Should Government Employees Work For Free?

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That’s the question the U.S. Department of Justice is now asking. As first reported by ProPublica, DOJ has posted job position notices for “experienced attorneys” with “outstanding academic records and superior legal research and writing skills.” The compensation? Zero, zilch, nada.

The Forest Service has been treading down this path for some time. Instead of paying family wages for woods work, the FS mobilizes volunteers, high school students (who pay a tuition fee for the “experience” of clearing trails), and convicts to get the job done.

13 thoughts on “Should Government Employees Work For Free?”

      • At the end of NWYC, they do leave with a paycheck that isn’t huge but does represent a “profit” for their work. My then-16-yr-old son did it last year and it was a great experience. The money went into his college fund. They spent weeks in the North Cascades backcountry living in a tent with a small crew of other kids and a leader (in this case a natural resources grad student and teacher, I thought his “job skills” were just fine). They learned a lot about living with other people under challenging conditions. They worked their butts off, every day, building trails, retaining walls, erosion control, sometimes campground maintenance. Yes, and picking up litter sometimes. Five weeks learning to take care of and respect our backcountry resources, and to work as a team, and develop shared values with kids of different backgrounds, culture, ethnicity… I don’t consider that “busy work” with “no real future”, maybe some folks do. Actually it reminds me a lot of my years in the military (also what some might called busy work at taxpayer expense), except in the northwest high country instead of on an aircraft carrier… I wish more teens could experience this, ymmv, -Guy

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  1. Yes, but it looks like there is training and supervision involved. Getting kids job experience and training in how to be in the workforce seems like a desirable goal. Because somebody’s got to pay for the folks working with the kids and teaching them.

    Just having come from recreating at a concessionaire site today, I wish I could have paid $20 instead of $10 and had a Federal employee or even a Forest Service volunteer. But maybe that’s a separate can of worms.

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    • The kids should be paid for their work, the end. On The Job Training is one of the best proven methods for teaching someone valuable job skills. My impression is that these kids are taken into the field by government employees at taxpayer expense and given “busy work” such as picking up litter and repairing trails. No real future in that work that pays a livable wage, and what (exactly) are the job skills of their mentor/supervisors?

      In contrast, about 20 years ago some associates and I hired teenage minority students to do a cultural resource inventory of a depressed area of north Portland: http://www.nwmapsco.com/ZybachB/Reports/1992_Alberta_Street_Project/Zybach-Grice_1992.pdf

      All kinds of compliments from the City Commissioners and nice press in the Oregonian, but $0 for enhancement and replication. Then we proposed “Urban Rangers” to the Mt. Hood NF, where inner-city kids would be given summer work on USFS projects as a way to earn money, learn legitimate job skills, and return transferable skills to their neighborhoods. The USFS thought it was a great idea, so cut us out of the picture, stole the Urban Rangers name without credit, compensation, or even a thank you, and took our idea and arguments and ran with them, on their own and with no announcement or acknowledgement of authorship. Only they decided they could save even more money by not paying the kids and calling them “volunteers.” After a week of hard work, when the kids (and their parents) discovered no pay was involved they were outraged, confronted the USFS on “black slavery” issues, and the program ended. I do think the kids may have ultimately been paid a “stipend” however. By contrast, our “underachieving” students did near-professional quality work, learned valuable and transferable job skills, and made a lasting contribution to their own careers and community.

      If these are rich privileged kids, okay — but those kids are usually at camp or working at a paying job. It’s the poor kids and minorities who usually get trampled in these kinds of “feel good” (for who?) projects. Our kids deserve better.

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      • OK, I understand the “kids” part. Our office used to have unpaid internships with students generally from law schools. Many of them thought they learned a lot and sometimes work would come along with funds and we would pay them.

        Still, what’s wrong with using volunteers? Every other organization does, including agencies like the Park Service. Many volunteer groups seem to be contributing quite a bit and having fun.. here’s an example.
        http://forestconservancy.com/
        and the volunteer opportunities http://forestconservancy.com/volunteering.htm

        They seem to be doing things, or doing more things, or doing things of better quality, than the FS can afford. We even had volunteer law students in my office who wanted to help review NEPA documents (!!), so there is a wide variety of what people want to do.

        I know DOJ seems like an odd place but I can’t put my finger on why.

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        • I know DOJ seems like an odd place but I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe because there are foresters who would be happy to do your former Forest Service job as volunteers. You know, to get the experience. Think of the money the FS could save for fuels treatments.

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          • Hmm. I doubt that anyone would do my most recent old job as a volunteer… if I said more I would sound whiny, and there were lots of good things about it. Are the DOJ jobs supervisory?

            Actually, the thing about DOJ is that if I think about it more:
            1) people you would get might not be as high quality.. Are they just working on “unimportant” projects? What if yours fits that description? Is someone checking their work? But how do we know they would be any worse than employees.. suppose the job market is tough and these are just people that are super-good, super-devoted and have another source of income.

            or 2) will they let their personal predilections influence their work? I don’t know why I would worry about this more with volunteers than with career folks..

            Actually we did have one of our interns that volunteered for OGC after she graduated from law school and couldn’t get a job. She was great. That’s why it’s strange that my experience (good) and my worries don’t line up.

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          • There aren’t many Foresters who want to mark timber, especially as a temporary employee. Hell, there aren’t many PEOPLE who WANT to do that work, as a temporary. Simply put, there aren’t any entry-level career timber offerings, anymore. All they offer are 6 month jobs, with no security, little benefits and minimal chances for promotions. THAT is not a livable wage! Why not use volunteers to mark timber, if saving money is the goal?!?!? Get people in there who are not motivated by money. *smirk*

            And Andy, you KNOW there will come another day when the Forest Service wants to insist that timber companies supply the workforce to mark the timber, again. The Forest Service will claim that they can’t fill temporary positions anymore. (Which isn’t too far from the truth, these days.)

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    • Larry: I’m guessing those GS-3’s could do a good enough job (maybe with a little rapid turnover at times) given the proper supervision and On The Job Training. However, I agree with you completely. Certain jobs in the woods, such as tree marking and tree planting, can (“usually”) have a long-term effect on forest structure and appearance — yet these jobs are critical, typically require a minimum few years’ employment to become competent, and are considered mindless entry level employment by people who (are very well paid to) sit in a chair for a living. Anyone can sit in a chair.

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  2. Where does: The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, FEMAcorps, and a whole bunch of “we’ll feed you, train you, give you a place to sleep, but not pay you a regular salary” fit into this discussion? Study Katrina, Sandy, or many other disaster histories and you will find unpaid folks working for resolving the hurts brought about by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fires, etc.

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