The Weigh-In: unpaid internships

weigh in

For – Dani Saad

Like most issues portrayed as starkly two-sided, unpaid internships are part of a larger, more complex reality, with nuances that are typically overlooked by simplified debate.

Unpaid internships can be useful in building skills and propelling careers. Just because they, like any type of job, can be misused does not mean we should give up on the idea altogether.

Unpaid internships are not an inherently flawed concept. The problems associated with them arise in their implementation.   There is criteria for unpaid internships set out by the Employment Standards Act. So, there are guidelines that employers are meant to follow, but oversight that is lacking. If companies do not comply with the criteria, they open themselves up to lawsuits while also giving unpaid internships a bad name.

Quite obviously, free labour should not be allowed but with stringent regulation and thoughtful criteria, unpaid internships can be beneficial, and even instrumental to student success.

Just because we have yet to create enforceable criteria does not mean an outright ban is in the best interest of students. If unpaid internships are banned, those positions won’t suddenly become paid, but, for the most part, they will be eliminated. Companies will  suffer, but the real losers will be students who no longer have access to resume-building learning opportunities.

Let’s not forget that there is more to a job and job satisfaction than money. Doing meaningful work, gaining valuable experience and developing skills are important aspects of a job that cannot be overlooked.

Unpaid positions could very well offer more intrinsically and develop marketable skills more effectively than a paid job.

One valid concern related to unpaid internships is that some less- privileged students cannot afford to work for free. Even if they recognize the value in an unpaid internship, they also recognize that value and experience won’t pay the bills.

This is where the compound nature of the problem becomes relevant. Many are kept from attending post-secondary education at all due to the cost of tuition, textbooks, rent, and general living. Many more have to drop out because they cannot sustain the cost.

Internships are a small part of a vast problem.  If the cost of being a student wasn’t so high (and continuously rising), more students could afford to spend a few hours a week gaining marketable skills instead of working some meaningless job.

Take it from someone who has worked a variety of jobs to get through school and had an amazing internship. I would much rather have done something meaningful for free a few hours a week than dedicate the majority of my time to delivering pizzas or serving drinks.

Internships do not guarantee a future job, but neither does a degree. We pay thousands of dollars and go into debt for a piece of paper in hopes of it resulting in a job and that is perceived as acceptable. But the idea of working in your desired field for free while gaining tangible experience that your degree does not provide, is considered outrageous.

We should addressing the compound problem of why students need to work while in school and why expenses are so high. We’re having the wrong debate.

If used correctly, internships can be a stepping stone to greater things and provide meaningful work for students. It makes no sense to ban them outright. Abuse and labour disputes occur in paid jobs as well, but nobody plans on banning jobs.  Let’s be sensible and work towards a solution that benefits students instead of taking away what is often their only real shot at practical experience.


Against – Mike Hajmasy

As undergraduate degrees become increasingly common, their ability to help distinguish one person from the next is weakening. As a result, students with the hope of acquiring some sort of professional job out of university are forced to gain additional work experience that will appeal to future employers.

A recent trend in the world of work takes advantage of student’s need for diverse work experience by having them work for free in unpaid internships. According to Devon Black, who writes for, between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians work for no pay.

Unpaid internships were surely designed to benefit those who took them by offering a chance to gain some professional experience, but this is a system that is now being exploited by employers, offering little benefit to students or current members of the working world.

Call me crazy, but I’m of the opinion that money is just as important to ‘starving students’ as it is to anyone else, so why would it make sense for us to work for free? Does this not suggest that what we’re doing is somehow less valuable?

Black echoes my feelings of doubt and summarizes the downside of this free labour by saying, “When Canadian students are already being saddled with rising tuition costs and higher costs of living, requiring them to work for months without pay is heaping insult upon injury.” – Well said, Ms. Black.

If you still believe that unpaid internships benefit students by providing them with valuable experience, perhaps some statistics will sway you.

According to a three-year survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (U.S.), over 63 per cent of paid interns were later offered a full time job, while only 37 per cent of unpaid interns were given such an offer. It seems employers are happy to have you as long as you’re working for free.

In addition to lacking any real benefit for the students who work for free, unpaid internships can have a negative impact on those who are already a part of the work force.

A story I recently saw on Global News, for instance, highlights Samantha Bokma who was let go from her job unexpectedly, only to find an online ad searching for an unpaid intern to replace her.

To put all of this into perspective, imagine this: It’s 2013 and you’ve just landed yourself an unpaid internship.

You think to yourself, “well, this certainly won’t help me pay back the thousands of dollars I owe the government, buy groceries, or afford my monthly rent, but heck, I’ll have myself an experience that will look good on a resume and help me in my future.”

In the process of accepting this internship you put someone else out of a job, because let’s face it, your boss would rather have you work for free than pay someone else a salary.

A few years later after adding a nice list of ‘professional experiences’ to your resume you’re ready to graduate. Not only are you a certified smart person, university degree in tow, but also you have plenty of professional experience that should make finding a job simple.

Here’s the thing — all of the other students are looking to gain experience too, and employers have picked up on the fact that they’re so desperate, they’ll work for free.

As a result, you’re unable to get the entry-level position that you’re so aptly qualified for, because there’s a student with the same hopes and aspirations as you, in your place.

Unpaid internships provide a vicious (and ironic) cycle where students work for free under the misguided belief that this will increase their chances of getting a job in the future.

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