How much is experience worth?

The contentious topic of unpaid internships is under the spotlight for this generation’s graduates

Students participating in QUIP are paid on average $45,000 per year.
Students participating in QUIP are paid on average $45,000 per year.
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An unpaid internship may help young workers get a foot in the door, but the opportunity comes at a financial, and often legal cost for young people.

Although there’s no law in Canada that prevents companies from offering unpaid internships, there are strict regulations they must follow in order to ensure placements are legal.

Last year, in response to reoccurring dialogue on the topic, the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE), developed an official statement on unpaid internships.

“Unpaid internships are largely unregulated in Canada,” the statement reads.

The document outlines 10 criteria that internships should meet in order to be considered legitimate. These criteria are largely in line with regulations outlined in the Ontario Employment Standards Act. “What we came up with is essentially … there is a place for unpaid internships, but don’t break the law,” said Paul Smith, the executive director of CACEE.

The law, though, isn’t so clear when it comes to unpaid work.

One section of the Ontario Labour Code states that for unpaid work, “the person providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual.” This means companies legally can’t make significant material gains from interns.

“It should be a learning experience; it shouldn’t be work to the benefit of the employer,” Smith said.

“For me it’s quite a broad comment and if applied literally, I’d have to think there are an awful lot of internships that are not in accordance with that regulation,” he added. Those students who opt for an internship post-graduation run the risk of getting a placement without pay.

Susannah Gouinlock, ArtSci ’11, took an unpaid Embassy of Canada internship in Washington, D.C the summer after her graduation.

She was able to make some money for working at reception events at the Embassy, but this only covered a small portion of her expenses.

“Washington D.C. is insanely expensive,” she said.

The Embassy offers a bursary for the internship, but Gouinlock didn’t qualify. Instead, her parents were able to financially support her.

Overall, she found the experience rewarding and helpful in choosing her career path. After the internship, she got hired in the Office of the Premier of Ontario, and she now works at a not-for-profit.

Gouinlock thinks that internships should be equally accessible to all students, regardless of economic resources.

“I think internships are really wonderful opportunities but I’m cognizant of the fact that they cater to people who are financially stable,” she said.

“It’s sad because I do think the perception of some internships being elitist is true.” Some students on campus even delay getting their degree for a year in order to gain hands-on experience.

Those who participate in the Queen’s Undergraduate Internship Program (QUIP) get paid hefty salaries ­— an average of $45,000 per year for those starting a placement in 2012.

The program only offers paid placements, which run 12 to 16 months. It has its limitations, though — the vast majority of placements are science and engineering-based. “It’s standard across other similar internship programs in engineering and computing for the positions to be paid,” Cathy Keates, director of the Career Centre, said.

“[QUIP] interns are contributing significantly to the organization and the pay reflects that.” Evidently, not all internships are as well paid, but data on unpaid internships is often hard to find, and its unclear whether their prevalence has changed.

The topic has recently become contentious, with some labour experts coming out strongly against unpaid internships in publications such as the Toronto Star and Macleans magazine.

In 2012, Time Magazine reported that there were several pending class-action lawsuits against American media companies, filed by former unpaid interns looking for financial compensation.

According to Cassandra Jowett, Content Manager at TalentEgg, an online career website for students, in certain industries unpaid internships have always been popular.

“Those are in the sexy, tough to break into industries, like media and publishing and fashion.” Sometimes, unpaid internships can be the best way to get into a company — Jowett herself started out at TalentEgg as an unsalaried summer intern, although she received an honorarium.

“I learned where I wanted to go in my career, I developed a great relationship with the person who was my future boss,” she said. When applying for full-time jobs, she said, the most important thing for applicants to have is relevant experience, which is something unpaid internships can offer.

“In my opinion, you have to factor [experience] into the cost of your education,” she said. “It’s potentially much more valuable than taking another class.”

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