Posted on August 21, 2016

What Work is Worth

What do we value?

I had a conversation with my friend Sophie today that made me really think about that question.

I’ve known Sophie essentially since I was born. We went to preschool, elementary school, and high school together, played on the same soccer teams, acted in school plays together, and explored the coastline of Gibsons together. She’s one of my closest and most inspiring friends.

Sophie is studying nursing at UBC. Since people generally want their nurses to know how to perform basic medical procedures, part of her program of study involves a practicum. Effectively, this is an internship where people are kind of putting their lives in their hands. No big deal.

This summer, Sophie had the privilege of getting to work twelve hour shifts, assisted the elderly with their bowel movements, and once had to call in an emergency team to save a patient who was choking on his own vomit. She was literally helping to save people’s lives. The craziest part? She wasn’t even getting paid.

I spent this summer helping program managers at Microsoft read through feedback more efficiently. I was pampered beyond belief, showered with free clothes, concerts, and tech, on top of being paid a generous salary. My internship was quite possibly the best 3 months of my life, but I’m not going to kid myself and say that I was changing the world, or making a meaningful difference in people’s lives – outside of the program managers on my team who were reading feedback.

What does it say about the world we live in that coding is compensated so much more handsomely than nursing? A computer science graduate working on a sexting app can make double the salary of a first-year nurse in acute care. I’m not writing this as a studied critique of our current society’s economic system, because I don’t know enough about economics and finance and politics to make an intelligent comment. What I do know is that because I liked science in high school and thought that blood was gross, I ended up in a field with stupidly good career prospects, even for kids halfway through university. Whereas because Sophie liked science in high school and wanted to help people, she ended up in a field that has a profound impact on people’s lives but where compensation is very modest.

Maybe the status quo is OK. Maybe this difference is symptomatic of the way our society undervalues certain jobs, and nurses should be paid more. Or software engineers should be paid less. Or we should all give ourselves a raise and go home.

I don’t know whether the compensation afforded to today’s software engineering interns is a good or a bad thing, but as I type on my Surfacebook (courtesy of Microsoft) and listen to Spotify (Premium, paid for by money I made at Microsoft) on my beats headphones (also courtesy of Microsoft), I can’t help but find it strange.