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I’ve been to a few talks recently and noticed a re-occurring phenomenon. Events in the ‘Tech City’ area are generally attended by a mixture of industry types (business owners, developers, designers and so on) but also a decent number of students or recent graduates hoping to enter the industry and are enthusiastic to find out how.

The phenomenon I am talking about is the age old question:

What advice can you give someone trying to get their first break in the industry?

And what is the most common response I hear from panellists?

Take an internship, work for free; work for free…. for us!

Well actually no! This is terrible advice: it’s manipulative and gives our industry a bad reputation (or will do soon if we don’t recognise the error in our ways). Such advice is given on a false premise, one that is motivated not by improving the career of the questioner but instead by a desire to obtain cheap labour. If you want to check your compliance with the Labor law – get the latest New York labor law posters for employers. And it isn’t good enough. If you are wanting to learn more about labor laws check out this statewide labor info.

At The UX Clinic (part of UX London) Jarred Spool gave a good response to Janice Fraser who answered the question in exactly this way. Incidentally, the response from Jarred got the only round of applause for the night so I don’t think I’m barking up the wrong tree. But this is not an isolated incident so I’ve put my thoughts down in writing as a business owner within a vibrant industry and buzzing digital community; one that’s thriving despite all the economic woes around us, in the hope that other businesses and startups take heed.

Here’s 5 reasons why you should pay your interns:

1. It’s better for your team and good for your business:

An intern IS an employee. Like it or not there’s no denying it. As such they need to feel part of the team, recognised and rewarded for their achievements in the company (otherwise known as productivity). How can you get the most out of someone if they’re working alongside paid members of staff doing (some) similar tasks but not being paid? How are others supposed to respect them if the business owner doesn’t think they are worth a single penny in wages? Reward them, put your trust in them, make others understand you value them and you never know, you might actually get more out of them than you realise. Your work place will also be a less divisive place and morale will be improved.

Secondly, your intern may well be a rather talented individual worthy of full time employment. Not paying them at the start of the relationship undermines the trust you have with them: don’t be surprised if very soon they find employment elsewhere and don’t even bother to ask about the possibility of paid employment with you leaving you wishing you’d paid them in the first place.

Thirdly, your intern may one day be a business owner, entrepreneur, or influential leader. One day they might be dishing out the work and you can be damn sure they will remember you with far more fondness for giving them that first leg-up in a fair and equitable way. Don’t burn you bridges by taking advantage of people now because you never know in the future what might happen. Think of it as an investment in the future.

2. No wages = slave labour:

However you cook it, it is. Simple. I’ve heard all sorts of excuses ‘but we are a startup, we have no money’ to ‘they are lucky to be getting the experience and our business on their CV’ and ‘we put in more than we get back’. These excuses are just that, excuses. And they can all be debunked quite easily. With the exception of philanthropists, and I don’t believe many of us fall into that category, the majority of businesses put interns to productive work and if they thought they weren’t getting something out of them, they’d be pretty quick to stop offering internships.

If you’re running a startup with no money then find another way of rewarding them from future gains. Your hope is that the sweat and tears you invest now will be rewarded by the future value and income generated by the company you own. Stop kidding yourself that you and the intern are ‘in it together’ because you are anything but. There’s good reason why in the early days Mark Zuckerberg exchanged shares for labour: he had the foresight to realise that anyone providing their services should be rewarded by the future potential of the company.

Other excuses not to pay interns are false: if an intern is worth having it’s because they are part of the productive workforce or worth something to you in the future which in turn brings down your average cost of labour or provide a better service meaning you can offer you products / services for cheaper, make a bigger profit margin or provide a better service for the same cost. Either way, interns deserve a share of the spoils of their productivity.

Any company using their name / reputation to attract free labour on the premise ‘we’ll look good on their CV’ I suggest should take a serious look at their corporate responsibilities and change their ways: no company should be taking advantage of their name / brand / reputation in such a way.

3. Interns are human beings:

Believe it or not, 18-24 year olds are living, breathing human beings who require food, shelter, travel and with a bit of luck a few of the enjoyable things in life such as the odd beer or a trip to the cinema. Not paying them affectively means THEY ARE PAYING YOU for the privilege of working for you. That’s just plain wrong.

There’s also a moral argument: the fact is that if an intern can afford not to have an income whilst working then it’s safe to say they’re from the wealthier side of the road and therefore unpaid internship becomes a leg up to those who are from prosperous backgrounds and a big up yours to anyone who can’t afford to pay to work. We should be doing more to help talented individuals no matter what their financial background.

4. Not doing so is anti-competitive and morally corrosive:

Using unpaid interns to do productive work brings down the cost of labour meaning it’s possible to undercut competitors. This is the same theory used when big corporations decided to start outsourcing some of their services to countries with cheap labour. It’s what Karl Marx described as “the race to the bottom” and it encourages other businesses to do the same just to stay competitive thus creating a vicious cycle as Marx described. Let’s break this cycle and reward people for the fruits of their labour. Let’s be as progressive as we like to say we are.

5. Not paying them devalues our work:

We provide a professional service and I like to think that the value we add is in our accumulated experience and skilled backgrounds matched with a desire to provide unique and imaginative solutions for our clients. But how can we call ourselves professional if we’re constantly undermining the sheer effort and talent that it takes to provide the service in the first place by not paying a penny to some of the individuals involved in the provision of said service? From the outside it looks bizarre: how are people supposed to value what we do if they see work being undertaken by individuals we value so little we don’t pay a wage to? It undermines all the hard work a graduate puts into getting his or her qualification and it undermines the talent and effort required to provide a truly professional level of service.

We’ve got a year long placement scheme open to potential candidates to join our team. For all potential candidates, an enhanced CRB check will be required. You can find out more here.