Monday, 15 July 2013

Unpaid internships: Are they worth it?

I read an article recently on the CBC website about two former interns with Bell Mobility who have filed complaints with the federal government against the telecom giant. Why? They allege the company broke labour laws by not paying them for the work they did. Both signed up for Bell’s voluntary training program but said their experience did not match their expectations which were based on how the program was advertised. Rather than being part of a training program, one of the interns said she felt like “an employee, doing regular work” and therefore should have been paid.

When someone asks me what the difference is between a regular job and an internship (or other work experience, such as a practicum or co-op), I respond that you learn in almost any job but with an internship the learning is intentional. That is, there is a commitment on the part of both the intern and the employer that the intern will develop certain skills, gain certain understandings about the profession and industry they are working in, etc. The question is should this learning opportunity be paid or unpaid?

It is a timely question because it appears that an increasing number of employers in the public, private and non-profit sectors are offering unpaid internships and an increasing number of students, new graduates and people in career transition are doing unpaid internships as a way to overcome the ‘no experience, no job’ dilemma. According to another CBC article, between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians work for no pay.

One of the criticisms of unpaid internships is that they put lower income people at a disadvantage. Some people simply cannot afford to work for free unless they work multiple jobs or use credit in order to subsidize their internship, which can put them at an even further disadvantage. Another criticism is that unpaid internships displace paid workers, which negatively affects the workers being displaced and the economy as a whole. Proponents of unpaid internships posit that unpaid interns are getting something in return for their work; namely, experience that will give them a leg up on the competition for paid jobs. Further, they argue that if employers who offer unpaid internships are required to pay interns for their work, those valuable learning opportunities would disappear. Hmmm, I’m not convinced of that.

In my opinion, the majority of internships and like work experiences should be paid. There are some circumstances where I would support unpaid internships; for example, student internships with a not-for-profit organization for which the student receives course credit. I also strongly believe that there must be a firm commitment to learning on the part of the employer and the intern (this can be facilitated through a learning contract) and that the work an intern does is meaningful in terms of providing her or him with career-related experience.

What are your views on this issue?

1 comment:

  1. Good post Joan. If an intern is providing value to the company they should capture some of that value or it is exploitation, in my opinion. If the intern just gets to observe or really cannot contribute in a meaningful way to the job then perhaps not, but I don't think this is usually the case.
    -Sean B.