Unpaid Internships: Smart or Slave Labour?


In recent years, colleges and universities have been placing more students in unpaid internship or work placement positions at businesses, governments and organizations as part of students' education. Everywhere from non-profits to banks, law firms and big corporations take interns and the global discussion about the value of unpaid internships in general has picked up — for good reason.

News articles about students and new college and university graduates working 18-hour days, sleeping in their offices and experiencing health problems due to stress and overwork are popping up everywhere. There has even been cases where interns have died on the job, allegedly from working extreme hours and going without sleep for several days or weeks.

These are undoubtedly horrific stories and the businesses and organizations where such incidents occurred should be held accountable. But these cases are exactly that: individual cases. Tragic, horrific, exceptions to what the vast majority of unpaid internships are like in Canada, especially those organized by post-secondary institutions.

Many colleges and universities throughout Canada now require students to complete an internship as part of their education. During these internships, students receive on-the-job training, have opportunities to learn what they like and don't like about certain sectors and meet people who can be mentors to them. The majority of interns work normal, 8-hour days, receive feedback on their work and some are even hired by the company/organizations where they are interning. Above all, these types of internships are organized by educational institutions and businesses/organizations. Instructors and/or professors remain in close contact with students while they complete their internships, and businesses are required to complete an evaluation about their experience as well.

I think these types of unpaid internships continue to be worthwhile, despite the recent buzz about the value of internships as a whole. Many private internships are also excellent, however, they are less regulated and because of this there seems to be more potential for problems.

For example, some students who are eager to start paying off their student debt and gain work experience will see a private, unpaid internship as a foot in the door — and often it is — but they don't ask the right questions and soon, they have accepted an internship with no end-date and a vague job description. In other cases, law and accounting students under pressure to excel as interns due to fierce competition among their peers will push themselves much further than should be allowed. Personally, I don't think anyone should be pulling all-nighters on a regular basis to keep up with their workload.

These are tricky cases and there is no clear answer to preventing private internships from crossing the line. Likely, more regulations are needed and supports for interns who find themselves in bad situations.

But as for unpaid internships organized by post-secondary institutions, I remain convinced that they are the best way for students to apply their education and take that first step into the working world.


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