OPINION: Unpaid internships, experience doesn’t pay students’ bills

Nov 17, 2023 | OP-ED, Opinion

I stopped and gave the woman interviewing me for an internship position the “side eye,” and asked, “Excuse me?”

I seem to have misread the posting. I was too stunned to speak.

“Congratulations, Mr. Lewis, you will be moving forward in the hiring process — I also want to remind you that there is no honorarium, and the contract is for three months,” the interviewer said.

“Yes, unfortunately, this is the company’s policy. I will give you some time to think and get back to me,” she said.

“Working for free? In what economy?” I asked myself as I looked at the chequing balance in my account, which stood at $10.99. The last time I checked, groceries can not be purchased with Monopoly money, so how could anyone in their right mind work for free?

Internships or some companies would call it “fellowship” if you’re fancy, refer to a period where a person is offered work experience by an organization or business to be familiar with their specific industry interest.

Internships are often required by academic programs within secondary and post-secondary studies since you need experience for the field of study in which you are a part.

Usually, these opportunities are unpaid, but over the years, most companies have revisited their ethical practices and now offer an honorarium, i.e. nominal payments.

Speaking of ethics, many employment lawyers and professionals often speak to the ethical values of businesses and organizations when internships are concerned, and unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect.

“Also, Mr. Lewis, there is no option available for full-time (work) after completing your fellowship,” the interviewer said. The entire interview was a scam, I thought to myself. I will work for three months, running around and possibly grabbing my boss’ coffee for free.

As a full-time student who lives independently and has to purchase food, managing finances is always at the forefront of my daily thoughts. I can’t stop imagining the thousands of students in the same position as me, let alone when forced to decide on working for free to graduate.

Arguably, experience is important, and getting an internship is as important, especially in the real world. Still, program coordinators should ensure that for some programs which require manual labour, each internship should offer payment.

Companies who willingly offer students internships and do not pay them should worry about the future of their workforce. After all, every student who graduates post-secondary and secondary school eventually enters the workforce, and this type of practice can leave a bad reputation for said business.

According to an article by Laik Sweeney, senior consultant at Veritas Communications and a University of Guelph-Humber alumni, employers should invest in their interns as they help students offset their overall expenses and promote talent retention.

Coincidentally, Sweeney was a media student like myself and argued students in media are often told to go for unpaid internships. She said students are told to get a job in media, they need to start somewhere, and for lack of a better word, that means to “get a foot in.”

Consequently, getting that foot in doesn’t always work, as some students who’ve opted for unpaid internships are later faced with financial barriers and unemployment, which later leads to mental health issues.

While it is uncertain when this practice will end, I can tell you that it will have dire consequences for the future of employment and the workforce in this country.

Yes, it is important to get experience, but can I tell Bell or my landlord that I will pay them in experience? I can guarantee that the answer is an unequivocal “No.”