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Jen Boynton headshot

Why Unpaid Internships Are Immoral BS

By Jen Boynton

There's a dirty secret in the sustainability startup world. A lot of small startups -- even those that purport to be sustainable from the ground up -- offer unpaid internships.

They justify this practice to themselves with arguments like "they get needed experience for their resumes," or "we're a do-gooder startup with no budget." Just yesterday I overheard one such interview happening in a meeting space called the nest in the co-working space TriplePundit calls home. The nest is accessible by a ladder and is filled with bean bags. I hope the poor girl, dressed presumably for a professional interview, didn't wear a skirt and heels. Can you imagine?

Just because people accept these positions (out of necessity or desperation) does not mean it's okay to offer them -- especially if you fancy yourself to be sustainably-minded. Here's why.

Exploitation is always wrong

These kids, fresh out of college, are making their way in the world. If they are lucky enough to have a liberal arts degree, they likely have a pack of debt and not a ton of work experience. They can probably read and write quite well, and they can probably help you with research or social media projects. But if they are anything like I was when I was 22, they have absolutely no idea how the business world works. They are trusting you to show them the way. And you're taking advantage of them.

Look, I get it. It's hard to find the money when you start a new company -- especially if you are bootstrapping. However, it's simply immoral to ask people to perform work for your business and expect them to do that work for free. And it's unconscionable if you call yourself a sustainable organization. Building a sustainable economy means we need to pay fair wages.

I get that interns are probably going to be slow and not quite as good as more experienced employees. That's what minimum wage is for.

It's illegal

The U.S. Department of Labor provides a narrow set of guidelines for when unpaid internships are acceptable in a for-profit environment. All six guidelines must be met. (Emphasis is mine.):

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

That's right. The internship must be primarily for training benefit for the intern, must not displace regular employees, and the employer must derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.

Show me a listing for an unpaid internship that meets these criteria, and I'll eat my hat and my cat's hat too.

The rich get richer

Liberals wring their hands about the challenge we have increasing diversity in the upper echelons of the business world. Hot tip: The only people who can afford these internships are people who have substantial savings or family support or are so driven they'll take out loans to support themselves while they work for free.

If these unpaid internships are a required part of getting on the employment treadmill, we are effectively leaving poor people (and the many people of color who are a part of that demographic), out of the path to gainful employment.

We can do better

In the course of drafting this article, I've heard from smart people who shared arguments in favor of the unpaid internship: "Dying newspapers have no money to hire young people." "What about the apprenticeship model?" These are legitimate arguments from people I respect.

But to that I say: a business model that exists on the backs of unpaid labor ... I thought we shot that one down with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Don't get me wrong. I have complete sympathy for young people who take unpaid internships. The fact of the matter is that it is extremely tough out there to get work, to get good work, to get started on the path to gainful, meaningful employment. If you scrambled and hustled to get a position -- unpaid or not -- to learn and grow and build a career for yourself, bravo!

It's those of us on the hiring end who have the responsibility to do the right thing. To that end, I say to the community of sustainable businesses who read TriplePundit: Hire young people; let them learn from you; help and mentor them; and give them a reason to stick with this wonderful field. Please pay them for their time.

Image credit: "The Internship"

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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