Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Unemployed chemists working for free? A bad idea.

Please, pay me a salary. Just a little one, please?
Photo credit: adpowers
An uncomfortable little story from CNN/Fortune on the plight of the unpaid worker:
"People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they're going to outperform, they're going to try to please, they're going to be creative," says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. "From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it's huge. Especially if you're a small business."
In the last three years, Fallis has used about 50 unpaid interns for duties in marketing, editorial, advertising, sales, account management and public relations. She's convinced it's the wave of the future in human resources. "Ten years from now, this is going to be the norm," she says.
Elsewhere, people are calling this person a moral cretin. This sort of thing is something I really, really hope doesn't spread to chemistry.

There are a lot of different kinds of low-paid labor in chemistry; while undergrad interns are sometimes unpaid, they're actually supposed to be learning the craft of chemistry. Summer students are typically paid in money or in class credit. Grad students, however minimally, are actually paid in tuition and their (meager) stipends. Industrial internships are traditionally paid and usually fairly well-compensated in my experience. (Academic postdocs, of course, are an entirely different story.) But the bright (?) line is that training (learning by doing) is different from working (just doing).

I really hope that this trend that seems to have started in the publishing/web-based world doesn't spread too far in chemistry. It'd be a really awful way to treat young inexperienced workers.


  1. There is federal law that governs whether or not a company is required to pay interns. The NY Times had a good summary in the last couple of years, maybe someone can dig it out or an expert can chime in. From what I recall, you can skip paying the kids if it truly is an educational experience, but if they are doing the equivalent of what you would pay someone else to do, then you must pay them.

    The dilemma of course, is that no intern is going to raise a stink about it - they are trying to make a good impression on the company.

  2. Also, the nature of our regulatory regime is that people will do this stuff until they are caught. I don't know what the right answer is, but part of it is informing young/unemployed workers of their rights.

  3. In the last three years, Fallis has used about 50 unpaid interns for duties in marketing, editorial, advertising, sales, account management and public relations. She's convinced it's the wave of the future in human resources. "Ten years from now, this is going to be the norm," she says.

    Wow...just wow

    This won't continue unless people start seeing a benefit from it. If they just continue to cycle through unpaid interns I'd imagine the pool would dry up.

  4. I'm reminded of this chart. Someone should do a chemistry/science version:


  5. I bet that horrible excuse for a person got a raise for promoting this exploitation.

  6. If you remove the term 'human resources' and replace it with 'slavery', then perhaps it won't be the norm in the future. Let's hope so.

    Sadly, it might be the only way to keep 'jobs' in the US away from cheaper sources of labor externally, but I don't see this being a trend in the pharmaceutical industry.

    The thing that pharma hasn't bothered to try, and just might depending on the pressures to keep jobs here, would be to lower the pay scale for scientists. Rather than pay an incoming PhD $100K+, offer a job at $75K. In this economy, is anyone going to turn down that salary?

  7. Realistically, the cost savings still wouldn't be enough. It's the over-all benefits/overhead that really inflates the compensation. amd where the big savings truly is by going external.

    Now I'm depressed. Maybe I'll work for free this week.

  8. Hahaha... $75K....I'd take that in a second! Maybe even a nanosecond! The thought that I'll ever be able to make that much as a chemist is giving me a good laugh this morning.
    Though now I'm a bit sad..
    Stewie Griffin

  9. A (possibly stupid) comparison/calibration: 75k is 25k more than the median household income in the US.

    Problem is, of course, that according to YP's hypo, it takes 5.5 years grad school + 2 years postdoc to get there.

  10. This already exists in chemistry. GSK is using unpaid labour in the UK - students at Nottingham University.

    Sad but true.

  11. A6:04a: More details, please? Interns / grad students?

  12. Anon 6:04, didn't GSK also start some initiative offering to help pay students' tuition? Not like it matters since they're shuttering all their UK sites so there won't be jobs for any of the graduates. At least they'll be able to say they were "paid" by GSK for a little while.

  13. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/chemistry/news/glaxosmithklinecollaborateswithuniversityofnottinghamchemists.aspx

  14. Pharma COs in the US are already doing this, to a point, by paying institutions (usually a decent upfront) for rights to first refusal of technology. NVS did this at Scripps a few years back (I don't think anything came of it), and I am sure others are ongoing.

    Also diabolical, is industrial post docs in academic labs. From my experience, this is typically via a start-up the prof is involved in and uses PDFs or even grad students to work on. Great for the company that gets dirt cheap labor, less good for the PDFs who won't have any papers to put on CV when it comes time to search for a real job.

    Regarding "Rather than pay an incoming PhD $100K+, offer a job at $75K". Welcome to the inevitable equilibration of globalization. Salaries in PRC/India will rise as salaries in the US fall. Reality is, most scientific work is grunt work (washing glassware, heating compound X with Y in solvent c). A company only needs a small percentage of "thinkers" to get a lot of work done with cheaper hands.

  15. The fact that people are routinely not compensated or under-compensated for very hard skilled labor, reminds of another economic system, where everyone gets paid exactly the same. Ironically, it didn't come from those "big brother socialists."

  16. Hey Anon 6:28, yes GSK did announce this scheme recently (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/jeffrandall/8355278/Paying-for-young-boffins-isnt-rocket-science.html).

    Sadly you can be certain that 90% of these 'hires' will be business/sales/IT. Anything but science basically.

    Big pharma love pulling the wool over the eyes of thick journalists looking for an easy headline.

  17. I find the GSK proposal underwhelming. Worst-case scenario: you're going to get poor work, poorly understood.

  18. @6:39

    It's not communism, it's supply and demand.

