Few mourn death of unpaid internships (Editor's Notes)

But it's a good reminder of importance of proper internship programs
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/20/2014

The bright light of publicity has been cast on the practice of unpaid internships — and it’s withering and dying from the exposure.

Ontario, in particular, has been cracking down on the practice and that has led to a host of high- profile magazines cancelling unpaid intern programs — including the Walrus, Flare, Chatelaine and Toronto Life.

Some of the magazines paid the interns nothing while others gave them a monthly stipend — for example, Chatelaine paid $400, which worked out to about $2.50 per hour — that was well below minimum wage.

Magazines certainly aren’t the only offenders, they’re just in the crackdown crosshairs at the moment.

Legislation around unpaid internships varies slightly across Canada, depending on the jurisdiction, but there’s a good legal — and if not legal, certainly a moral — rule of thumb to apply: If the worker is doing work that would otherwise be paid, then that person should be paid.

Unless, of course, the intern is doing that work as part of an educational curriculum. Rogers, the biggest magazine publisher in the country, has officially ended its unpaid intern program for all its magazines — but will still take on students.

There is usually an exemption for interning students in employment standards legislation, and that exemption needs to continue. Student placements are a critical part of the learning process for many professions. Placements get them out of the classroom and into the “real world,” giving them a chance to apply all the theoretical concepts they have been taught and see how seasoned professionals actually operate.

My journalism career began with an eight-week placement at the Sentinel-Review, a daily newspaper in Woodstock, Ont. (I had hoped to complete my placement at my hometown Windsor Star but the union refused to allow an unpaid placement of longer than two weeks — that’s a column for another day.) The placement was a mandatory part of my journalism degree.

It turned into a full-time job — complete with a paycheque — and I eventually moved to different newspapers across the province before arriving at the doors of Canadian HR Reporter.

But without that placement, it would have been much harder to kickstart my career — so I’m thankful for the opportunity I had in Woodstock.

Some people, particularly the students themselves, have argued that even these educational placements should be paid. But that’s where employers and legislators need to draw the line and say no, these placements do not have to be paid.

If an employer has the budget to offer the student money, great. But it can’t be mandatory, and here’s why: Taking on a student intern is kind of a pain, particularly if you do it the right way.

My placement at the Sentinel-Review didn’t consist of me running around and getting coffee. I was tagging along with reporters and photographers, and I was learning the fine points of newspaper layout and design. I was covering city council meetings, I was handling general assignments and writing stories. And the entire time this was happening, staff — from reporters to the city editor to the managing editor — were
taking the time to coach me, read my work and suggest ways to improve it. The staff spent a lot of their valuable time working with me one-on-one. That alone was quite an investment by the employer.

To ask for pay on top of that would have made the situation untenable — the paper didn’t have a budget for that and it would have had to turn down my request for a placement. I would have lost the opportunity.

That same scenario is repeated tens of thousands of times across the country ever year and has helped launch the careers of countless professionals. If all the placements had to be paid, then many employers would simply decline to take on students — not a good situation for anyone involved.

Beyond a handful of employers that enjoyed the fruits of free labour, few will shed a tear at the passing of the unpaid intern. But let’s use it as a reminder of the benefits of proper intern programs for students and take a good look at our businesses to see if we can find the time to take on a student to help kickstart the careers of the next generation of professionals.

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