Sunday September 22, 2013

Are unpaid internships a good way to get a start in the job market?


Internships: A string of stories have surfaced over the past months about overwork, exploitation and even death among young interns eager to break into their chosen line of work.

What do you think? Is it on-the-job training or exploitation? Are unpaid internships a good way to get a start in the job market?

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When news broke of the young German, Moritz Erhardt interning at a UK bank, who was found dead in his apartment last month after working three days in a row with no sleep, people were understandably shocked. As they were when they heard about the Alberta student, Andy Ferguson who died in a head-on collision -- it is believed after falling asleep -- on the way home in the morning after a 16 hour shift through the night.

Over the past few months several cases of interns allegedly being mistreated or exploited, even to the point of death have received wide attention in the media.

These are the extreme cases, but they've begun to draw attention to that difficult period when young people make the transition from school to a life in the working world. For many students hoping to break into a new field of work, the story is often the same: businesses want to see candidates with more experience. Internships have been one way to acquire direct on-the-job experience. They can be paid or upaid, and range from a couple of weeks to as long as a year.

Last week another intern story got people talking. It was less serious but still surprising ad posted by an upscale Vancouver hotel for interns to clear tables in their restaurant. The strong response to it caused the hotel to withdraw the ad, despite the fact that some educators defended the idea saying any experience is worthwhile for students to get their feet wet in the fast-paced restaurant industry.

There is a range of opinion on what constitutes acceptable behaviour for businesses in dealing with interns. Some internship disputes have ended up in court or before labour boards. Two interns recently lodged a complaint against Bell Mobility in Mississauga after they said they worked for excessively long hours, with no pay and for questionable educational value. In the US, high profile cases involving interns working on the movie Black Swan, and for media companies Gawker and PBS ended up in court.

The cases raise questions about the rules governing internships, and how they are offered and administered by schools and businesses. They also serve as a warning because some courts have declared that some companies have indeed taken advantage of young people's eagerness to gain experience and land a job. Others say, be careful about clamping down on the whole concept of unpaid internships. Not all internships are bad. If they are well run, they offer immense advantages to the young people who take them. But if companies are scared off, it'll be the young who suffer.

We'd like to hear what you think?

It's the unpaid internships that draw the most fire. Critics call them exploitation pure and simple. Supporters call them a realistic extension of a necessary education.

If you got a start through an internship ...tell us about it. Was it a good experience ..or bad? Was it useful ...or just a kind of initiation?

How do you define internship? Is it a job that should be paid ...or is it more like education for which a person should not expect any remuneration?

Our question today: "Are unpaid internships a good way to get a start in the job market?"

I'm Rex Murphy ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius XM, satellite radio channel 169 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.


  • Jesse Kline
    Columnist and Comments Editor, National Post. Former multiple-time unpaid intern.
    Twitter: @accessd

  • Claire Seaborn
    Founder and President of the Canadian Intern Association. Law student at University of Ottawa who has worked as an unpaid intern.
    Twitter: @canadianinterns

  • Jim Ketelsen
    Manager of Cooperative Education at Vancouver Island University.

  • Andrew Langille
    Toronto lawyer who studied youth and workplace at Osgoode Hall law school. Founder of website
    Twitter: @YouthAndWork

  • Mike Moffatt
    Economist and Assistant Professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business.
    Twitter: @MikePMoffatt

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