while skipping school are all things about yourself — how to drink, what kind of job you might like, how your body responds to aerobics. Time spent on self-discovery is all well and good, but it’s not equivalent to someone gaining the skills they need to keep themselves housed & fed.

  19. Elise Says:

    The closest I came to waitressing was a six-month stint at a Starbucks in New York when I was in college, but since that doesn’t have table service, it really doesn’t count. I was terrible at it! I just don’t have that think-on-your-feet and thick-skin-against-the-mean-customers thing that you need to have to be a waitress.

  20. amy Says:

    on the contrary, Jen, I think these kinds of things are important in keeping yourself housed, fed, and reasonably healthy over a lifetime. If you don’t know what kind of work you enjoy, you’re setting yourself up to be trapped in a career you dislike while you pay off student loans, pay a mortgage, raise children, fear starting over at the bottom, etc. (Head over to mommd.com to hear doctors with tens or hundreds of thousands in med-school debt trapped in work they hate by their loans. They don’t comprise the majority of posters by any means, but it’s a perennial theme.) Doing work you like, as long as you’re good at it, also increases the odds that you’ll do well materially. Doing work I like — and knowing how to leave work I don’t — has kept me surprisingly employable. As for the aerobics & real phys ed, If you don’t know how to take care of your body when the larger culture wants you to sit in a chair and stuff your face with packaged garbage for 14 hours a day, you’re going to have trouble staying healthy and teaching your children how to take care of their bodies.
    I mentioned the drinking because it turned out to be as important in working at the House of Commons as golf might be at, I don’t know, any of those awful places where golf is important. Important conversations and introductions happen over booze, and not knowing how to hold it — or when to stop — can be a liability, esp. outside the US.
    I did a fair amount of volunteering & fundraising while skipping class, so no, it wasn’t all about me; but that’s my business.
    Do I recommend this kind of education to a kid from a poor family who’s taking out major loans, or a single mother who’s got to support kids? No; she can’t afford it. It always makes me squint to hear some poor single mom tell me she’s taking out loans to study sociology or art history or some other professor-glut/no-industry subject. Sometimes when you have no money the best thing you can do is be miserable for a while and make a pile of dough, and I respect that. But I’d still recommend skipping class sometimes and going out to have some fun, first because so few classes are indispensable at most non-tip-top schools, second because it’s often where the most profitable relationships start, and third because it’s going to get a lot tougher to walk out like that for the next 40 years.
    I went back to school for a while as an undergrad in chemistry a few years ago, and I was disturbed by what I saw. To my mind, too many of the kids were taking giant courseloads and working part-, even fulltime jobs to avoid student debt, and they were like premature 45-year-olds. The anxiety levels were painful, and a lot of them were in lousy shape. If you’re in lousy physical shape at 20, it’s not so easy to change that at 30, 40, 50. They spend a lot of time being scared, and I didn’t see a lot of play going on except among the brightest. Yes, they’ll have jobs that pay well in the end, but at what price? That’s a very expensive salary they’ll be earning, I think.
    I do think there are real costs to an education that narrow — without room and time to wander in — and that may be why so many poor kids who grow up to be successful professionals and business owners deck their own kids out with money in college and tell them to go have fun, see the world, and do whatever they love best.
    We started off talking about rich kids with the freedom to work for free & the privilege they gain by it, but I do want to point out that we’re not necessarily talking anymore about rich kids. Like I said, I wasn’t one, but my parents had my school costs covered. We started saving before our daughter was born at a rate of $150/mo; conservatively, it ought to cover at least most of an in-state tuition. Her housing’s covered too, though not by the $150/mo. Not everyone’s got $150/mo they can spare, but our income this year is less than $10K above average for national household, and we manage that plus other savings and major healthcare expenses.

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