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The plight of the unpaid intern

Universities are getting more involved in monitoring unpaid internships when these are part of a student’s learning experience.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | September 11, 2013
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Illustration by Leif Parsons.

It was being asked to clean up a bloody pig’s heart with her bare hands after the well-heeled “fashionista” crowd had filed out from a New York jewellery show that set Krista Brown against ever doing an unpaid internship again.

Ms. Brown was at the time a first-year student in a graphic communications management program at Ryerson University, learning the ins and outs of the printing industry. She had independently organized the internship with a public relations company during New York City’s Fashion Week in February 2012. It wasn’t for academic credit, but she was hungry for experience in a competitive industry that interested her – she had previously done a college program in fashion and marketing. She forked out for transportation and a hotel for two weeks, and missed classes.

“The only thing you’re thinking about is, ‘This is what I have to do. You have to pay your dues,’” she says.

But she was stuck doing menial jobs such as tidying the washroom instead of organizing seating charts or checking in guests. When she was asked to clean up dead animal parts used as props during the show, it was the last straw. She quit and went home a week early.

It’s “probably my biggest intern horror story,” says Ms. Brown, who figures she’s done more than 10 internships.

Now into her third year at Ryerson, she’s nervous about a 420-hour internship next summer that is required for her studies. Although the program stresses the internship should be paid, the 23-year-old worries she might have a hard time snagging a paid position and will have to settle for something unpaid to complete her degree.

“Why should I not be paid?” she says. “I think my previous experience should be enough to at least get minimum wage.”

As universities turn towards integrating more “real world” experiences into students’ education, internships are often considered an important part of the experiential learning mix, either as a required element in a program, an optional credit or an opportunity promoted through an on-campus career centre. This leads to the question, what responsibility do universities have in setting standards for such positions?

“We’re starting to look on both the academic side and on the co-curricular side at different and better ways to support students’ experiential learning,” says Bonnie Neuman, vice-president, student services, at Dalhousie University. The university offers optional internships, sometimes unpaid, in several programs, including community design and others through the university’s college of sustainability and the faculty of management. “They really do add value in terms of employability skills. If you can structure things to nurture and facilitate students in this regard, they can go very far.”

However, unpaid internships have garnered a deluge of criticism in recent months. Once considered a good way for students to get their foot in the job door, they’re now increasingly portrayed as a labour-market trap that takes advantage of young adults by working them to the bone on menial tasks. Unpaid internships can also undermine an already shaky youth employment situation and in certain circumstances can be illegal. In June, a landmark U.S. federal court ruling found that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal and New York state labour laws by not paying two interns who had worked on the set of the Academy Award-winning film Black Swan.

In Canada, no definitive statistics are kept to track the number of unpaid internships – some estimates are as high as 300,000 a year. Toronto labour lawyer Andrew Langille, who frequently blogs on the subject, points to an “increasing trend” since the late 1990s of colleges and universities using unpaid workplace opportunities as part of their academic programs.

“I can see a place for short-term job shadowing as opportunities to gain a bit of experience as part of an academic program. But a lot of these positions, they’re replacing employees,” asserts Mr. Langille.

Complicating matters is that there is no standard definition of what an internship means – including whether the intern is paid – nor what distinguishes it from other forms of experiential learning, such as a practicum (typically unpaid) that certain regulated professions like teaching and social work require. Co-op programs, where students do structured rotations of work placements and classroom study, are in their own category, and these require students to be paid during work periods as a condition of accreditation.

Canada’s provincial labour laws also vary, but most do not require that someone be paid in a work environment if the person is there as part of an academic course or for training similar to an educational program. Those who defend unpaid internships as valuable learning experiences within an academic setting say the experience and academic credit are the rewards.

“I think in some instances the credit is enough because of its educational value, but in other instances the position is sort of hiding behind the credit when it should be paid work,” says University of Ottawa law student Claire Seaborn, who is also president and founder of the Canadian Intern Association. The association educates young people about their rights and encourages positive, legal, internship experiences.

