Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

For years, I’ve thought that pursuing an unpaid internship was an unparalleled way of gaining crucial work experience and a network of contacts before graduation. But is this sacrifice really necessary for success?

While there are no official statistics to show how many individuals are interning, a survey conducted by two University of Victoria graduates in conjunction with the Canadian  Intern Association estimates that the number of unpaid positions in Ontario every year could anywhere between 1,000 and 5,800.

Under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA), anyone who is employed by an individual or a company is entitled minimum wage pay. There is an ESA exception is in place for individuals who are employed under a program approved by a university or college. According to the Ministry of Labour, this exception exists to encourage employers to provide students with practical experience to compliment their classroom learning.

Caroline Konrad, the director of Ryerson’s Career and Co-op Centre, said if a position is unpaid, it should be a high impact experience for the student. She said that although work experience is deemed necessary now, even for entry-level positions, students need to consider “how much you are getting back for where you want to go,” especially if the positions are unpaid.

Students feel the pressure

Many programs, including Ryerson’s journalism school, have an allotted semester for students to complete an internship placement. Yet, as I sat in a Friday lecture, our guest speaker told us she had already completed two or three internships by the time the official internship semester arrived. Suddenly, for a second-year journalism nearly halfway through the program, I no longer thought one internship was sufficient.

 Other students feel the pressure too. Jemma Dooreleyers, a second-year journalism student, spent her summer in her hometown contributing bi-weekly to the Kingstonist, an online news platform based in Kingston, Ont. In addition, Dooreleyers worked two paid jobs. Dooreleyers expressed that in part she had applied because of the pressures from her program to gain experience.

When she applied to write for the publication, the organization said they could not pay her because the company was not making enough revenue from advertisers. Although the publication asked her to take on more assignments, Dooreleyers couldn’t afford to take more time off her paid jobs – ones that she needed in order to pay for rent and groceries.

“I wouldn’t take an unpaid internship for experience over getting a summer job if you can’t afford it,” Dooreleyers expressed.

 Dooreleyers wrote online articles and did live coverage for the  Kingstonist . (The Unaffiliated Press/Sydney Bartos)

Dooreleyers wrote online articles and did live coverage for the Kingstonist. (The Unaffiliated Press/Sydney Bartos)

How do we as students cope with feeling like our worth is measured in unpaid work? Feeling pressured to intern in exchange for experience, and added resume points, becomes difficult to navigate when we want to commit our time and effort, while perhaps not receiving what we deserve in return.

Brittany Paty, a third-year fashion communications student at Ryerson who needs 400 internships hours as part of her program’s requirements, has taken on two different internship roles.

“In the industry it’s really expected that you start low and you make your way up, and the lowest of the lows is an unpaid intern.” Paty said. “We’ve already accepted the fact that were going to need to intern for things in order to get ahead in the industry.”

While working to fulfill her required credits, Paty said she still feels years behind because she spent the past two summers working a full-time job instead of dedicating those hours to interning in her industry.

“There is a huge expectation when you enter the workforce that you have done your time, you need to have worked for free, and worked really hard,” the fashion student, who described her placements as valuable experiences, said.

The issues with internships

Needing work experience is inevitable, and pursuing an internship may provide a perfect facet to fulfill that need. Yet working without pay comes with effects. This is where I take certain issue with internships.

As the University of Victoria researchers James Attfield and Isabelle Couture write, the ambiguity of internships “only enables the term to capture a wide range of work arrangements, but also to circumvent the established notion that work involves being paid for one’s labour.”

Internships exteriorize class division. According to the researchers, individuals from high-income families are more likely to undertake unpaid internships, and are most likely from non-visible minority backgrounds. Their survey also found that virtually all unpaid interns needed external financial assistance, from either a different paid job or parental support in order to be sufficient they interned. Dedicating unpaid time comes with a high cost; consequently, individuals from lower-income families may not be able to commit to unpaid work. This not only generates a gap for potential interns, but also furthers the divide for candidates entering the workforce.

If internships are intended to provide students essential experience, then this suggests that unpaid internships further place privileged individuals at an advantage. By perpetuating existing patterns of prejudiced hiring, this manifests structural class barriers, and creates reduced hiring pools in which employers are potentially missing out on innovative who were unable to pamper their resumes with unpaid hours.

Gaining experience does not necessarily need to equate to unpaid work. Instead, Caroline Konrad expressed the importance of shifting how employers view their young employees. Showing that students merit paid experience means facilitating a shift that, as Konrad said, changes “age-old mindsets” to instead strive for mutually beneficial interactions between students and their employers. This shows employers that young talent offers innovative and fresh perspectives.

While it has felt nearly impossible to rid myself of the hindering stresses of work experience, midterms, and research essays, committing to unpaid work does not have to be the above-all factor to experience and future employment. As students we should ask ourselves if we’re receiving highly beneficial experience or are we selling ourselves short?