Should You Work An Unpaid Internship?

Is an unpaid internship worth it?

Would you work a full time job for free? If you’re a gainfully employed worker with some experience under your belt, that answer is likely a resounding “NO – are you crazy?” For many of Canada’s unemployed youth, however, anything that’ll give them a competitive edge in the job market is considered – including working pro bono in exchange for experience.

The Ethics of Unpaid Work

Unpaid internships are a hot topic lately, and raise some important questions. Are they ethical? Are they  really providing young people with valuable experience before they embark on a professional career, or are they mainly exploitative?

A number of companies, both large and small have been under scrutiny in the media for their internship practices. Last month, a student group at the University of Toronto asked the Ontario labour minister to ban unpaid internships, claiming there are 300,000 illegal interns working in Canada and the practice should end.

If you are a young person faced with an internship, what’s the right decision for you?

The Benefits to Working Pro Bono

Internships offer valuable work experience for young people who may have academic training, but little hands-on time in the field. It’s an excellent bridge between a college or university degree and what it’s like to actually do a job.

On the job, interns also develop contacts. Sometimes, the internship leads to full employment, or bosses and coworkers can help a young person grow a network and find out where the jobs are. (It’s not what you know, it’s who you know when it comes to job hunting!)

An internship can also offer an inexpensive alternative to school. Instead of taking a one- to two-year college program to specialize, someone who already has a degree or diploma can work for free (which is actually cheaper than paying tuition) to learn a new skill.

No Money, Honey

Obviously, internships that don’t pay can put a young person at financial risk. It can also skew these experience opportunities to those with wealthier backgrounds; those who can’t afford to work for free turn instead to dead end jobs to make ends meet, while those who can afford to intern have more long-term opportunities in competitive fields.

Is It Against The Law?

Many internships are technically illegal. An employer is not supposed to give interns work that would normally be done by paid employees, nor can an employer benefit from an intern’s work. These are grey areas that are hard to prove, and disprove.

Many companies have replaced their entry-level jobs with internships. Some have no intention of hiring their interns, and just bringing in another round of unpaid people rather than create paid junior jobs.

As well, interns can run into the problem of jumping from one unpaid gig to another, particularly if their industry has adopted internships as a standard practice, and find themselves stuck in unpaid limbo for years.

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Internship

At an interview, ask a lot of questions. Be sure you’ll be doing meaningful work. Ask how many previous interns have been hired.

• Request an honorarium. Many unpaid internships offer a small stipend to help pay for things like transportation. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

• Set limits. Make sure the internship is for a set amount of time and you can afford it. If you are working at night to pay your bills, make sure there is no overtime so you won’t be late for your evening job.

• Look ahead. Be sure this internship is truly going to set you up for success in the future.

• Get a reference. Be sure your internship boss is generous with references as well as contacts so you can leverage your time into a paid job, even if it’s somewhere else.

• Know your rights. Review the laws in your province and make sure you’re not being exploited.

• Work hard. Treat your internship like an educational experience and commit yourself. Ask a lot of questions and make sure you get a lot of your time on the job.

While the debate over unpaid internships rages on, approach this type of work with your own needs in mind. If you have other choices, great. But if you don’t, take this kind of job with your eyes wide open as to the potential problems, but also the long term possible benefits.

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