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The unpaid internship: Pros and cons

In this Oct. 23, 2013 photo, students wait in line at an internship job fair in Miami. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Lynne Sladky

What’s the payoff when you work for nothing?

Like so many career management choices, there is no one final answer for everyone. While unpaid internships can help job seekers build critical skills and crack open doors to fields that might otherwise remain off limits, they can also be easy sources of near-slave labour for organizations more interested in filling gaps for free than building the careers of mostly young applicants who often have little other choice.

“I believe that nobody should work for free,” says Jen Silver, Principal at Silver Recruitment, a Toronto-based recruitment firm. “I think it’s far more motivating to pay someone, even if it’s minimum wage. If you’re not paying them, what are you motivating them with, just something to put on their resume?”

Seek your value

Sean Geobey, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the salary – or lack thereof – is only a small part of a much broader discussion. Ultimately, it has to be about value.

“I think the real underlying question is whether the work that you are doing is going to even be valued by the people that you are working for,” said Geobey, who also authored a recent report, The Young and the Jobless.

“If they’re not paying you at all, you get this idea that the internship is not going to provide a meaningful experience” Geobey added. “The big challenge with unpaid internships is that you have to somehow also put a roof over your head and food in your belly while you’re doing it.”

The zero-dollar reality makes it easy for employers to take advantage of a seemingly limitless supply of freely-offered labour.

“If you don’t pay people anything, you don’t really have much of an incentive to get meaningful work out of them,” Geobey said. “Then you don’t have an incentive to invest in training them properly, either.”

The imbalance can also lead to unnecessary risk, as Geobey says standard workplace employee protections don’t apply to unpaid interns. And companies that decide to do the right thing and pony up for internships may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

“Part of the reason there’s a broader responsibility is you have organizations who treat their interns properly, give them training, and pay them enough that they can live,” Geobey explained. “And if they’re competing against companies that aren’t doing that, they can be pushed out of the market if other folks are able to basically have half their workforce being unpaid. That’s tough to compete with.”

Use it to your advantage

For those trying to balance the need to gain critical work experience with the need to build a revenue-generating career, it helps to speak up early in the game, ideally when you’re first interviewing for the internship.

“You should ask if there’s a possibility of it becoming a permanent role or position, then ask for some timelines around that,” recommends Greg McKinnon, president of McKinnon Targeted Recruiters. “If it’s an open-ended thing and it’s quite clear there’s no prospect of a real position, I think your reasoning would probably be different than if there was a clear path to a paid position.”

McKinnon says a tough market compels job-seekers to get creative, and despite the perils of unpaid internships, in some instances they can still be used to gain an advantage.

We are all aware of the unemployment rate for youth at this point in time and how competitive it is to get jobs,” he said. “Certainly having hands-on experience that you can put on your resume will enhance your marketability.

“So my advice would be to say yes, take it, even though you’re not getting paid, but continue to actively look for a new paid position while you’re there,” he added. “I’ve observed that it appears to be much easier for a person to get a new job when they have a job. Of course they don’t have to say they’re not being paid in their current role.”

In the absence of effective labour market rules governing internships, it’s up to the job-seeker to figure out the difference between stepping stone positions that provide temporary access to resources, mentorship and on-the-job learning, and exploitative environments that fulfill the employers’ needs to fill in the gaps without ever considering the career needs of the intern. Buyer – paid or not – beware.

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