In 14 years of doing business, I have never hired an unpaid intern. Please don't misunderstand, I am sure I could have used many over the years--to do data entry, to teach me about social media, to work on short term design projects, and much more. However, I have always chosen not to because asking people to work for free is wrong--it's wrong for my business, it's wrong for the interns themselves, and it's also wrong for the economy in general.
Let's start with why it's bad for business. Every business, regardless of industry or age, thrives on stability. Training employees is time consuming and costly. That's why we all work so hard to create conditions that entice great talent into wanting to work for us, and more importantly, into choosing to stay. We shudder when we receive resumes of candidates who have stayed at jobs for less than a year, and we are always thrown into turmoil when a staff member departs. What makes a business grow is when it has great people working for it--who understand the mission they have signed on to help accomplish, who have had the opportunity to see what works and what doesn't for the business, and who provide the continuity and commitment that customers crave. Interns, by nature, are meant to be short term. We devote resources to teach them about what we do and how we do it, we ask them to contribute to our company as all other employees do, and inevitably, other staff members, vendors, and clients come to rely on them. Essentially, they come in for just enough time to get operational, and then their "shift" is over, when the summer, the semester or the year draws to a close. Out the door they go, and with them the know-how they have shared, the relationships they have made, and the labor they have provided.
As for why it's bad for the interns themselves, all of the aforementioned applies, but they also suffer from being treated as though their contributions are not worthy of being paid. They are called upon to participate in the same way their colleagues are, and yet, at the end of the day, they reap no reward. They learn that they are interchangeable with the next arrival, that they should be grateful for the chance to toil, and that they will again be forced to start over from the bottom, somewhere else, with no resources to take care of themselves while they do so. This does not build character, it builds resentment. It also cultivates disloyalty to all their future employers--because once a person understands that he is replaceable, he returns the same non-commitment to those around him. We wonder why prospects don't show for interviews or return our calls with job offers, but this is why. Our sense of manners has been lost because we have bought into the idea that everything and everyone is expendable. The first step to walking down this path comes from thinking that it is alright to ask for someone's effort while refusing to compensate it.
And then there is the economy as a whole that suffers when we choose to use unpaid interns. Working every day and receiving no recompense is a luxury that only those from certain social strata can afford. A business may say that it is an equal opportunity employer, but if it is using unpaid interns, this is not really true. The field of applicants is automatically and systematically limited by the fact that no pay is provided in exchange. Where then do the talented people who might have been able to contribute new ideas, fresh perspectives, and needed devotion wind up? Not on their way up the corporate or career ladders, but rather working at anything they can find and foregoing their possible contributions. And for those who are able to accept unpaid work, the fact that they are deprived of wages that could have been spent by them, means they cannot help to drive the economy. Finally, the economy suffers because, as able-bodied contributors realize that their contributions have no value, they also begin to believe that there is no dignity in work. If they are lucky enough to find employment of any kind, the quality of their output usually reflects the lack of commitment and the transience they have been made to experience by offering their efforts in exchange for nothing. Many others never even try to find gainful employment because they see from the start that they will be entering the cycle of defeat. Either way, the economy is the biggest loser.
If every company out there, and every leader guiding them, decided that a day's work deserved a day's pay, we could make a great difference in both inspiring future workers and earning the trust of those currently in the workplace--and everyone's bottom line would improve in the process.