    With the rise of countries like India and China, the supply of cheaper labor went through the roof. Why hire a new PhD whose total compensation package costs a big company ~$250K or so when you can hire 5-7 chemists externally? This is especially hard for those of us working in Pharma right now. They may not have the experience and know-how we do, but they sure can throw numbers at a project at a rate cheaper than we can. It's combi-chem with people, basically.

    The days of skilled associate level chemists, once the backbone of any project, is pretty much over. Now we've got ChemPartner and WuXi

    Truth is, being a skilled plumber or electrician is a better career choice than an advanced degreed chemist right now, and probably for the foreseeable future. Can't outsource those jobs...

  19. @12:38

    It's not exactly Capitalism either, it's a warped version of something ... and cronyism is really what is ingrained in my mind.

    When apple can't sell enough ipods to keep their shareholders happy when compared to the Ponzi scheme that is the financial sector (banks, insurance, pay day lending). I mean, it almost doesn't make sense to say that "outsourcing" is the source of all our ills.

    This is not just restricted to chemistry, talk to an engineer ...

    Of course, if no one can afford to hire a plumber or an electrician for lack of real income that comes with the demise of the middle class, I'm not exactly sure what is a safe career choice.

  20. Allow companies to repatriate their money to the US without taxing them (or taxing at reduced rates) and the jobs will come back.

    Oops. Obama already put the kabash on that one. Guess all that money will have to stay overseas.

  21. Even an obviously bad idea is worth a shot. Exubera?

  22. It'll probably take a while for the chemistry world to get as bad as publishing is, but, realistically it's not surprising. When unemployment gets bad enough in a field people will be desperate to take an internship that MIGHT get them an in rather than not having anything.

    Or there's always the approach to be a govt chemist and try to get ahead through insider trading. You and pipeline should both like this one:


  23. 3:49,
    Your assertion makes no sense. Companies with no loyalty to country took jobs to places they can pay slave wages, without covering anyone's health care, dump waste anywhere they like, and wait for the year and a half of "untapped markets" before they're nationalized. Marginal tax rates are almost entirely irrelevant to the conversation.

  24. 6:03:
    How do you think Singapore attracts jobs? Through favorable tax policies. Stop penalizing companies who want to repatriate money in the US, and there will be job creation.

  25. Or maybe we should just tax the h*ll out of companies, give it to some people who got in over their heads on a McMansion, provide free health care, then wonder why everyone is unemployed.

  26. File this post under class warfare. Looking at the comment thread it's not exactly a chemistry specific or a "chemjobber" issue.

  27. A6:52p: Fair enough; and I'm terribly pleased that I've written enough that I have "issues" of my own. :-)

    It's something that's kind of frightening, but hopefully will not happen to us.

  28. Well, 6:46, ironically, doing the opposite of that is what got us to the unemployment situation we had, in case you've forgotten.
    Also, there is usually class warfare going on, it's just a rare case when the people in the bottom/middle(when it exists) realize it.

  29. 1) It's only class warfare when the poor want to screw the rich. When the rich want to screw the poor, it's called the free market. (It wasn't mostly homeowners with McMansions that got the jack of TARP, unless BofA and Lehman Brothers were demoted to living in New Albany.). Guess where that money'll come from when it comes time for payback? Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor, baby.) The labor market doesn't exactly work equally either - if wages threaten to rise to attract workers, it's time to trot out the "we need foreign workers/illegal immigrants to keep going" line so we can keep wages low. The free market is wonderful if the dice are loaded your way.

    If repatriating profits is the key to jobs, then why the hell aren't the Bahamas leaving us in the dust? (The "double Irish" involved shells there and in Ireland to avoid taxes.) We have plenty of investment money - the problem is people with jobs that generate tax money and consumption. Repatriation of profits only makes it easier to outsource to cheap labor and repatriate for investment to the low tax market - great if you're short on investment, but not necessarily short on jobs. (Investment is supposed to generate jobs down the line, but if you can't make or sell anything, well, than how is investment going to generate jobs? Particularly without the infrastructure taxes support (no education? roads?) and a crippling debt burden.)

    Singapore is doing well because the gov't is spending craploads to get jobs there, and business knows the trains will run on time, even if there are a few bodies on the tracks.

    It doesn't seem as if workers and business can play well together - either it's unions supporting the least able and working with the Mob, or businesses screwing their workers hard enough that they'd scream if their mouths weren't superglued shut. No cooperation - Saturn was doing well with that model, but GM had to screw it over, for example.

    2) When I was looking for a job, temp arrangements were the thing - move somewhere on your dime and work and hope we hire you or you're going to be hurting. It makes some sense to find out what a company is getting, but it does put most of the risk on the potential employee. I guess this is just another iteration, and if the market has lots of chemists in a small area, it might work - but those places are expensive to live in and so hard to support with a nonpaying job and the hope of being hired.

    3) I think the future you fear is the "Diamond Age" scenario - you are privileged to live here, and if you don't like it, there are two billion Indians and Chinese who will take your place. ("Take your place", in that context, would be literal - no land of your own but just a culture and a network means that your position is totally contingent, and when you lose, you lose.

  30. Hap, a favorite novel of mine. Really; like "been on my bedside table for 2 years" favorite.

    Who amongst us will be the Boer grandmother?

  31. As far as chemists working for free, there are some industry ones going back and doing post-doc stints, I know one right now. Getting paid next to nothing, at some schools there is no health plan either!

  32. 6.46 "Or maybe we should just tax the h*ll out of companies, give it to some people who got in over their heads on a McMansion, provide free health care, then wonder why everyone is unemployed"

    Here in the UK we've managed perfectly well to provide free to access, good quality, healthcare to everyone for over 60 years. And at lower cost per capita than the USA. And we are not all unemployed. I think it is a question of priorities.

  33. "and we are not all unemployed"

    just the chemists around Sandwich/Kent then?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20