Because I have always had my eye on academia, there are many things I don’t know about the business world, including the process of getting started as a young person and moving up the ranks. However, whenever I hear aspiring business-types talk, internships perpetually come up. Internships seem to be central to the plan of getting experience, getting noticed, and getting on track to a good job. And the accompanying question is always asked: is the internship paid or unpaid?
Before today, this question never fazed me. I have always been paid for my internship-like research experiences, but I was not surprised that in some fields, people paid their dues by working for free. However, a blog entry that I read today completely changed my mind, and not in the direction that the author intended.
Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA franchise the Dallas Mavericks, had an idea to set up some unpaid internships using social media to market his team:
One silver lining of a “great recession” that we are now in is that there are a lot of incredibly talented people without jobs, or who have lost their jobs. I didn’t care if they were 18 years old or 73 years old. I thought we could assemble a talented group who would enjoy the internships and could also gain valuable experience to add to their resumes. When the economy opened up, one of two things would hopefully occur. We were generating revenue from this effort and we could hire them, or they had just built up their resumes and improved their chances of finding a paying job.
Makes sense right ?
Wrong. Enter the US Government.
At first, I was on Cuban’s side. (Leave aside for the moment the fact that he, a billionaire, is describing others’ unemployment as a silver lining.) This seems to be an agreement that would be beneficial for both sides, and the unpaid interns would perhaps benefit more, since he described this project as something that wouldn’t bring in cash flow. He spins it as the meddlesome government telling the intern that they’re better off doing nothing (or flipping burgers) than gaining experience.
He loses me, and convinces me of the other side of the argument, when he presents the government’s restriction on unpaid interns:
no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company. That is, you can not deliver mail, sort files, file papers, organize a person’s calendar, conduct market research, write reports, watch television shows and report on them, read scripts, schedule interviews, or any other job that assists the employer in any way in running their business.
It all makes sense when you look at it from the company’s side. They have some work that they want done, but it’s not important enough for any of their current employees to handle. So they want someone to do it for them for free. In the name of an “internship,” they can exploit someone who is powerless in their field.
It’s exploitation, pure and simple. The intern would do the work to get a line on their resume that connects them to Big Powerful Influential Company. That’s bad enough if you assume that the work done actually provides a valuable learning experience to the intern. But look at the jobs Cuban lists above. He’s outraged that the government won’t let him get someone to sort his mail, do his filing, organize his calendar, and other such grunt work FOR FREE?! That’s just ridiculous.
Then he goes on to say
The main reason that you do not see more lawsuits regarding unpaid internships is that the interns are very unlikely to sue. In most cases, they fear being blacklisted, as they will undoubtedly need to use the internship as a reference to get any future work.
Oh, it’s okay that they’re being exploited because they’re not complaining, right? Again, it would be one thing if they’re not complaining because they’re happy for the opportunity. Still wrong, but you could understand where he might be coming from. But no, they’re keeping quiet because they fear retribution!
So, let’s recap Cuban’s argument in favor of unpaid interns:
- Isn’t it great that so many talented people are unemployed? Maybe I can use this for my gain!
- Perhaps they will work for free in the name of gaining experience.
- They can also do the dirty work that would normally be done by “The Assistant to the Secretary’s Secretary.”
- They don’t complain, so it must be okay. Oppressed people always speak up, right? Or maybe they know we’ll blacklist them…
Sorry, Mark, I’m not convinced.