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Being “Paid” With Experience: The Unpaid Intern’s Dilemma

Summer is my absolute favorite time of year. After finals comes four blissful months of warmth, sun, and freedom from late night studying. What also comes along is the summer job – the hunt for something to make some money and gain some experience in your field of choice. Yet sometimes these two objectives are mutually exclusive, making students choose between a position or a paycheck. This edition of Meg’s Corner focuses on the “unpaid intern” phenomenon that, at its worse, can prevent students from getting their dream job.

Let’s look first at what being “an intern” actually means. The legal definition and policies around what an employee is vary right down to the provincial level. In Ontario, for example, there is some clarity defining when someone must be paid. If a person is required to be at work for certain hours, their work and timeline for completion is dictated by their boss, they are not free to come and go as they please, or the company often derives an economic benefit from hiring them, they must be paid. The issue here, however, is that while this applies well to full-time employees, there are few explicit regulations clearly outlining and regulating internships versus normal employment. What largely differentiates interns from regular employees is the premise of “training,” as internships often revolve around the assumption that you’re applying in order to gain relevant experience for your career.

If you sift through job-hunting sites, you’ll see unpaid internships disguised in a variety of ways. Some will offer university credit in exchange for monetary pay. The colloquial phrase of “paying your dues” also gets thrown around a lot in professional circles. Yet I believe there is a firm difference in paying your dues and earning your pay – working hard to demonstrate commitment is not an excuse to forego paying young employees.

Quite recently, I applied for an internship program outside of my home city for this upcoming fall. I applied mostly out of curiosity, as the position was exactly aligned with what my 16-year-old self wanted to do (less so with what I want to do now). Now normally, when a job involves relevant work you’re passionate about, accepting an offer is a no-brainer. But when I got past the shock of having been told “you’re hired” from a place I had been dying to work at since I was in high school, I embarked on a slow, painful denouement fueled by reality: a three-month, unpaid, internship in an expensive city where I’d have to pay my own way. I turned it down.

On a personal level, it was an awful feeling. That said, I also know I was relatively lucky. As I mentioned, the internship was outside of what I actually want to pursue as a career and I applied out of pure interest in the subject matter. I could take or leave the offer without a serious gap on my LinkedIn. Yet for others, this might have been their key internship – one they’d almost have to accept, paid or not, to get the experience they need to succeed.

Unpaid internships are, in short, a massive barrier to entry for many students facing difficult financial situations. Working 40 hours a week without pay while keeping up with expenses such as groceries and rent and still being able to return to class the following semester financially secure is, for many people, and unrealistic expectation.

Familiarizing yourself with the labour codes and employment regulations of your province can give valuable insight into different entitlements; for example, you generally cannot be fired for asking your employer about wages or any other employment standard. Additionally, just because an intern agrees that he or she will not be paid does not mean the employer is complying with employment standards; any mention in an oral or written is void if it contravenes the law. Even so, because young professionals looking for experience feel stuck in the position where negotiation a wage may lose them their offer, advocating for yourself as an intern is a difficult line to walk, compounding the issue we see today.

In the event that you do take an unpaid internship, budgeting for a situation without pay plays an essential role in successfully managing an unpaid position. Keeping careful track of how much money you need to allocate to certain things, without a counterbalancing income, will help you determine how long you can feasibly work without pay.

As the job market becomes increasingly competitive and entry-level positions require more and more experience, people who have to choose between a job that pays and a job that gives practical training are often put at a disadvantage. For those with the opportunity to take on an internship without pay, it is necessary to know your rights and plan ahead; doing so can ease the financial hit of unpaid work, while potentially allowing you to pursue the job of your dreams.

More Resources:

The Canadian Intern Association

Are Unpaid Internships Legal in Canada?