The Ethics of Hiring Students

Untold Entertainment is closing in on its second year of operations. The longer we’re in business, the clearer it becomes that we do business differently.

Location 3x

Many of the small interactive studios and game shops here in Toronto have one or two leads who work from home offices, and a gaggle of programmers and artists from around the provice (or around the world) who work remotely. These companies sometimes boast that they employ 10-15 people, but those 10-15 people often include three students from the Philippines and a guy who died five years ago whose government id is still active.

The problem? It can be really tough to keep a bead on your business when your employees are scrambled hither and yon. There’s a distinct advantage to having people within what i like to call “strangling distance”.

We made a different decision. We don’t have 10-15 people working for us. We have two people. But those two people share the same air in a physical office and sit right next to each other, where they can talk and collaborate on projects without the snafus of time zones, cultural and language barriers, alternate full-time jobs, or abysmal Skype connections.

Sweat Shop

Yeah – i’ve got, like, 25 guys working for me.

Often, i’ve come across people working full-time at large companies, and i say “i thought you were working at Small Company Inc.?” And they say “Oh, no – i do work for them, from time to time.” “But you’re listed on their employees page.” Hmm.

Taxes, Followed By Death (Due to Taxes)

Other Toronto interactive studios pay people as “contractors” who are actually working full-time hours. i don’t know if they remit payroll taxes. i remember talking with one Toronto guy who was aghast that i hired my people on as full-time employees. Him: “You have to remit payroll taxes for those people!!” Me: “I know.” Him: “Shriek!”

Payroll Taxes

Paaaayroll Taaaxes!!!

So – what? Do most of the Toronto companies remit taxes, or not? Do they leave it up to their “contractors” to figure out? Do those contractors end up remitting taxes? Or are they paid under the table? i’d love to know.

The problem? i wonder how many of these companies are taking provincial and federal funding whose paid positions aren’t actually funelling back into the tax structure? i’m not outright accusing anyone of anything in particular … i’d just really love to know, you know?

i'm just sayin

Nunchuku Skills, Bow Hunting Skills …

The quality of talent coming out of these companies can range. Most often, the small (and sometimes medium-sized) Toronto studios i know largely hire students and recent grads, if they hire locally at all.

The problem? Here’s a rough transcript of an IM conversation i recently had with the head of one such company:

Prez: Can i get your help on something? My programmer is stuck on an issue.

Me: (reluctantly) Sure. What’s going on?

Prez: Well, he wants to take a library asset in Flash and have it on its own in a separate Flash file.

Me: Uh … he just has to copy/paste the asset into a new file.

Prez: No. It can’t be that simple. i dunno. Can i patch him in and let him explain?

Me: (more reluctantly) Okay.

Prez: Ryan, meet Doofus. He’s our programmer.

Me: Hi, Doofus. What’s going on?

Doofus: Well, i need to take a library asset in Flash and put it in a separate Flash file.

Me: Uh … you have to copy/paste the asset into a new file.

Doofus: Let me try that.

Me: Or, you can open the library, start a new file, choose the old file in the library, and click/drag assets straight into your new file.

Doofus: Let me try the first thing.

Me: You don’t need to try it. It’s copying and pasting. Believe me – it works.

Doofus: Okay, well the first technique you explained works, so i’m going to stick with that.

Me: It’s not a technique. It’s copying and pasting.

Doofus: Thanks for your help!

We made a different decision. In many of the panels i’ve attended where successful CEOs talk about how they did it, “surround yourself with the right people” was a common refrain. Another tip: “hire people better than you.” So i made an early decision to grow my company on intermediate-to-advance-level talent. The people i hire have a minimum of five years experience in the games industry. This pushes our hourly rate up higher than some of the other Toronto game studios, but it provides some key benefits:

  1. We tend to know what we’re doing. We’re not going to waste your time and money asking another company how to copy/paste assets in Flash.
  2. We can take it on. We very rarely turn down work. The two times in recent memory when we said “no” to jobs were an under-paying salvage job (underpaying, naturally, because bulk of the money was spent paying the first guy to botch the job), and an “i know a photographer who needs a website” job. We avoid those like the AIDS. Otherwise, we’re extremely responsive, and we can finish the job you needed done yesterday.
  3. We’ve seen it before. You’re not going to get into a situation where you ask for a feature, and we say “sure”, only to find out a day before the deadline that we can’t do what we said we could do. By now, we know our limitations and the limitations of the technology. We won’t waste your time and risk your milestones on impossible or unfeasible features.


Experience brings a lot to the table.

That Being Said …

i’ve been popping into the various graduate art school shows around town. Now here’s the dilemma: some of these students are very skilled, and due to the global economic collapse, very screwed. They’re in that job/experience Catch-22, made even more deadly by the fact that big companies aren’t even hiring experienced people – and in some cases, they’re hemorraging the ones they’ve got. We’re in a situation where we can’t take on any more paid staff due to my ferocious cocaine habit and penchant for gold-leafed computer equipment. Some of these students might work for free. And my bank account is brimming with free.

i resolved early on not to ask anyone to work for free. Is that still sound ethical ground? Or am i actually doing a disservice to the students who need to ramp up their resumes in order to get a job with a paycheck? i remember when i graduated that i would gladly have taken an unpaid internship instead of getting doors slammed in my face everywhere i went, if only to use that company as a stepping stone.

