The true cost of an unpaid internship

Students disagree on the value of unpaid summer positions

Jacqueline Tattle at professor Chippindale’s lab.
Jacqueline Tattle at professor Chippindale’s lab.

Queen’s summer student internships are all paid positions — but many outside employers aren’t as generous.

While unpaid internships are common in the Ontario workforce, this type of employment has received both support and criticism.

The provincial government has recently taken steps to improve the regulations surrounding unpaid internships. In March, inspectors from the Ministry of Labour shut down unpaid programs at several Canadian magazines, including Toronto Life and The Walrus.

Queen’s runs its own paid internship and summer employment programs through Career Services, including the Queen’s Undergraduate Internship Program (QUIP) and the Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP).

Jim Rodger, internship coordinator for the School of Computing, said he fears for students who accept unpaid internships.

“My personal opinion is that unpaid internships are inappropriate and often simply taking advantage of a depressed market for those just entering the workforce,” he told the Journal via email.

Rodger works to help Queen’s computing students integrate work experience into their undergraduate education by helping them register for professional internships.

There may be some benefit to unpaid positions, Rodger said, but students are often unacknowledged for their work.

“I fear that many unpaid interns will be undervalued and assigned menial tasks as is stereotypically believed to be the case,” Rodger said.

Jacqueline Tattle, ArtSci ’16, said both paid and unpaid internships are great opportunities. She’s currently working in biology professor Adam Chippindale’s lab under SWEP, doing some of the same work as PhD students.

“People go into university and just pick a major and don’t really understand what they’re getting themselves into,” Tattle said. “Internships give you an opportunity to [see] if this is a good fit for you in the future.”

As long as the employer advertises an internship as unpaid, Tattle said it shouldn’t be a problem.

“If you’re really passionate about something and if you’re really interested in it, you should be willing to put your time in it for free,” she said. “It’s better for a student to get experience and make connections than to work a job that pays, but doesn’t apply to a student’s field.

“Although regular summer jobs can be rewarding, you don’t actually have a chance to apply skills that you’ve learned in school,” Tattle added. “Internships are more applicable experience.”

Of the 47 candidates that applied to work in his lab, Chippindale hired four summer students.

Like Tattle, he said there’s a large benefit to working as an intern while studying at university.

Chippindale learned how to conduct research projects — from their conceptualization to the design and execution — as an intern. Now, he’s running a lab himself.

“I worked with professors through all of my undergrad summers and it was pivotal to my pursuit of a career in science,” Chippindale told the Journal via email.

While Chippindale has personally experienced the benefits of internships, he’s had mixed experiences with unpaid positions in his lab.

“I have had a lot of great volunteers, but I have also had volunteers who let the lab down when the going got rough,” Chippindale said.

At Queen’s, approximately 155-165 summer positions are created through SWEP every year. At the start of the 2013-14 school year, undergraduate enrolment was 16,339 students.

Director of Career Services Cathy Keates told the Journal via email that 163 students from various programs and faculties are working in SWEP positions this year.

“There are lots of students employed at Queen’s in the summer, in roles that often provide great learning experiences. SWEP is a good example of this,” Keates said.

Some organizations that offer SWEP jobs include the Kingston Museum of Health Care, the geography department’s Explore Camp and various labs in the chemistry department.

“There is such variety in the types of positions that they appeal to students across disciplines and career interests,” Keates said.

Although the requirements to apply for SWEP positions vary depending on the employer, each SWEP student has a paid position with a standard rate of $14.00 per hour. The jobs are typically on-campus.

Keates said expanding QUIP internships and other types of experiential learning is a formal objective of the university, as laid out in the five-year Strategic Framework for 2014-19, released in March.

Although Queen’s offers paid internship opportunities year-round, external employers often promote internships as unpaid positions.

Chloe Magazine, a Canadian quarterly publication for women’s fashion and lifestyle based in Toronto, hires unpaid summer interns from Toronto’s biggest colleges.

The magazine currently has four employees that hold unpaid positions, contributing where they’re needed.

“While these positions are unpaid, they are nonetheless vital and whoever receives these roles deserves an equal amount of respect,” Sasha Alexandra, Chloe Magazine’s managing editor, told the Journal via email.

“Unpaid internships are the easiest way to get close to the company or industry you want to be involved with.”

Employers often take advantage of unpaid interns, she said, but young workers should be provided with the most relevant and beneficial experiences to them.

“However, with such an increase in competition, it is very easy for an employer to find a replacement,” Alexandra said.

Rebecca Elphick, PheKin ’17, is a summer intern working on data entry for the Faculty of Education’s Social Program Evaluation Group. She said unpaid internships can be valuable – but it’s unrealistic for students to accept them.

“You really do need the experience,” Elphick said, “but with tuition expenses and living expenses being as they are, it’s really unfair to not pay students for the work that they’re doing.”

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