Today I want to discuss a growing trend in the industry (and across all industries) and get your take on it. I'm talking about unpaid internships. These internships are being sold to college students and even lateraling professionals as a way to build experience and a resume talking point. But it strikes me as something akin to slavery, or at least sharecropping.
Apparently I'm not the only one who views it that way. Former Wall Street training manager Eric Glatt is suing Hollywood on behalf of unpaid interns everywhere. He learned the realities of unpaid internships the hard way when he left the street to become a film editor. Now he believes unpaid internships are so damaging to the economy that they're actually a root cause of the continued economic malaise.
People who defend unpaid internships are defending a notion of what they think unpaid internships should be, rather than what they are. A picture of how they have corrupted the labor market for film and television production, the field I was in, should clarify how damaging this practice has become. It is also holding back the emergence of a more vibrant and sustainable labor market that contributes to the much delayed economic recovery.
I came face to face with this reality when I was working on my last startup. I was unwilling to hire a French developer because of ridiculous French labor laws, and the startup accelerator I was joining wouldn't take me without one. So they proposed an unpaid internship to me.
I knew whomever came to work was going to be coding his ass off, so I asked if I needed to offer equity in exchange. The answer was, "No, but you should probably buy them lunch once in awhile." There's not a lot in this world that I find morally objectionable, but slave labor is one of those things.
So I'm wondering how you guys feel about it. I know it's being pitched to you as a great experience builder, and I know that I've even advocated working for free on this site from time to time. Perhaps now is a good time to clarify what I meant. I didn't mean for free for free, I meant no salary. As in, just get paid based on your production, which was the norm back when I started.
But maybe I'm wrong, and maybe unpaid internships are great for both employers and prospective employees. I don't think so, but maybe.
Have any of you done unpaid internships and had them lead to something better? Or was it just the slave labor that it looks like on the surface? Is there an intellectually honest and morally defensible argument in favor of unpaid internships on the part of huge corporations?
Mod Note (Andy): Best of Eddie, this was originally posted on 9/19/13. To see all of our top content from the past, click here.