What’s the solution here? To exploit, or no? To pay an “honorarium” that comes out to a third world wage, or to let it be? i’d love to get perspectives on this, whether you’re a student caught in the Catch-22, a company with experience running unpaid internships, or a Toronto colleague who i’ve pissed off by writing the first half of this article. Let me know!

9 thoughts on “The Ethics of Hiring Students

  1. Paul

    As a student, I’m sort of stuck. I had been freelancing and barely paying the bills, and recently got a job with an agency.

    However, they (I dont hold it against them) were reluctant to immediately hold onto me as a full time employee. I’m being paid ‘ by cheque’ and requested to do my own taxes.

    Same as freelancing.

    I don’t understand why people are ever reluctant to hire a student. If they have something to offer – they have something to offer. Hire them, if they’re inexperienced take them under your wing.

    Having your own protege is always something fun.

  2. Gavin

    Take the ethical route. Work = pay.

    If you expect to be paid 10 yrs into your career, why not expect to be paid 10 minutes in?

    At my place of employment we generally hire temporary staff through recruitment agencies. The agencies take care of payroll and send us an invoice. Independent contractors are paid just like a vendor, and responsible (contractually) for being honest come tax time.

    Paul, not every company is reluctant to hire students – I recently hired a student because she was just a flat-out great person and her portfolio was 10x better than most of the senior-level people that applied – It’s just that in the current climate, companies are under pressure to do more with less, and taking someone under thier wing costs time.

    Also, congratulations Ryan on your success! Making it to the two year mark while raising two muppet babies isn’t an easy task. Cheers sir!

    1. Ryan

      Thanks, Gavin!

      i’m with you – i’m siding with the pay=work school of thought. But – being devil’s advocate – what if you never get to the 10 year mark because no one would give you your break in those first 10 minutes?

  3. Michael

    When I graduated from university, a lot of my friends had difficulty getting a job straight away — either because they’d prioritised getting grades over applying for work, or because they were stuck in the “work requires work experience” cycle.

    Most recent graduates I know stayed with their parents for quite a while, even if they had a job (is this unusual? Perhaps it’s to do with the infamous property ladder), so rent and food wasn’t a big deal. Those without jobs obviously had to keep posting out applications and going to interviews, but on top of that they basically had three other options: work at a supermarket, volunteer, or sit at home and play video games.

    Surely any job — even an low-paying or unpaid one — in the industry they want to work in and with the potential to make contacts must be better for their career than those alternatives?

  4. Gavin

    Ryan, then wait 20 mins. I’m a believer that there’s work out there for those who are ambitious and resourceful enough to look. And don’t be afraid to pack up and go where the work is early on in your career.

    Michael, you forgot the fourth option: consider a career change ;)

  5. Andy Smith

    Well, being a recent graduate from the now defunct IADT, I was incredibly lucky to find a nice start-up who simply wanted to hire someone straight out of school because, A)You don’t have to pay them as much, and B)They’ll be so grateful for the work, they’ll do just about anything. Of course, I had the advantage of A) Being likable and B) Looking for a job in an area that had never heard of my school. (Thank God for that…). The best advice I could give to any recent grad is never say no to an opportunity to meet someone in the business. If there’s a lecture about games at 6 am on a Saturday, you better get your unkempt ass to it. It’s all about who you can meet. Which is why TOJam was so awesome. As a side note, I met the guy who got me my job at TOJam…coincidence? Possibly. Also, I realized that no one asked me for my opinion, and I’m probably WAY off topic. Also, I’m not great with punctuation. Either way…uhhhh…damn.

  6. Jessica

    So, why not take on the occasional intern? They’re already used to not getting paid and an honorarium for that is quite a bonus.

    I agree that once they graduate and are in the field, they need to get paid… working for free is just not cool after that.

  7. Ryan

    Here are some perspectives from my pal JP Amore at George Brown College here in Toronto, who heads up various game development and game design programs:

    True – many students will be lining up at studio doors for jobs – when there are very few opportunities. So why not have them work for free and gain experience?

    GBC has shifted my perspective (no biases are made thus far! I work at many colleges and I find the best opportunities provided from GBC). Why should students work for free, when we can hire them within the college to develop for companies? So you ask – how is the quality of work? Well we hire faculty to mentor and supervise development and manage production. For the Untold’s, federal and provincial funding might be easier to come across when institutions are partnered – guess who funds the institutions ;)

    What about graduates? The most talented and ambitious will find careers in the field. Unfortunately – for the time being – not in Toronto. In a utopian world, I would recommend graduates contract their services for small fees, to gain experience, working knowledge and $. A great opportunity to prove themselves to the world!


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