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Working for nothing

Bank of Canada governor’s comments need to be taken in context

By Brian Kreissl

I have mixed feelings about Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz’s recent comments suggesting young people should work for free to avoid the “scarring” effects of unemployment.

"If your parents are letting you live in the basement, you might as well go out and do something for free to put the experience on your CV,” Poloz said.

Those comments were widely condemned as being insensitive and out of touch with the realities of the challenges faced by recent graduates and other young workers — particularly those from more modest backgrounds.

One of the main criticisms is that well-connected graduates from privileged backgrounds are better able to secure meaningful internships and have the resources necessary to support them while they work for free. People of relatively humble origins frequently cannot afford to work for free for an extended period of time because they need to be able to support themselves.

In recent years, many people have criticized employers for allegedly using “slave labour” in the form of unpaid internships. As a result, various governments have decided to crack down on unpaid internships by enforcing existing laws, and several politicians have introduced legislation to make it more difficult for employers to make use of unpaid interns.

Job market dismal for young people

There is no question the job market for young people is pretty dismal. Recent grads in particular frequently end up taking jobs they’re extremely overqualified for — if they can even find a job at all.

There’s also no doubt some employers that make use of free labour are exploiting a bad situation and taking advantage of people who are looking for a foothold in the labour market. I personally have a philosophical objection to a large profit-making corporation making use of free labour other than in cases where unpaid internships are a legitimate part of an academic program through a college or university or where the organization in question is a legitimate charity.

While volunteering and unpaid internships are frequently recognized as being great ways to secure meaningful work experience, some interns actually end up going from one internship to the next and have difficulty obtaining paid work in the field of their choice. The key point here is that internships are only meant to be temporary.

Don’t ‘shoot the messenger’

I can understand how Poloz’s comments may have come across as being a bit insensitive. However, I believe people should avoid “shooting the messenger.” Poloz didn’t create the situation, and one could argue he was only trying to offer suggestions for dealing with a poor job market and the difficulties faced by recent grads.

The reality is unpaid internships have long been considered the best way to get a foot in the door in many industries. But now that governments are cracking down on unpaid internships, employers will have to find other sources of entry level talent.

While well-intentioned, employment standards legislation doesn’t help in some respects. For example, in Ontario, an unpaid internship is required to be for the benefit of the individual, and the company in question must derive little if any benefit from the intern’s efforts.

Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, if the intern isn’t doing meaningful work that impacts the bottom line, how helpful is that experience likely to be for the intern? How useful is simply observing, fetching coffee and sandwiches or performing busy work that has little value? Wouldn’t an intern want to get some actual experience performing the type of work she is trying to get into?

Paying interns at least the minimum wage

Having weighed up the evidence for and against unpaid internships, my feeling is that while such programs can be valuable, employers should be paying interns at least the minimum wage. That way, employers wouldn’t have to worry about falling afoul of the governing legislation or being accused of exploiting young workers.

But we need more of these types of programs to allow young people and others to gain a foothold in the labour market or make a career change to more meaningful work.

I am a big fan of the CareerEdge internship program, which helps recent graduates, internationally educated professionals and people with disabilities to secure paid internships in their fields. We need more programs like it and more employers willing to offer paid internships to young people looking to find that all-important first job.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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