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Will Work For… Free?

June 4, 2012

I saw this story on the news about a program in New Hampshire where long term unemployed people are matched up with businesses looking for workers. The workers get six weeks of training to try and prove themselves, and if they do well enough during that period they’re offered full-time employment. The workers are not paid during their six week trial and they continue to collect unemployment benefits during that time so in reality they’re not out anything. The employer benefits by getting some free labor.

The program seems like a win-win on the surface but I have some doubts and the biggest is why the workers aren’t being paid for their six-week training. The employer interviewed, Ray Boissoneau of Electropac, a printed circuit board manufacturer, says the program is fair and it’s not designed to simply allow small businesses the opportunity to take advantage of free labor. He said the process is fair because it allows the job seeker the opportunity to train for their future. But based on the numbers provided in the story, I’m not sure I agree with that.

In the two years the program has been running, 590 unemployed people have tried for work by volunteering to work for six weeks at no pay. Over that time, only 40% of them (236) have been offered permanent positions. That’s 354 people who didn’t get offered jobs and that’s a lot of free six-week training periods. Assuming each of the candidates finished the six-week probation period, that’s 2,124 days, and figuring part-time hours, that’s 8,496 person-hours (assuming my math is correct which is a big assumption!) of free labor. Boissoneau’s record is a little better as he’s hired four of the seven (57%) of the unemployed people who have trained with his company.

I also question how a program like this would work in other areas of the country where unemployment is higher. Instead of  Manchester, New Hampshire and its 4.6% unemployment rate, what if we move the program to Miami where the unemployment rate is 8.3%, or Detroit (8.7%), Chicago (8.9%), or any of the handful of cities in California where there is double-digit unemployment. Instead of 590 long-term unemployed offering their services in exchange for training and a shot at a job, we might see thousands lining up to work for six weeks gratis on the chance they may land a job. That adds up to a lot of free labor and almost starts sounding like a slave labor force to me.

I’m not an anti-business person and I accept that small business owners take a tremendous amount of professional and financial risk, and that their success is imperative to the nation’s economic recovery. Despite that, I question why small business owners should get this particular type of free labor benefit. I appreciate what’s trying to be done here, but I think the businesses should be obliged to pay for their potential future employees training. If it works out they have a fully trained employee and if it doesn’t, the person simply goes back to collecting their benefits and have an additional six weeks added on. Without that, the American taxpayers are being forced to pay for that training and I think that’s wrong.


What do you think? Should employers pay for the training of potential employees who are receiving unemployment compensation?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2012 8:47 am

    Well, the only hole I can find in your logic is that training a person offers no recompense to the business. They have to have an employee, who has other responsibilities, train the person in the hopes that they will be a good fit. Unless you are talking mindless work, this is actually a drain on the business. You are taking a trainer away from their usual duties. However, I do agree that it could be abused. But at least they are trying. That’s way more than a lot of folks can say.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      June 7, 2012 4:19 pm

      I agree with you but isn’t training employees a cost of doing business? I could see if the prospective employee volunteered to work for free during the training process, but in this case they’re still collecting benefits and that’s what I don’t think is right. Not that benefits are available, just that they’re collecting while working. You hit the nail on the head though that at least they’re trying.


      • June 7, 2012 7:20 pm

        It’s an incentive program. They are being “paid” by the State while the potential employers are taking them for a test drive. This way the employers don’t have to do the time consuming (and, hence, costly) paperwork and they don’t have to mess with the taxes. It makes it easier for the potential employer, ensuring that more participate and more doors are opened. Well, that would be my assumption anyway, cause I haven’t read about this program outside of your post. But, I do know, from the ream of paperwork I had to fill out recently for my new job, that it is a mess to hire a new employee. It doesn’t sound like these guys are just fast food joints. So, why go through all the rigamorale if you may not hire the person. Seems to me that the State made it as easy as possible for the companies. I still think it’s a good idea and it doesn’t sound like it’s being abused too much, at least from what you posted.


  2. June 4, 2012 3:38 pm

    I think this is a very complex issue. As theforgottenwife said, it costs a lot of money to train a person. When I was training in at the nursing home I used to work for, the woman doing the training said it costs nearly 2k to train in a new employee and that was for basic jobs. I don’t know how correct her numbers were, but that would make me leery of turnover.

    I can see where the program could be abused by the companies, but let’s look at the other side of the coin, some people are hard to fit to any kind of job. I pride myself that I can fit in about anywhere within my limited skill set, but I have worked with far too many people that think they are entitled to pay without actually putting in any effort.

    Just so you know, both my husband and I are unemployed and we would both jump at a chance to work six weeks for free if it would get us decent jobs in fields we are looking for.

    Hopefully my comment doesn’t come off as criticizing as I think you found a very debatable topic and it is thought provoking – a good thing.

    Have a great day!


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      June 7, 2012 4:23 pm

      Hi Renae! No, I didn’t think your comment came off as complaining. You raise a good point about some people being difficult fits with jobs and this problem would certainly stop that but I still have a difficult time with the free labor pool during the six-week training. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if 50% or more of the people ended up with job offers.


  3. June 4, 2012 8:31 pm

    I have doubts about this program, myself, but mostly because it sounds a bit like an unpaid internship — and I’m so leery of unpaid internships. Way too many of my friends have practically killed themselves over unpaid or low-paid “work-for-experience” type situations, in the hopes of a big payoff (be it a “real job” or some amazing networking) only to be disappointed in the end. It’s a different situation, to be sure, but there’s still that “Lucy removing the football” aspect at the end for many, many people who participate.


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      June 7, 2012 4:30 pm

      When I was much younger and all the jobs I really wanted required skills and training that I didn’t have – but I knew I could do the job regarldess – I would have worked for six weeks for free to prove myself. But even then it would have been with the guarantee that if I do well I get the job. These people are going in with no guarantees and the bad odds makes me question the whole thing.


  4. June 4, 2012 9:34 pm

    This is definitely a nuanced issue. I think their is a public good to be had in subsidizing the training of unemployed workers even if that training doesn’t lead directly to a position. I’d be interested in the fate of the trained employees that weren’t initially hired. Did they find other positions more quickly than they otherwise would have? I would hope so. Overcoming this stagnant labor market is not an easy thing to do, obviously. And the problem isn’t as much with small businesses as with the really big employers who effectively squeezed their labor force down dramatically, turned up the productivity of those who are left (70 hour work week anyone?) and are still reluctant to hire the necessary additional workers even though profits have returned to their pre-08 levels in most cases.

    Blegh. Sorry for going on. It’s a mess. I liked your post. Very thought provoking!


    • Michael Fishman permalink
      June 7, 2012 4:32 pm

      Go on all you want and it wasn’t a mess at all! Knowing whether or not the training these people received helped them land other jobs would be good information to know. I wouldn’t object to subsidizing employee training for small businesses as long as I knew the training led to a job.


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