Both of Ms. Seaborn’s two internships were unpaid but were still worthwhile, she says, because they were well-structured and focused on providing her with a useful learning experience. In one, she interned at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. The other was a 125-hour unpaid placement with the Ontario government, “a fantastic experience” done for an optional law school credit.

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Universities and individual programs surveyed for this story reflect a mixed bag of policies on internships, and most policies aren’t coordinated across the university. Some require internships be paid; others may strongly suggest or prefer it, but do not require it. Internship coordinators stress that regardless of remuneration, good internships for credit are structured and monitored by the university to ensure students receive the learning experience they deserve and are not cast into exploitative situations.

Paid internships are “the way it’s always been” at the University of Regina’s journalism school, says internship coordinator Mark Taylor. “We find we get good results from it. We want students to be treated as employees.”

To graduate, students in the two journalism degree programs must complete a 13-week internship with a news organization. The school is responsible for finding positions for the students, and many of them end up doing two internships, says Mr. Taylor. That’s made easier by the fact that just 26 students are accepted each year into the journalism school.

Ryerson University’s journalism school does not require its six-week internships be paid but has guidelines and minimum requirements for acceptable placements, similar to other university internship programs. Students also must keep a journal of their experience and write a final essay about it. While strongly encouraged and popular among students, Ryerson journalism school internships are optional.

“The ideal is that they would be paid,” says Ann Rauhala, associate professor at the journalism school and coordinator of the undergraduate internship program. Nevertheless, she says she can “swallow this bitter pill” of unpaid internships because students receive academic credit for the experience and get close supervision by a faculty member and by someone in the newsroom where they’re working.

“They’re kind of getting doubled-up individual attention focused on the further development of their skills,” says Ms. Rauhala.

From the employer’s perspective, it can be argued that mentoring an intern and giving structured feedback to make the internship meaningful can represent a cost to the company. This is why interns in some programs may even have to pay for their internship opportunity.

“Employers have acknowledged that for the first couple of months it’s a really, really steep learning curve and at the beginning of the process there definitely is a period of negative productivity,” says Rebecca New-hook. She is cooperative education director for Memorial University’s faculties of arts and sciences and is speaking about site visits she has conducted for computer science students on optional paid internships, which last from eight to 16 months.

University career centres also play a role in this debate. While some believe caveat emptor applies to any type of internship opportunity posted at a career centre that a student may respond to independently, others think career centres have a responsibility to ensure that internship positions posted on their job boards are not exploitative or illegal.

The Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, representing university career centres as well as businesses, issued an official statement in the spring of 2012 advising members against posting unpaid internships unless these met a set of criteria reflecting common labour law standards and ensuring educational value. This was after members started noticing “a significant jump” in unpaid internship postings and “in spaces that traditionally had only been paid,” says CACEE’s executive director Paul Smith.

Still, universities should think twice before adopting blanket policies that ban the posting of unpaid internship positions outright, says Nancy Johnson, senior director of student learning and retention at Simon Fraser University and an associate editor of the Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships.

Doing so means “you’ve eliminated an awful lot of learning opportunities for students, some of which they may be happy to do unpaid,” especially in the not-for-profit sector, Dr. Johnson says. Her university does not allow the posting of unpaid internships with for-profit companies but does allow them within the voluntary sector.

Moreover, not all students may agree with bans on unpaid internships. Back at Ryerson, the chair of the program where Ms. Brown is enrolled – she of the pig heart incident – says there are more than enough paid internships to go around in the printing industry each year for those who want them. Nevertheless, the program continues to permit unpaid positions “because I’d have a dozen students at my door if I were to say that we’re not going to allow them,” says Ian Baitz. Despite being counselled against it, about 20 percent of students still choose unpaid placements, he says, often because they have their sights set on working in a particular niche area no matter what.

As universities continue to develop experiential learning opportunities, those familiar with internship programs stress the importance of getting it right. Clear structures and expectations for students and employers, linkages between university supervisors and companies, and regular check-ins with the intern and employer are fundamental. Other suggestions include keeping longer-term internships optional to protect financially constrained students from being unduly disadvantaged, creating funds that students can apply for to cover their costs while doing unpaid placements, and being careful not to expand internship requirements that may outstrip the available supply.

