Internships have become a necessary evil to get into today’s job market. But things can get legally ugly when it comes to unpaid positions. Biz and Tech editor Sarah Del Giallo and Jeff Lagerquist report
Internships can put some real world experience on your resume and even land you a job, but some employers see an opportunity to get work done cheap. With students desperate to build their portfolios, working for little or no money can seem like a viable option.
The problem arises from the fact that the laws surrounding internships are vague and usually not enforced. In the case of unpaid internships, many students end up working in illegal environments without realizing it.
Andrew Langille, a labour and employment lawyer in Toronto, says that internships have become a major part of the job market transition that young people go through.
“Unpaid internships are being used as a proxy for entry-level positions and they’re allowing companies to not hire people, but to use a revolving door of unpaid interns to sustain the business and the operations,” he said.
The Employment Standards Act (ESA) has a six-point definition of a legal unpaid internship. Within that definition, it states that an unpaid internship should be the equivilant of a training program and should wholly benefit the intern.
Langille says that internships fall under precarious employment.
“Precarious employment is where you don’t have a lot of ties to the employer; it’s generally on a short term basis on a contract with the employer. You may not get benefits,” he said. “If you’re making coffee, filing papers, photocopying, inputting data and so on and so forth, it’s probably not a training program, it’s probably illegal and it probably violates the ESA.”
Bruno Quarless* is a senior journalism student who had a summer internship at a well-known Toronto sports network.
“That’s one of the reasons I moved to Toronto, I wanted to work for them,” he said.
“Then I found out it would be unpaid, which was ok. Most are, which sucks.”
Quarless was working on search engine optimization content for the network two days per week. During his shifts he would write five to six 500-word stories on major sports while having to include phrases for optimization.
Quarless said he received very little feedback on his work in the four months he was working for the network. He didn’t feel that he gained any benefit from his time there.
“Basically I spent two days a week for four months cranking out 2,000 to 2,500 words of useless bullshit that no one saw, with no byline, no money, and not even something that I would put in my portfolio,” he said.
“I worked at a place that I always wanted to work at — and hated it and became completely disillusioned.”
Despite his negative experience, Quarless can understand why companies would take advantage of free work from eager students.
“It really does pay off for them. It’s just so hugely disappointing.”
Although the laws are vague and the risk of exploitation is always a factor, internships can be an extremely effective means of gaining real world experience before graduation.
“The thing that’s so good about intern programs is that it gives people a relatively simple way to find out if they want to do this stuff, whether they enjoy it, and whether they are good at it,” said Roger Gillespie, the man in charge of hiring student interns for the Toronto Star, which pays interns.
Gillespie explains that student internships also serve as a way for employers to see potential hires in action before offering a job. He makes it clear that interns should not expect full-time jobs.
“Don’t rely on some notion that you are going to get hired here, because that’s a stupid thing to do,” said Gillespie.
Last year the Star hired 22 interns for their three programs and none were hired full-time. The interns themselves often set the pace of competition for scarce positions.
“Almost no one gets into our program who isn’t prepared to give up a chunk of their life,” said Gillespie.
Outworking your peers isn’t always the challenge, especially if you’re a business student. Sometimes staying focused on monotonous yet important tasks is the most difficult part.
Fourth-year business technology management student Paul Benton interned with CIBC World Markets for four months. After a rigorous three-part interview process, he found himself spending hours in front of an Excel spreadsheet filing reports for traders.
“I would say we were being exploited, but we were paid quite well. Twenty-two dollars per hour is at the higher end of the scale,” said Benton.
As boring as it was, the experience paid off.
“Getting a job is a lot easier if you have an internship on your resume. It’s a big part of landing a position after you finish school,” he said.
Practical work experience is an important part of a resume, but arts industries are less likely to pay for your time.
Louis Calabro is a manager of the Genie and Gemini awards for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television (ACCT). The ACCT hires unpaid interns for six-month internships. The workers are required to come in for 12 hours per week.
“We’re a not-for-profit organization so we don’t have a lot of excess cash floating around,” said Calabro. “The internship is a way to provide experience for somebody who’s maybe just coming out of school or who may be in school at the same time. It’s not really meant to be a situation where you’re going to be making tons of money.”
The ACCT generally hires interns from arts and science programs.
The interns’ responsibilities range from labeling, filing, boxing things up to putting together screener packages for nominating committee members and organizing information for the nominating committee.
“We function like any production company would on the office side of things. So I truly believe that does provide a lot of experience,” he said.
Langille said, “In the case of internships, whether you’re going to get the minimum wage is a big question. A lot of the internships aren’t paid.”
While internships provide real world experience before graduation, there are other ways to build a resume and break into your chosen profession.
“There are other ways to gain professional experience and I find that increasingly many students in the journalism program are working at a professional level almost from day one and keep on doing so even if its as a freelancer, part-time, or contract, in their summers or spare time,” said Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s journalism program.
Still, the job market’s demand for practical workplace experience is a reality for most Ryerson students.
“This has a wider impact on society because people are putting off life milestones, such as getting married, moving out of their parents home, entering into relationships, having kids, buying a house, saving for retirement,” said Langille.
“This is a phenomenon that is affecting [current] generations and will affect the coming generations that are entering the labour market.”
*names have been changed
What internships are legal?
Here is how Ontario’s Ministry of Labour defines a legal unpaid internship
The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
The training is for the benefit of the individual.
The person providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained.
The individual does not displace employees of the person providing the training.
The individual is not accorded the right to become an employee of the person providing the training.
The individual is advised that he or she will receive no remuneration for the time that he or she spends in training.