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