In Defense of (some) Unpaid Internships

Before I even get into the topic at hand, I want to head off the outrage culture members by saying that as of August 26th, 2016 – and for the foreseeable near future – Driveline Baseball’s internships are all paid positions – about 50%+ above minimum wage in Seattle. They are also highly competitive, with hundreds of applicants for the spots.

Alrighty then. If I don’t put that in the first part of the post I know I’ll get blasted by idiots.

Unpaid Internships are Predatory

Yes, it’s true. Multiple people have written scores of words way better than I ever could about how unpaid internships perpetuate income inequality and favors legacy-rich college-educated young adults. Here is just a sample of said articles:

I’d also like to point out that many “staffers” on campaign trails for politicians are unpaid and the same stuff applies to them, regardless of the progressivism of the candidate.

I don’t really have much to add. Unpaid internships in my field – athletic performance training – are widely abused, because most university gyms and performance training centers are barely profitable. This is seen as some sort of justification for simply not paying employees under the guise of “experience” when they’re actively coaching athletes, performing manual labor, and/or creating content. This is completely unacceptable, and Driveline Baseball will never do this.

However, I want to talk a bit about how offering only paid internships is a form of discrimination. Yup. You read that right.

How Paying Everyone Can Contribute to Unfairness

As stated before, throughout 2016 Driveline Baseball has only offered paid internships at above minimum wage rates (about 50% higher, in fact). Almost all paid interns have been offered extensions to their contracts at the same pay rates, and we anticipate converting many of them to FTE positions with a raise and gold-level medical benefits. It’s been a great system for us.

However, all of the paid interns we have hired have been extremely qualified individuals. They were the cream of the crop of what we had – many had previous experience and almost all had formal education (sometimes in the field of choice, sometimes not). Since we’re paying them, the company wants to see a return on investment, and we have certainly achieved that. It’s been a good symbiotic relationship – the interns get paid a decent wage, gain experience, and produce value for the company. Everything’s all good.

…except that it really isn’t, if you think about it.

There is a huge amount of privilege implied in the above – these candidates were in a position to pay for college through academic/athletic scholarship, parental help, loans, or even self-financed through hard work at menial jobs while younger. Even the last point – which sounds meritocratic – isn’t. What if you were unlucky enough to grow up in a family that didn’t prioritize work ethic as a main trait, and the public schooling system you happened to find yourself in didn’t reinforce it either? What if your parents were divorced young and were negligent? What if you do a basic calculation and realize that post-secondary education largely generates negative return on investment for all but the best colleges?

You are extremely likely to not be one of the best candidates for a paid internship, and your resume will be discarded compared to others by any business who is planning on paying interns/employees.

It is not rational to expect corporations to hire paid interns and employees who are simply worse than other candidates. So how can unpaid internships be useful?

Apprenticeship / Free Education Model

Driveline Baseball has tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of technology that is used on a daily basis to improve athletes’ outcomes, and this is available to the athletes and employees at almost all times. This is not only very useful to us, but also offers interns/employees/executives the chance to learn something new every single time they work with technology – we are constantly pushing the envelope and researching new things in sabermetrics, performance training, injury rehabilitation, and so much more.

Brief aside: I grew up in a blue-collar household. I was working at the age of 14 (at a pizza shop, cash under the table) and opted out of high school day classes to work full-time at the age of 17 (at the library as a union page) to supplement my scholarship in college. Both of my parents worked hard, difficult jobs. Work ethic had been instilled me in from a young age (it didn’t always manifest itself, of course), and for that I am extremely lucky. Yet I chose to work for free on many projects and in internships to pick up skills that I could not have acquired any other way – I was able to use advanced technology and computers and work with brilliant people, and that advanced my career in software development. Later when I would switch careers, I worked for free and below minimum-wage in my mid-20’s for professional baseball teams and for people in the industry just so I could learn something new. I did all this while working a full-time job that I didn’t necessarily like, but it was the best way to get that education without spending money to go back to college (something I figured had negative ROI).

Today I hear from very similar people – those who have full-time jobs as a server at a chain restaurant, and I think to when I logged late night shifts at the Olive Garden as a server, making $2/hr plus tips, saving my pennies to move to Seattle to be with my girlfriend. I spent my free time applying for jobs and doing independent research and work to further my portfolio. I would have gladly taken a flexible unpaid internship to leverage that desire, to make myself better.

Here is one specific example: Driveline Baseball owns and operates one of the only private Trackman installations in the country that openly works with elite college and pro athletes. Trackman, for those unaware, costs in the not-low five figures (agreements prohibit me from disclosing the actual price) and requires a fair bit of technical expertise to actually set up and use on a regular basis. Trackman is used in all MLB stadiums and some minor league stadiums to track ball flight off the bat and out of the hand of the pitcher; its origins come from missile tracking technologies. It is a tremendous opportunity to learn cutting-edge stuff about the game, so much so that I have appeared twice on the MLB.com Statcast Podcast to talk about these things.

This is literally a very rare (used to say unique until I was berated into changing this English gaffe) opportunity, maybe one of three or four in the world at best. There are tons of students and progressive baseball coaches who work full-time jobs or two part-time jobs to keep food on the table that could easily be unpaid interns at Driveline Baseball to use this technology to learn more, put on their resumes, and advance their careers and knowledge. They may not be qualified to be paid interns or employees, but why should that limit dedicated, hard-working people? Why should I shutter my door? In the name of fairness?

Here’s what I’m thinking about after talking it over with a bunch of entrepreneurs who are also socially conscious.

A Good Unpaid Internship Looks Like…

  • Flexible hours that are almost entirely controlled by the intern. No schedules (outside of reasonable work hours setting availability and such). No shifts.
  • Access to privileged technology, science, or other items/services not publicly or freely available.
  • No expectations of actionable work being generated by the intern. In case useful or profitable work IS generated, a retroactive payment structure should be negotiated and perhaps written into a rider when the unpaid intern comes on “staff.”
  • Open communication at all times between management and interns.
  • Free to leave / quit at any time.

I think that is more than fair, and something that would be huge. Yet it is still something I struggle with daily because, like most socially conscious people, I loathe the idea of unpaid employees, even though these are not employees by any stretch of the imagination.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “In Defense of (some) Unpaid Internships

  1. Unpaid internships serve a purpose just as first opportunities in the week force do. I took my first job at a pharmaceutical company by offering to work for significantly less that the going rate to get experience. It paid off by catapulting my wages for job 2.

    Why not consider taking a handful of those current college pitchers into a “driveline minor league” training/internship system. My son is at a driveline college program and I know he already is looking for ways to fund a stay at driveline because he embraces the system and recognizes the value of drinking from the fire hose.

    He would jump at a summer ball like opportunity perhaps staying with a “host family” and in return the opportunity to work out and get better. This concept uses the most valuable driveline currency as payment which is training expertise.

    If others don’t embrace the “alternative pay system” (training=pay) then those are not the correct athletes for the program. I’m pretty sure mine as well as others would jump at the opportunity!

  2. I agree with the key idea being the flexibility should be given and controlled by the unpaid intern. Then it is determined by them how much they want to learn and grow. Helping people get the knowledge, skill and abilities to perform the tasks, duties, and responsibilities of a chosen job/ career (formal HR terminology) is a positive thing. What is tripping you up is the fact you are a for-profit enterprise. If you were non-profit the unpaid interns would be called volunteers. Also, given your work history in a library, it might helpful to think of your facility as a modern day library…one where people could go to increase their knowledge in a given field.

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