Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The 'evils' of unpaid internships?

Every other week an article or discussion surrounding the evils of unpaid internships is addressed in some medium. Here's today's: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2013/06/26/f-unpaid-internships-labour-laws.html

I think everyone can sympathize that the idea of ‘working for free’ is unacceptable. So let’s explore and clarify the idea that an unpaid internship is ‘working for free’.

First - an internship is meant to be an extension of the learning process. At some - if not most – colleges, the internship is an actual dedicated course with an assigned code and credit value. The idea being the ‘learning and teaching experience’ moves away from the classroom and into a real workplace environment.  At said internship, a supervisor from a recognized company spends a predetermined amount of hours supervising and training the intern, directing his or her day, and then evaluating the work and work habits of the intern. This evaluation includes everything from punctuality to professionalism. The supervisor – who, by the way, does this for free -  then provides the college with an evaluation of the interns' performance at the internship (much like a grade). Keeping this in mind – does it not make perfect sense that a student would not be paid for this experience? Students are not paid to attend classes, and an internship is an 'off-campus' class - part of the practical learning experience.

Second clarification:  a ‘proper’ internship has a structure in place that allows the intern to assist with the duties of those around them. It is not designed to take away a paid position. Assisting in various departments and contributing to the end result is how the intern gains experiential knowledge. Some internships are more hands on then others, but at the end of the day, the intern takes away as much - or as little- as he or she determines. The good take-a-ways are obvious and include portfolio building opportunities and networking strategies. The not-so-obvious good take-a-ways include exposure to different personality traits, conflict resolution tactics, and company philosophies.  Even a bad experience can lead to a good take-away...”I definitely don’t want to do this job" or "I don't want to work for this company” being two. The point is – an internship is a safe way for a dry ‘workplace’ run. I always tell my students…”if you don’t like it, it’s only 160 hours. If you do like it, it’s still only 160 hours”.

Of note, here are the legal guidelines when it comes to the role of an unpaid internship*

      The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.

       The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.

       The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.

       Your training doesn't take someone else's job.

       Your employer isn't promising you a job at the end of your training.

       You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.

Have there been problems with internships in the past? There will always be people and companies that try to take advantage of the system, but most companies are in it for the right reasons, and most experiences are well worth the time the student dedicates to his or her internship.

More often than not – the intern experience leads to something great in the end, and if the student can do some self-reflection on their experience – he or she can leave their internship with a lot more than just a certain amount of hours under his or her belt.
As an internship coordinator for the past 12 years, I can tell you that unpaid internships have directly - or indirectly - led to hundreds of employment opportunities for those who were successful in their placements. Yes - it would be nice to be paid for everything we do – (don’t get me, a Mother of 3 started…) but in the case of internships- students are - in fact - being paid… in experience and opportunity.