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I was chatting with a friend who lives in the United States recently. He's a freelance web developer and we were discussing the state of the market.

An interesting topic came up: the number of companies seeking services on a spec work and unpaid internship basis.

In case you're not familiar with the term, 'spec work' is short for 'speculative work'. As the name implies, this is work that is, well, speculative.

An example of spec work: a company looking for a logo runs a $500 contest and invites designers to submit entries. All designers who participate have no guarantee that the logos they spend time creating for submission will be selected and are thus providing their services with the hope that they'll get something out of the exercise.

Another example: an entrepreneur is trying to start a company and needs a competent developer to build a prototype application. He says he has no money now but promises payment once he's raised VC funding. In the meantime, he's offering a generous equity stake in his 'company'. For obvious reasons, in this economic environment anyone who is asking you to wait for funding to get paid (and is offering worthless stock options in the meantime) may as well be asking you to work for free.

Even worse than spec work: unpaid internships. Unpaid internships are explicit about what participants definitely won't be getting (eg. paid for their labor). Typically these 'opportunities' are promoted as a great way for participants to gain valuable skills and break into an industry, even though many of the unpaid internships demand professional skills and require that the participants perform professional-quality work with minimal training and supervision.

The problem with both spec work and unpaid internships is obvious: the 'employer' gets work done and the 'employee' gets no guarantee that he or she will receive any compensation for performing that work. Unfortunately, thanks to the economic landscape, there are plenty of skilled people willing to subject themselves to this fate.

In my opinion, more needs to be done about this, both from an industry perspective and a legal perspective.

Spec work is hard to defeat; although most professionals I know refuse to devalue their services by taking on spec work, there will always be takers. It's understandable; spec work has an obvious appeal to newcomers and those who are desperate for work.

More can be done about unpaid internships, however since many of them are illegal. In the United States, for instance, all of the following criteria must be met for an unpaid internship to be legitimate:

1. If the training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in a vocational school;

2. If the training is for the benefit of the trainee;

3. If the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;

4. If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded;

5. If the trainees are not necessarily entitled to employment at the completion of the training period;

6. If the employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Many of the unpaid internship 'opportunities' fail one or more of these criteria, making them illegal. Take for instance this unpaid internship posted on Craigslist. It fails on all but a couple of points. Frankly I was surprised at the number of dubious unpaid internship opportunities from Craigslist that my friend was able to show me. They're so blatant that I couldn't help but wonder why more weren't flagged for removal or taken down by Craigslist staff.

Hopefully, more people will wise up to the sham that spec work is and more people will take action (legal and otherwise) to crack down on companies using unpaid internships to get work done at no cost. Such activities devalue the skills of talented individuals and send the wrong message to companies about the real cost of labor.

If you're presented with a spec work proposal or unpaid internship opportunity, one piece of advice: just say no!

Photo credit: thecrazyfilmgirl via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 18 May, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2401 more posts from this author

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atul chatterjee

Patricio, this is an excellent post. I'd like to add some points. Without seeming to legalistic even if a company pays a decent fraction of the minimum wages it is ok.

Specially in these times things are really bad for freshers. Cracking down on illegal apprentice jobs as you pointed out may be easier.

over 7 years ago

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Vincent

Good post, and I would be heavily inclined to agree, though in the not so recent past I did do spec work in the form of a demo build/proof of concept that turned into a lucrative 4 year job.  But as individual web designers it is all too easy to get sucked into such projects and feel liek you are getting some worth, when as you say you are not.

This problem doesn't only affect the IT indutstry.  Those selling IP frequently hit similar issues.  My father in his capacity as a consultant to the oil industry oft had to deal with oil companies wanting himt o come in 1-2-3 and 4 times to present ideas on exploration, to simply get a juice of the lemon as many times as possible. Its the perpetual question of how much to show and tell.

over 7 years ago

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Nico

Good post. At KODIME we have for years worked successfully with student placements (typically Computer Sciences) out of Kingston University. All of the guys we've had (no girls yet) have been really professional and productive, and they get an entry level salary. It's a two way thing, if you don't value their work in any measurable way (by paying) then what do you expect them to deliver in return? Free may work for (some) downloads, but not for HR.

over 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Justin,

Not all unpaid internships are wrong or illegal. As I posted, in the US there are criteria that determine whether an unpaid position is legal or not and my friend showed me plenty of posts on Craigslist that seemed to be problematic.

