Are You In-tern Or Out? The State Of The Unpaid Internships Debate


If you’ve ever tried to pick toothpaste, shampoo or salad dressing, you’ll know that it can be difficult to make a decision when you have too many options.

In the same way, you may find it difficult to decide exactly how you feel about internships, especially if you do some reading around the internship debate.

To be clear, the major issue isn’t internships themselves – rather, it’s whether or not interns should be paid.

As with any polarized debate, the heart of the matter is neither easy to get at, nor is it located as close to either pole as anyone would like you to believe.

The high road, the low road

At one end of the spectrum, you’ll find infuriated (or dispirited) young people saying that unpaid internships devalue their labour, discriminate against those who can’t work for free, and place young workers in a vulnerable position (the list goes on).

To many, agreeing to work for free is the narrow end of the wedge. Having indicated that you’ll do anything to work, you may wind up doing anything at work – without the obligation to pay you, employers may waste your time with irrelevant tasks or compel you to do demeaning work.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find best-case outcomes touted as test-case scenarios, with individuals insisting that their unpaid internship(s) were a vital stepping stone in their career trailblazing, both in terms of networking and industry experience.

Employers from all industries scatter themselves on both sides of the debate, with a handful offering paid internships and many more opting for unpaid work. Some provide great work experience. Others don’t.

And in the middle?

The lost road

The middle is a murky mixture of both attitudes, often borne by those too afraid to buck the status quo to voice their discontent, and those aspiring to turn a first internship into an entry level job – either at the same location or elsewhere.

It’s difficult to gauge the number of interns and internships in Canada, which has been slower to jump on the internship bandwagon than the U.S .

One employment lawyer estimated that up to 95% of internships in Ontario may break the rules set out in the Employment Standards Act, making them illegal.

Of course, you aren’t compelled to seek an internship. But when employers want applicable experience (or are looking to hire individuals who have hands-on familiarity with a company), the reluctance (or inability) to work for free may put you at the bottom of the pile – or the recycling bin.

Prospects for change

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As internships become more common, and competition becomes more fierce, internships must translate into useful experience or employment in order to remain sustainable.

This isn’t a moral obligation – it’s a practical necessity. Job seekers will be content to jump from internship to internship only as long as the process produces results. If the merry-go-round becomes a merry-go-nowhere, people will stop jumping on – with unexpected consequences.

The backlash

While it’s a different climate south of the border, recent events in the U.S. may herald brighter days for Canadian interns as well.

Consider the case of seven-time American intern Diana Wang, who is suing her former employer, the Hearst Corporation. Wang’s case is just one of a recent spate of spats between ex-employers and disgruntled interns.

This sort of backlash will not only prompt most employers to get their affairs in order (rumours of which have arisen at Condé Nast), it may have the effect of encouraging interns on both sides of the border to push back in terms of the treatment they expect.

In the long-term, one could hope to see more stringent and transparent regulations on internships and the employers who offer them.

None of this news is a silver bullet for the problems posed by unpaid internships, nor will there be one, but the possibility for change looms on the horizon.

What do you think about unpaid internships?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.