“We’ve said to our people, ‘If you are putting internships into place and they are mandatory, I want to see upfront evidence of who the companies are, who the public sector partners are who are committed to being a part of this,” says Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University, where internships are increasingly being integrated into graduate programs to increase students’ marketability.

Government has a role to play, too. The Canadian Intern Association scored a small victory in June when its lobbying helped to prompt federal Liberal MP Scott Brison to call for the gathering of accurate statistics covering interns in Canada and for the establishment of clear standards for internships that would “help safeguard legitimate opportunities” while protecting young people from being exploited.

“What we would like to see are more paid positions … being encouraged by universities and colleges,” says law student Ms. Seaborn, “and if they are unpaid, for universities and colleges to be regulating them and watching them a lot more closely.”

Moira MacDonald, a frequent contributor, specializes in writing about education.

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  1. Reuben Kaufman / September 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    I was struck by the following statement:

    “Employers have acknowledged that for the first couple of months it’s a really, really steep learning curve and at the beginning of the process there definitely is a period of negative productivity,” says Rebecca New-hook.

    Talk about nickling-and-diming …. I thought that even in the private sector there was a concept of “community service” – – i.e., they provide a service to the community as part of being part of the community. We in the university system are strongly discouraged from using the expression “teaching load”, and for very good reason, considering that teaching is a major component of our job, and not a “burden”. Rather than viewing the first week (or whatever) of a paid internship as “negative productivity”, why not consider it as part of service, especially because they will more than make up for the perceived shortfall later in the relationship, and may even benefit from identifying excellent staff for hiring full-time down the road.

  2. Sherie / September 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    There are so many mixed feelings on this topic. I know that when I was finishing up my undergrad studies, I had an opportunity to work as a lab assistant. At first it was to be a paid, part-time position that very soon became a volunteer position without my consent. I left because I could not sacrifice the time between my family (single mom) and trying to find a paying job so that I could make ends meet. I am left wondering what would have happened had I just bit the bullet, so to speak, and continued on as a ‘volunteer’ lab assistant…would I be in a different place than I am now, employed in a position where I am not using my degree to the fullest?

    Perhaps for young people that don’t have other obligations such as family, it may be the way to go. But I think it is getting much too popular, which will make it impossible for others like me to ever come close to obtaining experience in my chosen career field. Also, I think young people have to keep in mind that if a large profit making company can’t pay your entry level wages for the first few months of learning, perhaps they are not the company you want to work for.

  3. Reuben Kaufman / September 11, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Sherie, before I retired (a year and a bit ago) I frequently had students approach me to work in my lab (biological sciences) on a volunteer basis over the summer. I wouldn’t take them on under those conditions precisely because of the possibility of (inadvertent) exploitation. All the summer students I employed were given independent research projects, because I felt that this was the only way that both of us could potentially benefit from the experience. Yes, it took a lot of time to teach them the necessary basic techniques before they could even get started on data collection (“negative productivity!”), but even when the project turned out not to be publishable, certainly the student got the benefit of knowing much better the joys and sorrows of a research career! What did I get? A better understanding about how that project might be modified for another go-around with another student!

    If I were you, Sherie, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over the decision you took, necessarily, to abandon the volunteer path. For a collaboration to be successful, each party has to respect the other; the best way for an employer to show that respect is to pay the intern at least a minimum wage.

  4. Jen / September 12, 2013 at 8:29 am

    First learn (at university/college/high school), then labour (and get paid). That’s it. Anything else, especially when it concerns vulnerable, financially insecure young people, strikes me as immoral and at least occasionally illegal.

    Universities who participate directly or indirectly in unpaid internships are actively undermining the value of their own credentials.

    Bottom line: we have to take a stand on this, guys. I’d hope that decades from now we’d look back and clearly see the error of our ways. So why wait? Internships are wrong, people must be paid for work performed. Paid training the norm otherwise.

    Ugh.

  5. Linnet Humble / September 12, 2013 at 8:39 am

    If a student is carrying out an internship that is mandatory for their degree, that position should be subject to the same student employment guidelines/regulations that are in place at the university — even if the placement is off-campus.

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