I'm not sure what the labor laws are in the UK but when companies violate the labor laws of the country they operate in, there's no justification.

So this post may not apply to the unpaid internship your company offered...

over 7 years ago

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Gratis Goody

I don't know why you are surprised that there are so many bogus offers for internships and spec work on Craigslist.  People are 100% of the time using Craisgslist to gain something for nothing that goes without saying. 

Spec work -- yeah, I see  your point, but for people just getting started in certain lines of work, they need experience and experience just don't come knocking on doors with big $$ attached saying, "I know you are new and not quite sure what you are doing but here let me pay you big money even though you have no experience."  And on top of that ... people often get freelancers from the internet for the exact rationale of getting the cheapest worker possible, be damned what the quality of the work is.  Anyway, I just can't even talk about it anymore otherwise my post could go on for hours.

Cheers   

over 7 years ago

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Claudia

Not that I'm not interested in the international industry job market but, if you wanted to write a blog post about this just maybe you should have considered having a look at Gumtree and UK employment law instead of letting your american friend do your 'research'...just a thought.

over 7 years ago

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Jeremy Tuber

Great observations Patricio,

You commented, "Spec work is hard to defeat; although most professionals I know refuse to devalue their services by taking on spec work, there will always be takers. It's understandable; spec work has an obvious appeal to newcomers and those who are desperate for work."

Exactly right my friend, we're always going to see freelancers who are either inexperienced or desperate for work, try these avenues. Spec work will be around as long as there are struggling freelancers out there. Still, I pointed out on my blog that the spec work model really has some problems to it: http://tinyurl.com/c54nvu.

I've found that most of the freelancers trying spec work, either don't know how or don't want to engage in sales, marketing, PR and networking activities - they just want the work handed to them. Instead of investing their time getting clients, they'd rather try their luck competing with thousands of other designers...it's not only a horrible deal for freelancers, it's a shame.

I have a couple of other posts about spec work that you and your readers might like:
http://tinyurl.com/dh4fp8
http://tinyurl.com/clnam4

@JeremyTuber

over 7 years ago

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Robin Kennedy

Hi. This is an interesting discussion: in the UK the laws are equally grey when it comes to work experience and internships.  I work for WEXO, which specialises in offering work experience, internships and jobs and we encourage the companies on board to pay their interns a fair rate if possible, simply because of the value interns add to their businesses through the work they do.  Justin Hayward says that the experience itself should be payment enough but should we not be supporting emerging new talent where we can? Today’s graduates are leaving university with enormous sums of debt and entering a difficult job market – the least we can do is ease the burden for them whilst they try and establish their career paths.

over 7 years ago

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heatherr

I just wrote the head of HR at the University of California, San Francisco about an "internship."

There's a posting on Craigslist right now from a major research institute of the school, adverstising for an internship. Get these requirements:

Unpaid

They want a commitment to work 30+ hours a week (yes, this is in the ad)

for more than 3 months

here's the kicker: "students encouraged to apply"

HOW in god's name do they expect a student to go to school, study, and work for NOTHING for 30+ hours a week!!!?

Several years ago, the same ad was on Craigslist, but it was paid. I interviewed, and they never hired anyone. Of course, now they're trying to get someone to slave for free, while they directly benefit.

I thought HR at UCSF would be very interested in hearing about this so-called internship and I'm very much looking forward to their response.

-------------------------------------------

Regarding "spec" work. This is just another way of ripping off the labor and creativity of desperate people. Toss a carrot on a string out there, and see how many go for it. Skim the best ideas for yourself, and tell your applicants - sorry, we didn't like what you came up with. There's no way to defend your intellectual property by doing this.

This is why I couldn't get established in graphic design - all the parasites playing artists against each other. But this crap in the sciences is beyond the pale.

I also was ripped off a few years ago by an "entrepreneur" who cheated me out of my wages and, adding insult to injury, told me I didn't have the temperment to work for a start-up. I told him I didn't have the temperment to go homeless or starve. Was HE surprised when I called the CA Labor Board on his ass. He pleaded poverty to no avail. Of course adding insult to insult, he claimed I was trying to ruin his "dream."

Working on spec destroys the middle class and forces us all the fight each other for scraps off the tables of the rich - if they deign to let us even near the table that is.

about 7 years ago

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