Fortune Mag Asks “Are Unpaid Jobs the New Normal?”

It may not be legal, but for the millions of Americans unemployed today, working for “free” in hopes of paid work in the future may be better than sitting at home and waiting for the phone to ring. The whole concept of minimum wage doesn’t apply when a college graduate is worth a job that deserves to be paid higher than minimum wage but, instead, isn’t paying a penny.

Kelly Fallis, who has used 50 unpaid workers at her small company, probably shouldn’t be admitting to her illegal slave labor practices in Fortune magazine

“People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they’re going to outperform, they’re going to try to please, they’re going to be creative,” says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. “From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it’s huge. Especially if you’re a small business.”

The fact of the matter is there lies a fine line between “internship” and “taking advantage of someone,” and some days I’m not convinced that line exists. I’ve long questioned the concept of the “unpaid internship” in college, as not only is the work unpaid, but it requires college credit that you actually have to pay for (seems twisted, doesn’t it?) But this isn’t an article about college internships, it’s about adults who have graduated and can’t find work accepting unpaid “work” to keep themselves busy.

One important piece the article failed to mention is the real reason these unemployed people are willing to accept unpaid work… if you’re not on a payroll, you can continue to receive unemployment benefits while gaining valuable experience in a job function. The employer gets free labor, and you still get paid. Perhaps the woman quoted in the article about her success slaving away for a PR firm until they decided to hire her full time wasn’t on unemployment at the time, but undoubtedly thousands of others working for free are.

Back to Fallis, the ridiculous employer who seems to expect free labor to run her business, the article goes on to highlight how candidates who respond to Fallis’ postings on Craigslist and Facebook must fill out a detailed email questionnaire and undergo two rounds of phone interviews and three in-person interviews. Even though the positions are unpaid, the slaves must agree to a four-month run and sign a hiring contract. She asks interns to commit 30 hours a week; she has been burned in the past by people who were trying to juggle a paid job with their commitment to her company.

The other side of the story, though, is that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the opportunity of being an “intern” a few times until I got on my feet. When I graduated college I struggled quite a bit because I didn’t have enough “experience” to get hired yet most internships were — legally — not allowing me to apply unless I could get college credit for the gig. Since I had graduated, college credit was out of the question.

I managed to find a local newspaper willing to hire interns who had already graduated, and they were actually somewhat legal since they paid for any articles that made it into print, so it was more like a freelance relationship, albeit a poorly paid one. I had later signed up for a completely unpaid reporting internship at another paper which started to cost me a lot in gas, and I decided I’d rather spend my time looking for work than digging through home owner records at the courthouse for dull reporting pieces.

If it wasn’t for the clips I gained at that first internship out of college, I never would have been able to land my first actual job as an editorial assistant and progress through the jungle that is my career to where I am today. So I’m torn on the “work for free” concept. I couldn’t do it where I am now in my career, but some people need that experience boost… a mid-life internship. I can’t imagine being able to motivate myself to WORK for a profitable business for free — if I’d ever go back to unpaid work again, it would be for a non-profit and in more of a volunteer relationship.

What about you? Would you ever accept an unpaid “job” if you found yourself out of work? Have you ever worked for free?


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One thought on “Fortune Mag Asks “Are Unpaid Jobs the New Normal?””

  1. Hey, tricky subject. I've never thought about this before. In a sense, we do "work" for free, even pay for it when we go to school. So an internship should be considered the transition from school to work, where you getting that first bit of employable work experience. We were always advised, in high school, that a good place to get work experience is by volunteering. I can't get my head wrapped around it to sort it out. Is it ethical to use a business model driven around making money from free labour? Probably yes, but as long as everyone is informed. For example, if those interns know that they are only working for experience and they know exactly what experience they'll be getting, then they can make an informed choice.

    Oh, that reminds me of an example: In high school I took an unpaid position in a company to learn about computers, because I wanted to be a computer scientist. They said that I would learn about business software and databases and blah blah blah. This company started me off with verifying data in an online catalogue with a paper one. Fine. They wanted me to learn the system as a first step. They gave me a PHONE BOOK sized catalogue. I worked all day, as fast as possible and got it done. That whole damn phone book. They were so impressed by my speed and work ethics, and they double checked, I didn't make mistakes. My reward? Another phone book the next day. I didn't come back the third day, I was done. This was not the experience that I signed up for.

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