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The plight of unpaid interns

There is a middle ground between experience and exploitation.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JUL 28 2011

The following is a guest post by Hilary Duff, a student entering her final year in journalism this September at Carleton University. She was employed as an intern at University Affairs this summer.

I am a journalism student who is getting paid to work at a summer job relevant to my field of study. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Lately, the media industry has been up in arms over the state of unpaid internships for people like me – young, nearly graduated students who, although they don’t have the experience of someone who has been in the field for decades, can offer value, nonetheless.

There have been many looks at the issue, with questions rightfully being raised as to the legality of these internships. A recent Globe and Mail article touted both sides of the debate, and mentioned Bethany Horne, the journalism student whose recent j-source piece expressed her condemnation of the unpaid system. She expressed valid concern over the fact that unpaid internship opportunities are often only accessible to those who can afford to work for free.

So before I go any further, I think it’s time for a disclosure message.

My entire university education has been subsidized through the combination of scholarships and the financial generosity of my parents. For this, I am extremely grateful. I will never be able to discuss the social barriers some students face in an impartial manner, without coming off as the over-privileged daughter of an upper-middle-class Canadian family.

But speaking outside the financial context and as a student alone, I am in favour of unpaid internships – to a point.

Perhaps it is youthful naivety or maybe my reservation of hopeful whim, but I am willing to instil faith in the idea that the experience I get through unpaid internships will eventually pay off and will eventually be valuable. Investments are important.

As journalism students at Carleton University, we’re not required to complete a work-term placement in order to graduate. We do, however, have a voluntary apprenticeship program, one that helps set students up with shorter internships. Here, is where I think journalism schools and students alike can find the middle ground between experience and exploitation.

These short-term internships, though unpaid, require minimal commitment from students, be it a day-a-week or a few weeks over exams.  No part-time job quitting is necessary, so the financial impact that may come from longer, unpaid internships is marginal. For a little extra work, students can reap the benefits. No, these benefits aren’t of the monetary variety, but rather come in the form of connections, portfolio-building clippings or resumé add-ons.

There has also been the failure to recognize that coveted paid opportunities do exist, albeit much less frequently than their unpaid counterparts. They are not always the idealistic, revelled-upon journalism jobs either, but rather are alternative positions, be it a communications job on campus or helping plan a PR strategy for a local non-profit. They are not glamorous and you’re not going to get rich, but experience is experience, right? Sometimes you just need to get creative.

And so, while not everyone can afford to move across the country for a four-month-long unpaid internship, that doesn’t mean you can’t complete a shorter placement or gain some unconventional experience in your own city (be it Toronto or Timmins). Even though many postsecondary students (including myself) may find themselves sitting on the bench in the game of paid employment, at least we’re playing.

Editor’s note: With that, Margin Notes is taking a break for the month of August. We’ll be back at the beginning of September. Enjoy the rest of the summer holidays.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. MaCy / July 28, 2011 at 12:11

    Thanks for the well written article. I’m glad you’re being paid for your good work 🙂

    As someone in the journalism industry I still disagree with unpaid internships.

    I think its unfair that journalism students- or even those who work in media/PR/advertising take these unpaid internships and accept them – how come engineering students get paid for internships? and so do doctors (residents). Why are those in the media industry the ones who must always work for free.

    For the point about moving across the country for an internship may not be plausable for financial reasons, either is moving to timmins, how would rent be paid in a new town and someone may need to quit there job to do this.

    I have also seen some people I work with in journalism lose their jobs and get replaced by 2 or 3 interns — allowing free internships also displaced us from our jobs.

  2. Laura Servage / July 28, 2011 at 14:22

    Simple case of supply and demand, methinks. “Glamour industries,” (journalism, publishing, fashion, working overseas for NGOs) are appealing to young people, and extremely difficult to break into. (And I don’t mean “glamour” in a disparaging or patronizing way — that’s just what I’ve heard them referred to as.) Point is, large supply of workers, low demand. This leaves young people who want to break into these fields ripe for exploitation.

    I don’t disagree that internship experiences can be valuable. A key concern is whether any learning takes place, or the placement is valuable only as a line or two on a resume. I’m also concerned that interning for little or no money is becoming a widely accepted practice. If it becomes “normal” enough, questions of whether it is fair or right to subject young people to this additional hurdle will no longer be asked.

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