Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mark Cuban and Unpaid Internships

I'm a huge fan of Mark Cuban. If reincarnation exists, I'd like to be reincarnated as him. Mr. Cuban recently blogged about unpaid internships and the maze of regulations involved in creating a legal unpaid intern position. See here. My response is below:

Mark’s HR representative is mostly correct. I handle labor and employment cases in California, and I tell my clients never to hire an [unpaid] intern unless they go through an authorized college program. Overall, as a business owner as well as a plaintiffs' employment lawyer, I see both the pro-business and pro-employee sides of employment issues.

Mr. Cuban and the minimum wage supporters are both correct. Mr. Cuban is correct in stating that potential employees have lost an opportunity because of the law’s expansive liability. The min-wage group is also correct when it contends that unpaid internships favor affluent and middle-class children who can afford to work without pay for some time. One can hold both positions without any contradiction.

Mr. Cuban, however, weakens his argument by refusing to acknowledge that internships favor more affluent kids. It is true that a poor kid from the ghetto could work two or three jobs–something Mr. Cuban did–and use public transportation to get valuable experience, but the overwhelming majority of the participants would not fall into the aforementioned category.

Mr. Cuban contends that it is not impossible for poor kids to participate and benefit from unpaid internships. Again, true, but when the overwhelming majority of unpaid interns are not poor kids or are supported by parents, it should be clear that unpaid internships tend to discriminate against poorer students, adults, and teenagers.

What is the solution? We need to revamp our entire educational system. Most education in America is no better than government-subsidized babysitting. When you compare American high school graduates with high school graduates from India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Norway, etc., the differences are stunning. Many international students specialize in a particular area and are familiar with a particular field when they graduate high school or college. American schools, in contrast, refuse to track students, equating “tracking” with stigmatizing. Other countries have no such qualms, which results in a less egalitarian, but more workforce-ready society.

America’s biggest problem (and positive) is its idealism and the idea that all students must be educated through college. Other countries actively weed out under-performers from colleges and even high schools. A more selective educational system will not go over very well in egalitarian-minded America until we realize we are failing our children in an increasingly globalized economy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing some wonderful things with charter schools, but it’s not enough. Teachers’ unions–which represent teachers, i.e., government workers, not children–are very powerful and will resist any educational overhaul.

Ultimately, if you want to blame someone for our unfair economic system, which favors rich kids and penalizes poorer kids, blame the American educational system and the teachers’ unions. An American high school diploma and college degree mean nothing these days. Think about why our degrees and diplomas have become worthless in proving workforce readiness. (Hint: it isn’t because of Mark Cuban.) Think about why employers want to see people work on the job before hiring them as employees. Think about whether an unpaid internship is useful in determining whether an employee and employer may find each other mutually beneficial. Ask yourself, “Does a person’s willingness to work for free indicate dedication and long-term interest?” Also, remember that no one is saying that the intern’s unpaid status should be permanent or long-term–I think Mr. Cuban is saying that an unpaid internship is a short-term “trial” period to determine whether a particular project or worker is capable of generating revenue for both the employee and the employer. In any case, don’t blame Mr. Cuban for trying to find hard workers. He’s just a realist, not a blood-sucking capitalist.

[This post has been slightly modified since its original publication.]

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