Ways to Avoid the (Dreaded) Unpaid Internship

Since I attacked journalism last time, I thought I’d set my sights this week on a topic that I’ve read a few articles about: the unpaid internship. The most recent article I have read is one by The Globe and Mail, which, despite its redundant headline, argues pretty strongly for the “No” side on whether unpaid internships are ethical.

Much of the time, the types of industries that offer unpaid internships are those that are competitive, i.e. difficult to break into, such as film, journalism, media, art, etc. While some people feel like it is a good opportunity to gain contacts and work experience, others are of the mind that it is unethical and a euphemism for slave labour. I’m in the latter category.

A post on blog hrhero.com says that the definition of an intern in Canada is very different from one in the United States: “Unlike the United States, Canada does not have federal legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act that has the power to deem unpaid interns (or trainees) as employees. Instead, Canadian employers must consult the applicable provincial employment standards legislation to determine if an unpaid intern is an ’employee.'” In a CTV article, employment lawyer Andrew Langville said, “If you have an intern making coffee or researching articles…then they’re an employee, not an intern, and they should be getting minimum wage and all the other protection that comes with the Employment Standards Act.”

Yet, desperate for a chance at a job (opportunity), students and recent graduates still take on unpaid internships. I found one comment in the CTV article shocking:

“‘There’s people who say young people expect everything right now, they want this great-paying job,’ says Heather Bellingham, a 26-year-old from Oshawa, Ont., who has held a string of unpaid internships since graduating from a film and television college program. ‘I don’t expect a lot — I would love minimum wage.'”

Since when has working for free become the norm? What is wrong with expecting minimum wage? Apparently, for Bellingham, expecting payment for work is too much to ask.

Contrary to popular belief, I believe that unpaid internships are not the only way you can make an impression on a future employer. Alex Try, the founder of Interns Anonymous, said, “What got me the job was doing something for myself.” While we can’t all be like Alex, you can manage to get by without working for free.

Full disclosure: I’ve done the internship thing. In university I worked for the student newspaper as their News Editor. While I was compensated for my time, I was compensated well below minimum wage. While my experience at The Ubyssey helped me to land my current job (more about that later), I decided that I could not, or would not, do something like that again. I have nothing against unpaid work as long as it’s part time (i.e. 10 hours a week) – then it`s called volunteering (see: helping out at the local animal shelter). I have a problem with full-time unpaid internships, and liken them to slave labour.

Since I decided to avoid the unpaid internship, I had to devise new ways of gaining experience in my field. Here are a few things I have found that have worked.

1. Learn it on your own. A lot of media jobs require you to have knowledge of a program (e.g. Adobe Photoshop). Get the program, and learn it on your own! Take initiative. If you have the cash (which I would assume you don`t if you have just graduated or are unemployed), pay for a course. A lot of jobs just want you to be able to edit a few photos; you don`t have to be an expert.

2. Take on side projects. There is nothing wrong with taking on a side project. I have a friend who is working on some film projects this summer to build her portfolio. If you work at McDonald`s 40 hours a week, it is not difficult to set aside a few hours a week when you get home to make a few drawings, edit a film, or write some blog posts. I didn`t say it would be easy, but at least you`re not making coffee and shredding documents.

3. Take on a project at your day job that is related to your field (if applicable). Part of the reason I was hired at my current job was that I had media experience. The communications department sometimes asks me to do some copy editing and side projects for them every now and then – and I get paid for it. Talk to your supervisor. Not only are you enhancing your resume, but you are gaining brownie points at work.

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Posted on July 28, 2011, in Blog, Post-Secondary and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Interesting post here:

    http://www.yorku.ca/ddoorey/lawblog/?p=2169

    It deals with Ontario, but seems to suggest that by the Ontario Employment Standards Act, most unpaid internships are actually illegal. The BC Employment Standards Act doesn’t have a section on unpaid internships…

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