Cancelling internships during pandemic hurts businesses as much as students

If Canadian businesses are unwilling to give students the experience needed to succeed in their industry, they won't be able to find the young and highly skilled workers the economy is going to need as we emerge from the pandemic, writes Ethan Gilhula.

When students fail to learn the skills normally gained from summer jobs, everyone loses

While businesses have adapted to the pandemic by switching to remote work and e-commerce, many haven't done the same with their internship programs. (Shutterstock / New Africa)

This column is an opinion by Ethan Gilhula, an economics student at Western University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It's hard to find a job, especially when the one you're looking for doesn't exist.

As the academic year draws to a close, I'm one of the thousands of Canadian students embarking on a yearly struggle to find summer employment and earn on-the-job experience. The pandemic hasn't made this task any easier. While Canadians search every nook and cranny to find more than half a million lost jobs, students are faced with a similarly impossible task: finding a summer internship.

The process is similar for many post-secondary students. Find an internship relevant to your studies, apply, and wait.

The reply used to be simple, either an enthusiastic "You're hired!" or an inexpressive "No thanks." Today, however, prospective interns are faced with a new answer: "We're sorry, the internship you applied for has been cancelled."

It's an all-too-familiar response. The few internships once available to students are now reduced in number or have disappeared entirely. After a year of virtual communication, virtual learning, and virtual shopping, why have so many employers obstinately failed to virtualize internships for the second summer in a row?

Perhaps the economy is the problem, and Canadian companies simply do not have the resources to run internships this year. Maybe it's the fault of the government, which failed to pick up the slack when the private sector entered recession. Or perhaps the pandemic has shown businesses that they just don't require student employees.

Whatever the cause, adapting to our new normal — as we're often told to do these days — has failed to become more than a benign platitude repeated to lockdown-disillusioned parents, students, and employees.

Pedestrians cross an intersection on the edge of the Western University campus in London, Ont. Summer internships were already difficult to secure before the pandemic, and this year many programs and positions have disappeared entirely, writes Ethan Gilhula. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Adaptation should have become the modus operandi of our country's most vital institutions, prompting them to accommodate demographics which had been left behind by the pandemic. That didn't happen last summer, and after a year of experiencing the same set of problems, it doesn't look like it will.

No matter the cause of student unemployment this summer, the outcome is the same: students who don't secure work experience are passed over for those who do. Some may even see their ability to graduate jeopardized. Consequently, fewer opportunities for on-the-job experience last year and again this year means fewer opportunities next year — until the result is a cohort of unemployable students with a mountain of student debt and an empty resume.

I study economics, a field devoted to finite values and scarce commodities. When I'm told that the job I need no longer exists, I understand. It's not every year that a global pandemic radically reshapes society. But by failing to provide opportunities to students, companies hurt themselves just as much as the students they're not hiring.

A private sector that refuses to invest in future employees is not one which is sustainable in the long-term. No industry can survive without a qualified pool of applicants, and no company wants to hire from an inexperienced employment market. When students fail to learn the skills normally gained from summer jobs, everyone loses.

Graduate schools and post-secondary programs need to be understanding of applicants who lack work experience due to the pandemic.

Canada's employers need to adapt to a population of students who, through no fault of their own, are increasingly under-qualified.

Companies need to accept that student applicants will have gaps in their employment history, or lack a history entirely.

In short, the problem with which we are faced is far larger than a group of post-secondary students who can't get internships.

When my peers and I enter the workforce in the coming years, we'll be undervalued, under prepared, and under qualified. If Canadian businesses are unwilling to give students the experience needed to succeed in their industry, they will not be able to find the young and highly skilled workers this economy is going to need as we emerge from the pandemic. And they shouldn't be surprised when talented graduates look elsewhere for employment.


Ethan Gilhula is an economics student at Western University.


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