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Unpaid internships are indefensible

The Ottawa Citizen by Ashley Armstrong 15 August 2013

It was supposed to be the icing on my resumé cake. Instead, it left me making bologna sandwiches part-time at a community center, and wondering: do unpaid internships constitute valuable experience or indefensible exploitation?

I graduated from university on the Dean’s List with a scholarship-supported Honours BA in Human Rights and Linguistics, a minor in Spanish and a certificate to teach English as a second language. When I crossed the stage I understood that I would have to earn my keep in the professional world before being awarded a full-time job.

Three years later, despite having worked as a programming coordinator for a leading charity and providing administrative, communications and design support to two non-profit organizations on a part-time contract basis, I’m still smarting from the financial hit I’ve taken by donating thousands of hours of my time to organizations that did not pay me a living wage. As just one of three examples, I completed nine-months of scarcely paid field work in rural Honduras — the aforementioned icing experience — only to return to Canada and find myself at a dead end. Surely I had not dug myself tens of thousands of dollars in debt to be nauseated daily by bologna.

Like many recent graduates, my efforts to flesh out my resumé have been thwarted by a job market that boasts few to no entry-level positions, and competition for those that exist is at its highest. Employers, under pressure to do more with less in a faltering economy, are taking full advantage of this situation. In the absence of regulations stipulating that internships must involve compensation, such “opportunities” easily morph into exploitation. And why would employers pay young workers when they can attract their labour for free?

I am among the 100,000 plus recent Canadian graduates that are working, or have worked, an unpaid internship. Burdened by debt, I’m in no state to work for nothing. But the dangling carrot of experience in my field won out over looming student loan payments.

Given that approximately 60 per cent of university and college graduates will complete their studies with at least $28,000 of student debt, how can employers justify taking advantage of recent graduates?

Some justify their hiring practices by citing the gap between the skill sets of their preferred employees and those of recent graduates. However, experience cold-calling, filing and performing other grunt work — the common tasks of unpaid internships — won’t address this gap. Placing university and college grads in these positions blatantly disrespects their potential as young professionals. Many recent graduates have both valuable skills and well-rounded backgrounds that employers seek. But by burying them under hours of unpaid menial labour, employers quickly stifle any budding talent that could benefit both parties.

Others argue that companies wouldn’t be able to provide recent graduates with similar opportunities if there were a price tag attached to their labour. If this is so, then the government must introduce stronger regulations relating to task assignment, internship length, and the possibility of career advancement — to ensure they do indeed provide a clear path to employment. Employers must abide by these regulations, or face consequences.

By soliciting unpaid labour, employers exacerbate students’ indebtedness and further delay their capacity to earn. TD Bank estimates that over the next decade, graduates will experience a 4.5-per-cent average annual earnings loss due to their initial un- or under- employment. Furthermore, participation in our consumerist society is now out the question. The consequences of this are expected to be grim: Over the next 18 years, this trend will cost the economy over $22 billion.

It’s time for employers to stop soliciting unpaid labour from recent graduates, and start offering paid entry-level positions. Unpaid internships are nothing more than an exploitation of a vulnerable demographic — especially when they don’t deliver on the promise of valuable work experience. If employers continue to offer unpaid internships as a primary career starting point, they will disenfranchise an entire generation of young professionals.

I recognize that volunteer work can be a valuable stepping stone in the professional world — the unpaid internship I completed earlier this year has made me a stronger professional. But my experience must not be the exception to the rule. We must insist that organizations engage recent graduates in ways that honour their education, challenge their limits, and foster valuable skills. More than anything, employers must offer them the opportunity to be paid for their labour. Our careers and financial standing are in their hands — treat us well.

Ashley Armstrong has received stellar reviews at all three of her subsistence-level internships and is currently being paid to provide communication and administrative support on a contract basis to three non-profits.