Unpaid Internships: Stop Selling Yourself Short

This past summer I was checking the job boards pretty much 24/7 after having quit my job in Vancouver to make a new home for myself in Toronto. Luckily, I had a much easier time getting interviews and job offers compared to 5 years ago when I was a fresh-faced new grad, however I was still amazed at how much garbage there was online!

I can’t tell you how many times I would see “Marketing and Communications Coordinator” posted on Indeed, only mentioning that it was a 6-month unpaid internship hidden in small font at the bottom of the listing. That’s not an internship. That’s a full-time job and deserves a salary!

Although I never interned while in school or after graduation, I did work a lot of underpaid jobs and volunteered at a number of events to gain experience and make contacts. That being said, my little (well, not so little, she’s in her 20s) sister is a few short years away from graduating and there’s a good chance she’ll start out her career as an intern.

Internships should be a helpful way to show new grads the ropes and get them comfortable working in their preferred industry. They should not be a way to get kids with $50,000 in student loan debt to work 40 hour weeks for absolutely free! I don’t want my sister to become jaded and disheartened about the working world before she even gets her first real job! Something needs to change.

So, when I heard that Ontario was starting to crack down on companies who used unpaid interns in place of salaried employees, I was more than relieved to hear it. As you’ve probably gathered by now, I think unpaid internships should be illegal. If your company can’t even afford to pay your interns a measly $10/hour for their work, then you either have a really crappy accounting department, or your company just downright sucks.

Although this crackdown makes perfect sense to me, what I’m not understanding is all of the backlash it’s getting. Backlash from students oddly enough! From what I gathered from articles like this one from the CBC, students are complaining that the elimination of unpaid internships means that they’ll now have an even tougher time getting that much needed work experience. Did no one tell these kids to never sell themselves short? Because that’s exactly what they’re doing by basically begging to work for free (then crying when they can’t anymore).

The reason I never interned anywhere was because I didn’t want to. Volunteering is different. It’s temporary, it’s usually a few hours here and there, and it never felt like work because it was always to support a good cause. Interning as it is today is like working a regular job without any compensation, benefits, or guarantee that it will culminate in a job offer. And even if it did result in a job offer, what kind of salary do you think you could negotiate? You’re starting from zero! You have no leverage whatsoever!

If these students really want to get some work experience, they should get a part-time job while in school like I did. I learned a lot of useful skills that helped me land my first job after graduation. Better yet, why not join a work-study or co-op program in school? You’ll get valuable work experience plus a paycheque! So stop your whining, know your worth, and let’s all try to get every other province in Canada to follow suit by cracking down unpaid internships.

What are your thoughts on unpaid internships? What was your internship experience like?

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Showing 30 comments
  • Amanda
    Reply

    I was pretty lucky that the 4 internships that I had to take for my various degrees and diplomas were all for credit. It sucked – a lot – that I still had to pay tuition fees to take these “internship classes”. Where was this money going? The companies I worked with didn’t get paid to have me there, so…? They were, however, some of the easiest A’s I received and provided a lot of insight into what career path I wanted to take (and avoid).

    I’m glad they are finally trying to do something to stop the unpaid internship. Perhaps we will see me “for school credit” internships popping up in their place? (Although, one could argue that this too is ethically sketchy.)

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      For school credit internships sound way better because at least you get something out of it (although you are sort of paying to work, but I guess that’s arguable).

  • Retired by 40
    Reply

    I refused to do the unpaid intern thing! Instead, I worked as a server – and gained plenty of experience with that! So much, in fact, that I landed a job 2 weeks out of college. You are absolutely right that unpaid internships are totally scammy and the companies that have them are crummy!

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      That’s the one job I wish I would have done while in school, being a server. I did more customer service jobs, which to be fair did teach me a lot of useful skills that I still use today. I just wish I could have made tips! haha

  • Bridget
    Reply

    *applause*

    I hate unpaid internships, though I haven’t come across any in Calgary. I don’t think I can see myself ever working for free — I can’t afford it!

  • Anneli @thefrugalweds
    Reply

    Good post!! 🙂
    I agree – you can learn just as much from a part time paid job than an unpaid internship. In very competitive fields where job experience is necessary, there might be instances where I can make an exception.
    I worked almost full time in college and made decent money. I feel that my part time job actually helped me to secure my position AFTER I graduated. I’m glad to have the experience under my belt AND glad that I was able to make some money to support myself as a starving college student along the way.
    Paid part-time job – all the way!

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Just like Bridget said, I honestly couldn’t afford to work for free. I worked a part-time job since I was 15 to pay for school and when I graduated I really wanted to move out of my parents’ place and start my life so I took whatever paying gig I could until I landed a full-time job.

  • Mel @ brokeGIRLrich
    Reply

    I have really mixed feelings about this. I feel that something like an unpaid internship for college credit your senior year would be a great thing – it should give you a leg up getting a job out of school and act as a sort of culmination/senior project of everything you learned in college. If it counted as a semester of classes, I’d totally be ok with not getting paid.

