Alec Dudson on the importance of pay: ‘Don’t shut out people who can’t afford to become part of your project’

A stunted economy and breakdown of traditional industries birthed not only the era of startup, but the proliferation of unpaid internships.

Taking on unpaid workers is a tempting strategy. The idea of someone being so into what you’re doing – or so desperate for experience – that they’re willing to gift time and skills is particularly seductive for businesses starting out or growing apace.

Along with the pressure to make a company profitable by any means possible, if a few middle-class kids work for free along the way no-one gets hurt. Right?

Considering how expensive and difficult good recruitment is, it surprises me that so few companies take a long-term view when working with new talent, even interns.

Bringing an unpaid intern into the workplace and training them up, only for them to inevitably leave when they find a pay cheque elsewhere, does nothing for company morale, reputation or productivity.

Recruiting carefully, teaching someone all about your business and providing the conditions (financial and otherwise) for them to grow can produce skilled, loyal and tremendously valuable team members who will rise to the challenge when the company scales. If there’s no budget for a full-time living wage, it’s better to take someone on part-time and make it possible for them to stick around and be part of what you do.

Unpaid internships stymie diversity, too. To my dismay, the moral argument for a diverse workforce doesn’t get through to many businesses and the individuals behind them.

Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan professor, used a computer simulation to show how diversity and productivity go hand in hand. He set two test groups the same series of mathematical problems: one consisting of highly competent yet similar problem solvers; the other with varying levels of ability.

While the homogenous group got stuck at similar parts of the problem, the diverse group found solutions faster by using different approaches. For businesses, faster and smarter solutions typically equate to more revenue. Diverse teams are vital for achieving sustainability and growth; taking on unpaid workers will limit you.

Don’t create a homogeneous workforce, and don’t shut out people who can’t afford to become part of your project.

Alec Dudson is editor of Intern magazine.