Why Working For Free Is A Bad Idea

One of the things that I dislike the most about the fitness industry are unpaid internships. Simply put, they are a scourge to everyone involved EXCEPT the person who is mandating them (usually the business owner or leadership team). This post is about the harm they do and the long lasting negative impact that asking someone to work for no compensation has on a brand, a company and the unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships are not presented as the chance to give away your time, they are presented as “opportunities” for someone to gain valuable experience. This isn’t true. They may provide someone with experience but it isn’t valuable experience when compared to getting paid for doing the same thing. The value of the experience is inverse value of the opportunity cost for gaining the experience. In terms of becoming a personal trainer, ANYONE who has the desire to help people, the willingness to work hard and a mind that is curious and open can get a training job with one of the big chain clubs. The rate of pay will not be very high, but it is infinitely higher than working for free.

Unpaid internships are presented as a chance to learn unique or cutting edge skills that will propel a career forward. Again, they are not. Good companies will pay for their employees training, they will NEVER ask the employees to buy their career development from the very company they work for. Unpaid internships do exactly that. The information they provide is just the standard way they have of doing business. There is nothing special about it and without this information, the company will not exist. It is presented as high value and cutting edge, in much the same way the company sells their services to potential customers. When you give your time away in trade for learning how to effectively work for a company, you are a customer who isn’t getting the benefit of the service.

Unpaid internships are not legal in Canada unless strict criteria are met. While it is fine to give away as much of your time as you like to a non profit organization, their are laws governing the employment (paid or otherwise) in for profit companies. Employment Insurance is one are that MUST be paid for anyone who is working for a company. The key exception here are educational internships like coops, were the school looks after all of the insurance.

Unpaid internships are bad for customers. In almost every case, customers benefit from working with the best people. While their is nothing wrong with hiring an inexperienced trainer, the price should reflect this. Less experienced trainers are less likely to identify movement errors or reinforce the emerging success patterns within a client. They don’t know what they don’t know so they are less capable or inclined to uncover the shortcuts and unpack what is actually happening. This is fine, and it shouldn’t cost as much as time with someone who knows the more direct way.

Unpaid internships are take advantage of younger people. There is something very remarkable about about the period of time between 18 and 30. There represent your first years as an adult. You are open to new things, many of your values and beliefs have not yet been form and you have an enormous amount of energy. This is the prefect recipe for exploitation, and this is what most of these unpaid internships deliver. Considering the sunk cost of giving away your time, there is often a natural tendency to over value what you learn or are taught. This inflated value can produce a dogmatic belief that is resistant to evidence and common sense. Many young adults put a lot of this time into a cause because they want to belong or contribute. The business owner benefits because they don’t have to spend the time doing, and instead get to approve or disapprove the work, forcing rewrites and finding another intern whenever one gets burned out or moves on.

My personal experience:

I have worked at two places that relied on interns to do a lot of the profitable work. In the first place, the business owner “wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $150 an hour.” I laughed when they said this because the rest of us were getting out of bed for a lot less. Their facility, their rules, I get that. But I didn’t stay very long and the turnover rate was pretty high.

At the second place, the scheduling of everything was based around the owners schedule. It had the interns coming in for education sessions mid day or at the end of the day on Friday which didn’t really work very well for anyone but the owner. There were times when early morning clients were stood-up or canceled because a trainer or intern couldn’t make it in to work with them, the owner themselves wouldn’t come into work with them because they simply didn’t want to. Again, their company, their rules, but I no longer work there and the churn rate for staff is ridiculously high, even by fitness company standards.

In both instances the nonverbal leadership message was “I don’t have to do the work I don’t want to do” and “my time is more valuable than yours”. All of the staff learned this and moved on because they didn’t want to do the work they didn’t want to do and over time they started to realize that their time was extremely valuable. Each owner was certain that they were doing things the right way and couldn’t see the dysfunctional attitude they were modeling. And they probably never will because when you surround yourself with people who will work for free you will be, by default, the smartest person in the room.