    On the flip side, I absolutely advocate working part-time IN YOUR FIELD in college. I don’t understand why education majors don’t take night classes or stack classes MWF or TTh so they can sub on the other days or why a wanna-be accountant wouldn’t contact every accountant in the area and ask if they need temps/secretaries and if they would teach them a little about the trade too.

    Heck, even getting an editorial role on the student paper or working for the school TV station is often a paid gig in college and looks a lot better on your resume – if those are fields you’re looking to go into.

    I worked in the school scene shop building sets my sophomore year of college and then as a stage hand in the campus performing arts center – both paid at least minimum wage and gave me a leg up when I went to apply out in the professional world for similar jobs a few years later.

    Wow. Sorry for the rant. I actually feel very strongly that college kids don’t often focus their energy and free time in ways that will be to the most benefit for their future very often.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      I totally know what you mean. While I was in film school, I worked at a video store (which was pretty much my dream job at the time) and volunteered on film sets to get experience. Although that’s not the career I chose to pursue it was a great experience and I got a great work ethic from balancing everything.

  • Reply

    My first job out of college was a paid internship. It wasn’t a lot, but at least it was something. I too can’t believe what companies get away with. They want people with even more skills than I have and to do it unpaid. The bad part is people will, which sets a standard that screws with everything else. If it’s something like a couple hours a week that gives you school credit or something, I think that’s OK, but when it’s full time, no way!

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      If it’s a few hours here and there, no problem. But working a full-time job for free? Not okay!

  • Melanie@Dear Debt
    Reply

    I’m with you on this. I don’t believe in unpaid internships. Who can afford that? Privileged people. I never did an internship because I never could, nor ever will be able to afford it. It’s insane! I feel the same way about these teaching programs, etc that pay 1k per month to do all the dirty work. I have a friend who is SO SO talented making even less than I am, as a paid volunteer essentially. I just don’t understand why? Experience is important, and that’s why people should get paid.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Agreed, and ya I kind of do think lots of the people who do take these unpaid internships are a bit privileged. For me, I needed to make money right away so I could afford to move out on my own and start my life. Working for free was not an option.

  • Jen @Sprout Wealth
    Reply

    Unpaid internship is really a big rip-off and I don’t understand why some governments, regardless of what part of the world, support it. Nursing graduates from where I come from end up as call center agents because they earn right after graduation instead of gaining experience as nurses but without any compensation.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      I agree, governments should make unpaid internships illegal. It’s ridiculous!

  • Marie @724 Credit
    Reply

    I do have an unpaid internship to before, I graduated an IT course and I worked in a good company, but they already told us that they didn’t pay their interns. For me, even if they didn’t pay their interns at least they would give an allowance for the transportation.

  • Taylor
    Reply

    Great post.. I just started researching the unpaid internship debate. I didn’t have a clue that there are laws in place for companies with interns! I always thought I lucked out getting paid internships not realizing I DESERVE IT.

    The word volunteer and intern are used interchangeably. Some projects I’ve taken on as an “intern” I view more as pro bono work. I’m assuming people who offer them are as clueless to the law as I was.

    The unbelievable amount of “intern” jobs are preposterous. Literally half of indeed.com for my location are unpaid internships. I read in an article that an ice-cream shop was offering an ice cream scooping internship. If true we’re doomed!

  • Reply

    It’s so incredibly frustrating to me when I’m looking at the job boards for actors and more than half of the gigs are unpaid. It’s not my hobby, it’s my profession!

  • Reply

    I’ve honestly never had an internship, but I think back in college I probably would have accepted an unpaid internship if I thought it was really worth it. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever do such a thing.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Ya, I still don’t think I’d do one if I were a student. No thanks.

  • Michelle
    Reply

    I also have mixed feelings about this. I do support unpaid internships in the following instances: a person who is looking to gain experience in a field new to them (as well as references), a college undergrad looking for work experience, and to expand your business experience.

    HOWEVER, interns should not be working 40 hours a week, they should be doing 5-10 hours a week at the most to gain experience in such a way that it doesn’t keep them from working elsewhere.

    Remember that it takes time and energy to train someone to do a job and to do it well. I have trained people and it is a very time intensive process. The free work that the intern is doing initially costs the employer-until the intern is able to do the work that they are tasked without a lot of supervision.

    • Jessica Moorhouse
      Reply

      Agreed, if it’s a few hours a week, then that can be valuable. Anything more than that is just the company taking advantage of the situation.

  • Marvin
    Reply

    Unless the internship is with Goldman Sachs I wouldn’t take it!!! Seriously though you have to weigh the payoff, if you believe the opportunity would be great I would seriously consider an unpaid internship. With that being said I wouldn’t take an unpaid internship with some run of the mill company.

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