Do summer internships pay off?

The plan is to go to school, get a university or college degree and get a job.

This simple transition from school to work has changed as it becomes customary, particularly for arts students, to gain working knowledge from internships before they will be hired in their field. But because so many internships are unpaid, controversy ensues as students sacrifice four months of full-time pay ⎯ shelling out money for gas, transportation and other costs ⎯ for work experience.

Through the experiences of three female students, The Cord investigates whether summer internships pay off.

The interns

Elli Garlin, a 2011 Laurier graduate with a general BA took on an unpaid part-time photography internship with the student travel company S-Trip this summer. Garlin hopes this opportunity will provide her with some workplace experience before she begins her first year of media communications at Humber College in the fall.

“It kind of relates to the program that I’ll be taking at Humber,” Garlin explained about her internship.

Unlike many students, Garlin has graduated from Laurier without debt. She spends approximately $18 each week to take a TTC bus, subway then streetcar to S-Trip and further estimates that her tuition for the year to be around $3,000.

Michelle Zadikian begins her second (and final) year of radio broadcast at Humber College this September, costing her $3,500 in tuition this fall. Required to complete 160 internship hours to earn her diploma, Zadikian has two unpaid part-time internships with Canadian Music Week and 680 News.

“I write the news stories and I can get feedback from the anchors,” Zadikian shared about interning at 680 News.

On the weekends, Zadikian also works part-time for her parent’s family business. Every week she spends $90 in gas, commuting from Stouffville to 680 in downtown Toronto and CMW in Mississauga, on top of parking costs.

Olivia Gissing is entering her fourth year of double honours degree in multimedia and communication studies at McMaster University, costing her $5,500 in tuition each year plus living expenses. Searching for some experience in the field of social media, she came across her opportunity for the editorial internship with TrendHunter through Google.

An online publication, TrendHunter has hired an “intern academy” of ten editorial interns this summer to keep the article count high. Gissing spends $177 each month on a GO train pass to commute to the downtown company.

“They’ve been giving us workshops on how to write articles, how to get people’s attention, how to make captivating titles … how to get your work higher on the Google rank,” Gissing explained.

Gissing and the other interns are unpaid, but TrendHunter does offer a stipend of $1,500 once they reach a published total of 750 articles.

“Right now I think I’m at 440,” Gissing said, “It seems like a huge number that you’ll never reach but once you get going it’s totally achievable”.

Making connections

“Probably one of the best things that’s happened to me at S-Trip is one of the ladies there that does the hiring, she is getting married in August and she asked me to shoot her wedding,” Garlin said about her upcoming paid photography gig.

“If she likes me, maybe she’ll give me a job in the future,” Garlin continued.

Manager of career development at the Wilfrid Laurier University Career Centre, Frances Humphreys advocates strongly for connections like Garlin’s. “If someone were to ask me, what is the best thing to do about my career development, it would be to network as much as possible,” Humphreys said.

Zadikian has also found her internship useful for networking in radio. “With 680, since I’m on the overnight, it’s a lot better because I kind of get one-on-one mentoring … it’s only me and about three other anchors there.”

“TrendHunter is really good because they invite us to a lot of events, and introduce us to other people in the industry,” Gissing explained about the rewards interns are offered.

“One day this girl Leslie and I, we won tickets to go to a 20th anniversary fashion show and Nicole Richie was there presenting her fashion line,” said Gissing.

Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, an online career resource for students and recent graduates agreed that connections made through unpaid internships benefit future job searches, but these connections can be made through other “real-world” opportunities too.

“You need to do something to differentiate yourself, if it’s not an internship, it needs to be something where you can qualify your success in a way,” said the 28-year old entrepreneur. “There has to be some sort of experience that shows that you have done something real, you’ve accomplished something in the real world.”

While all three women reflect on positive experiences of connections and knowledge gained, their costs of commuting and upcoming tuition payments indicate that in the short-term summer internships can be financially strenuous for students.

A second job

On top of her two part-time internships, Zadikian works with her parents on the weekends for a source of income. “I work weekends with my parents, but because it’s the summer, I’m not working as much any more.” Zadikian added that she will keep her job throughout the school year.

“I was working at the internship for a few weeks and the hospital that I worked at for a few summers ago called me back, so it was kind of a lucky break.” Garlin went on to add that her part-time job makes completing an internship financially easier since she gets paid $20 an hour.

While both Garlin and Zadikian chose some of their internship hours, Gissing works 9 to 5 on weekdays at TrendHunter and does not work an additional job.

“For me, I’m ok. My parents are helping me out a lot so I’m lucky. But I know a lot of the people I work with, they’re finding it hard; a lot of them have to take a second job on the side,” Gissing explained.

Few paid opportunities

“When I first applied for the internship, I had applied to a bunch of other jobs that were paid and I had gotten no calls back.” Garlin said she wasn’t initially looking for an unpaid internship, but her and Gissing both discovered a lack of paying opportunities.

“It’s one of those catch-22s, you need experience to get a job and you need a job to get experience. Unfortunately the reality for a lot of students is that that experience is going to have to come from an unpaid internship,” said Friese.

Like various other universities, the Laurier Career Centre website connects students to internships and various volunteer opportunities, but they are also mostly unpaid.

“Last summer I didn’t have a job at all, just never happened,” Garlin explained why she was more inclined to accept an unpaid internship even before she had her paid part-time job.

According to a recent article in the Toronto Sun, unemployment rates for students are currently at 15.9 per cent, 4.9 per cent higher than pre-recession rates in 2009.

An arts graduate from Queens Economics, Friese confessed, “If you’re an arts student, I don’t think you have many options to be honest, other than connections and networking.”

Despite this, Friese has mixed feelings about internships. “If an employer is filling a spot within an organization with an unpaid intern, that would otherwise have to be filled by someone that is paid, then there’s a moral issue there and it should be illegal,” she emphasized.

The Cord asked our interns for their thoughts on this controversial trending of unpaid internships. “My grandparents have mentioned that,” Gissing laughed. “I guess sometimes it does border on exploitations and free labour, but it’s hard to find an internship that is paid really”.

“I applied to a bunch of them and they were all unpaid,” Gissing explained. “It is hard … but in the end it’s a really good reference to have.”

“Students are doing it because they feel like they have to,” Garlin said giving her take on the subject. “With more and more students doing internships, by having that on their resume, it makes them stick out among people who haven’t done one, even if it isn’t the most moral thing to do.”

Do internships lead to work?

“Some industries have to do it, that’s the unfortunate reality. I think a lot of students substitute that experience with a year of grad school or supplementary type of learning.” Friese expressed that real-world experience is more valuable to a job hunt than additional school.

Friese herself was uncertain of the next step after graduating with an arts degree. “When I look back at the next year, every single one of us [Friese’s roommates] was enrolled in another form of school and that was the first time that I realized that there was real inefficiencies in the way that students transition from school to work.”

Garlin, Gissing and Zadikian’s internships will provide the real-world experience that Friese notes as being so important. However, there are other ways to get experience without giving up a full summer of paying work.

“It depends what the financial needs are of the student. If they have the opportunity to seek out a job in an organization in an area that they would like to pursue long-term … basically the opportunity to work alongside professionals and looking at what a job entails is invaluable,” said Humphreys.

“I wouldn’t see it a requirement because there are other ways to network and gain experience,” Humphreys added about internships leading to careers.

Humphreys got her own start with her job at the career centre through a part-time job, “My first role at the university was 13 hours a week, you can never underestimate the value of continuous learning and networking.”