Monday, November 1, 2010

The ethical conundrum that is the apprenticeship

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I am unemployed.  Of course, that means much anxiety about the future and the present, although I don't have to worry nearly as much as many others, my family and friends being who they are (wonderful).  But still, it's been hard.

The past few years I've attempted to switch professions, from teaching high school to something that involved the outdoors more, because it overwhelmed me one day that I need to be outside more, and I need to be involved in the outside.

But, few outdoors-oriented jobs are currently open to me, because my educational background is in social science, and many outdoors jobs require biology or "related fields".  In fact, I'm confident in my environmental science knowledge, but without papers, I can rarely get even an interview.

And so, for about five seconds, I considered the option of apprenticeships, in order to get my foot in the door.  I went to California FarmLink's (a great organization, by the way) section on apprenticeship options, and found one close by.  However, when I read the position description, I felt like I'd been hit in the stomach:  Five months, 40-65 hours of work per week, for $300 per month. 

A familiar rant welled up inside me.

I'm not from the movement that spawned environmentalism, 'back-to-the-land'-ism, urban farming and the like.  Namely, I'm not from the urban & suburban upper-middle and upper class white community.  We were not poor by any means, but to quote a famous song, "I was born in a small town."  The landscape was riddled with conservationists, but not one bona fide environmentalist that I can remember. 

Every Summer, then, to help get through college, I worked in agriculture - every pear packing shed on the Delta and in Ukiah.  I did every job in the shed except pack, eventually getting a great gig as a USDA/CDFA fruit grader, 50+ hours per week at its best, for a decent wage.

There was never any option about taking a Summer off and touring Europe.  There was never an option for a free apprenticeship to get a foot in the door at some company or industry.  I needed to help cover my college expenses as much as I could, and so part-time work during the Semester, and work with overtime during the Summer was the only way. 

Today, many in the environmental movement are derided by others as "limousine liberals", folks out of touch with real America.  I'm not so harsh a judge, because I share most of their goals.  But I know that there is a kernel to that truth, and a large part of that image comes from the way in which the industry (because it is an industry, too) chooses its employees. 

People taking this road must often sacrifice, not just time, but financially to a level below a living wage.  This may feel like one is only choosing the true followers of these ideas, but in reality it is only choosing for those who can support themselves by other means, as well.  Typically, this is a young, single person with family to provide for tuition, room and board, and health insurance.  Other options are spouses with enough time for both to work, but one making enough money to cover the basics (health, mortgage, insurance), leaving the other free to pursue a more altruistic profession, or the single and wealthy individual, or the retiree looking to help out.  All of these are fine people, and do great work.

But what this method excludes are myriad voices - passions and perspectives that would make the environmental movement the complete system it needs to be in order to effectively reach its goals.  Poor folks who need employer-based insurance, single parents who want to dedicate their vocation to a calling, college kids who need a living wage during the Summer in order to cover exorbitant tuition rates, families who want to be a part of the solution, who want to advocate and who have talents and skills to contribute, but who cannot live on less than minimum wage.  These people bring different perspectives about what the wild means to them, and these people can often more effectively talk to those people living in similar circumstances. 

So I am frustrated with the apprenticeships and entry-level positions offered in the nonprofit, environmental world.  I understand the difficulties often faced by fickle funding, but I'm much more frustrated at being "offered" positions that cannot provide my family an honest living, and I'm a tad offended that they would expect me to continue to impoverish my family for The Cause. 

A great friend (and nonprofit veteran) once quoted me Confucius during a conversation about this.  She said, "that which is expensive is not expensive, and that which is cheap is not cheap."


Ingrid said...

Josh, great post and one to which I can relate. I would love to switch gears into an environmentally-oriented career, but I grapple with the same considerations. I've been able to channel some of my conservationist passions through photo and writing work I've done for nonprofits. But it amounts to volunteerism, not a living wage. The people I know who apprentice at my wildlife facility all have some financial backing, since you have to devote full-time (unpaid) hours over the span of months, to qualify for the program. An important topic, this is.

Josh said...

Thanks, Ingrid. What sort of impact do you see this having on efforts to increase awareness and reach diverse audiences?