The Harsh Reality Of Competing For Unpaid Internships


Competing for a job is never easy when you’re stacked against other successful candidates with the same education, skills and experience—and it’s even harder when those other applicants are willing to work for free.

Employers and students are calling internships the new entry-level job. In difficult economic times and tough sectors, employers are laying off workers and replacing them with unpaid, or low paid, interns.

“All my internships allowed me to learn things about the magazine industry that I could not have learned in university, and I was able to experience what I had learned in school in a real work setting.” —Marisa Baratta, recent graduate

Although it’s controversial among employers, students and their parents, internships are common and expected for university students and graduates who bulk up their resumés and get their name known in their industry of choice.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many companies began hiring interns to save on labour costs. It was a phenomenon that was popular in fashion, entertainment and creative industries, where getting a job out of university was near impossible and stellar networking could land an intern a full-time job.

Nowadays, from accounting to marketing, communications to engineering, employers are hiring and students are applying, for unpaid internships.

The idea of an unpaid internship is shocking to some parents. I grew up in a family that values hard work. It didn’t matter what type of work I did, as long as it was honest. The idea of working for free, even in exchange for enhancing my resumé, was not understood.

Students across the country have long expressed frustrated views on this issue. Unpaid internships are seen as exploitative, elitist and beneficial only for wealthy kids who can afford to pay expenses while doing unpaid work.

Others see it as necessary for advancing a career and a worthwhile opportunity to break into a field while having a meaningful experience.

Marisa Baratta, a former intern at and, studied book and magazine publishing and was recently hired by

She completed her fourth full-time unpaid internship this summer and she says each one has been a great experieence. “All my internships allowed me to learn things about the magazine industry that I could not have learned in university, and I was able to experience what I had learned in school in a real work setting.”

Baratta finances her internships with her savings—she’s had summer jobs since Grade 11.

Searching for a summer internship or a full time position as a graduate is not easy. I began looking for positions that interested me way back in January. I applied for 18 paid and unpaid internships, interviewed with six organizations and was offered three positions for me to choose from.

The process was exhausting but it paid off.

One organization accepted me into its internship program but was located in Washington, D.C. It was an unpaid position and there were no funds for any living expenses.

Even though it was a great organization and it might have introduced me to wonderful people in my field, I couldn’t justify spending thousands of dollars to work for free to myself or to my parents.

I turned it down even though I had no other job prospects at the time. Luckily, other positions pulled through, but that’s not always a chance most students are willing to take.

Cara Eng, a communications intern at CTV, was required to complete internships to graduate. Although most of the coveted intern spots were unpaid, she says it’s still possible for students to find relevant, paid experience. “It isn’t impossible. I think it’s about looking in the right places, and knowing how to do that is what they don’t teach in school.”

She stresses that internships are a way for you to get you noticed in a fast-paced field. “You really have to prove your abilities and skills before you’re given meaningful tasks. Even if your internship isn’t exactly what you hoped for, students have to realize their networking may land them a job in the future,” she says.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 21.7% of summer 2009 graduates who were in employment six months later had been taken on by an employer with which they had previously completed some kind of work experience.

At the end of the day, students have to do what’s best for them. If you can afford the time and money to complete an unpaid internship, the experience is usually worthwhile. You can even ask employers to cover some expenses, like transportation.

If you can’t afford to take on an unpaid position, there are still paid opportunities out there. They require more time and energy to search and apply for these jobs.

Start early, brush up your resumé and you might be able to avoid competing for an unpaid internship.

About the author

Vicky Tobianah recently graduated from McGill University with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and English Literature. She also works as a freelance journalist. When she is not busy blogging, making new contacts or researching articles, she enjoys catching up on current affairs, encouraging her friends to become active in political matters and, of course, writing.