I recently came across a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end global poverty by creating jobs. That's wonderful. There are few things in this world as satisfying as creating jobs for deserving people. The sad part is that a significant chunk of this organization's effort is being shouldered by unpaid interns. And it is hardly alone in the practice.

Somehow, despite lawsuits and other efforts aimed at reform, too many companies and institutions are still offering young people the "opportunity" of unpaid internships. Talk about doublespeak. It's an opportunity that comes at a heavy cost--Bernie Madoff probably described his investments as "opportunities," too. By not paying them, what companies are saying to young people is essentially, "You're not worth anything to us." Nonprofits are frequent offenders, but what's worse are the for-profit companies that crow about the richness of the work experience but can't find a lint-covered dime in their deep pockets to toss the intern's way.

Here's an idea: If you hire interns, find a way to pay them, even if it means a few bucks less for the head honcho. Then give them meaningful work so that they earn their pay. Don't just send them scurrying to and from the copier all day.

This week, Big Ass Fans hosted a career fair at our R&D lab. It was a lavish event with a literal truckload of pizza and drinks brought in. The hangar-like building where we normally test our products was instead full of hundreds of college kids from states all around, looking for internships or full-time jobs--engineering majors, marketing majors, designers, English majors. The place was set up like a speed-dating site so they got to have a short interview with people in any of our departments that interested them. We came away with resumes from a lot of promising candidates that we're now reviewing.

At Big Ass Fans we look for people to hire as interns whom we'd like to see join the company full-time someday. Our internships essentially serve as extended job interviews, but well-paid ones, starting at $13 an hour for college freshmen and going up from there. We expect real work in return and push them if we think they're coasting. We offer them the chance to experience different areas of the business if they're interested, and assign them desks like everyone else's here, with nameplates that say "employee," not "intern." In fact, because our workforce is heavily Millennial, it's sometimes hard to tell who's an intern and who's not.

We end up hiring many of them full-time and promoting them, too. One young woman who came here as a summer intern three years ago is now in charge of our international marketing team. A young guy who started as an intern in 2008 heads up our division for consumer products development.

And that's what's I would call real opportunity.

Published on: Apr 8, 2016
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