Working For Free!

Lately there’s been a flurry of millionaires claiming that unemployed youth and young adults should work for corporations for free so they can build up their resumes and acquire much needed skills.  There’s Mark Cuban (famous to television viewers from his many seasons on The Shark Tank) and Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist who support the concept.  And now the Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz has come out saying the same thing.

Is the concept worthy of consideration? Or is this just a way of creating a new class of workers?

This isn’t a new idea.  In fact, if you go back to the 1800s, such a class of workers existed and they were called slaves.

Am I saying that no one should ever do anything for free?  Of course not.  However, there are many ways in which a person can be compensated for their time and effort that don’t translate into the traditional dollars and cents payback.  Such arrangements are known by another name:  barter.

And if someone is contemplating working for free, there are a number of non-profit organizations who would be more than happy to have a different kind of worker in their midst.  Those workers are known by a special name as well:  volunteer.  What’s more, those workers generally don’t invest more than a few hours a month volunteering.

So why, in this economically depressed era, shouldn’t unemployed youth and young adults work for free?  Because it harkens back to every other economically depressed era that created a class of workers who became known as the exploited.  And if you’re willing to be a doormat for one corporation, how will this reflect on your resume when applying for a paying job?

For one thing, working for free doesn’t tell prospective employers if the person who worked for free was effective and efficient.  It also doesn’t tell prospective employers if that person is worth hiring since the expectations placed on slaves is very different from the expectations placed on volunteers or paid employees.

It’s commonplace to hear a person in power looking for unpaid workers to say that the biggest payback is exposure.  Many people have died from exposure, and many more have died from over-exposure.  No amount of working for free will give you the kind of exposure that invariably leads to paid employment.  It also won’t lead to a great portfolio piece or an impressive footnote in your C.V.

Another thing to consider is that as an unpaid employee, the person working for free is not protected by employment discrimination laws.  You aren’t entitled to any benefits.  And there’s no guarantee you’ll pick up any important skills since most free work involves basic clerical work such as filing and answering phones, and no mentoring in areas where the worker would like to cultivate new skills.  In fact, it’s in the interest of the corporation to keep on free workers and not train those workers up so they can move up the ladder as they don’t want their investment in a free worker to pay off for their competition.

You might say that you’ve read online that 35% of full-time, entry-level college hires in corporations are as a result of internship programs.  That’s true, however, those are paid internship programs.  However, even with paid internships, the problem is that corporations aren’t obligated to make certain payroll deductions (such as unemployment) for their paid interns.

But the biggest reason someone should not work for a corporation for free is that putting in a 40-hour work week that doesn’t compensate you even minimally means you can’t pay the bills at the end of the month.  If you can’t pay your rent or any of your other bills, it doesn’t matter how awesome you think the corporation is or how much exposure human resources says you’re going to get.  The exposure alone is going to take a toll on your immediate and long-term future.

Elyse Bruce


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