The value of internships: an anecdotal tale
I’ve thought a lot about unpaid internships. Here’s my experience and, yes, it is completely anecdotal.
I interned for six weeks at the Mississauga News in 1999. It was part of my journalism degree and mandatory in order to graduate. I chose the Mississauga News for two reasons: I was living in Mississauga at the time and could use my parents’ car. I also knew I had a better chance of getting good clippings there than going to the Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, The Globe and Mail and the National Post.
On my first day, I got there for 9 a.m. and I met the half-a-dozen reporters and editors in the newsroom. The room itself was dark and lit by fluorescent lights, the kind that buzz and give you headaches. I was shown my desk, where I sat and didn’t do much for the first seven hours. Then at 4 p.m., I was sent to Brampton to interview two brothers who boxed and were hoping to gain a spot on the Canadian Olympics team. That was my first story for the Mississauga News.
During the next six weeks, I wrote stories for the Community section (local artists, fundraisers, etc.), sports (competitions), business (hotel launches) and even covered Mississauga City Hall where I got to see Mayor Hazel McCallion in action.
I fell asleep during that meeting. The city reporter let me sleep then laughed at me for the rest of the day. Awkward.
I got a front page story covering a poverty march in the city centre. I also wrote a column (the first time I needed a headshot) and looked after the Letters to the Editor section, mostly because no one else wanted to do it.
While I was doing that, I was working at the Gap on evenings and weekends. I finally had to just do weekends because I couldn’t work all day at the paper then until 10 at the Gap. Still, I was working seven days a week.
Paying for rent and not being homeless is also incredibly valuable. Just saying. However, ultimately, an unpaid internship is only legal when you are being trained and don’t replace a worker, like an apprenticeship or vocational training. Unfortunately, most unpaid internships aren’t that and they keep the interns by luring them with “maybe next time”. I’ve had friends who lost all their savings and means to support themselves trying to get the connections and experience when really they were just replacing a personal assistant.
– Liv (On Facebook)
I did a lot and ended up with a folder filled with clippings. I also ended up with four reporters who took the time to point out when I was burying the lede (always) and who tore apart my stories to make them better. I learned more about writing in my six weeks at the Mississauga News than I did at school.
I also ended up with a job.
But that was just a coincidence – I was called into the Managing Editor Steve Pecar’s office one day. He told me that his former colleague, who was the Director of Content at Toronto.com, had called. He was hiring associate editors for the site and Steve wanted to know if I was interested.
You would think I’d leap at the opportunity but it was 1999 and the implosion of journalism hadn’t really started yet. Instead I went on a bit stupidly about finishing my degree. Steve looked at me and said that in journalism, it’s not the degree, it’s the work.
That stuck with me.
I applied for, and got, the job, dropping out of school to start working and finished my degree as a part-time student.
No, it’s not extreme to say unpaid internships are elitist. It’s the truth since only those who can afford to work for free can participate. Not everyone can work more than one job. For example: a single parent, someone who may have physical disabilities etc. I worked for just 60 Euros more a month than my rent in Paris as an intern. I was extremely lucky to get paid at all but it would not have been possible to have that experience had I not had the help of my parents. That’s a fact. It’s an elitist fact because not everyone has parents who can help them.
So my internship got me a job but only because the managing editor took a phone call right when I was there. The Mississauga News was never going to hire me – like a lot of local papers, they were running on a shoestring. But thanks to a little hard work and a little more luck, I did get a job. And my experiences with the Mississauga News, good and bad, were instrumental in turning me from a j-school student into a professional journalist.
But that was then. Now, internships have become a replacement for hiring at entry level. People do year-long unpaid internships, hoping yet knowing that a job won’t happen. I’ve heard of people doing more than one internship, which isn’t a reflection on them but a thought on the business plan of the business.
What about this situation: someone who cannot afford post-secondary education, but who accepts an intern in place of a formal education to jump start a career without having to get into debt by going to school. (Obviously this doesn’t work in all fields which require formal training.) Just one thought of many I have on this issue.
I think internships that adhere to the guidelines set out by the Ontario Ministry of Labour are still a good thing. They have to be part of a school program and five other points as outlined in the Employment Services Act:
An “employee” is defined under s. 1 of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) to include a person who receives training from an employer. However, the definition excludes a trainee who is receiving training from an employer in the skills used by that employer’s employees, if all of the conditions below are met:
- The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
- The training is for the benefit of the individual.
- The person providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained.
- The individual does not displace employees of the person providing the training.
- The individual is not accorded a right to become an employee of the person providing the training.
- The individual is advised that he or she will receive no remuneration for the time that he or she spends in training
I’d add one more point – pay for transportation because a metropass is $136 a month. I’d also add, if an internship is part of a degree, have it at the beginning of the last year. That way, students have the experience and can use it in resumes. This has to be better than doing it just before you graduate when you’re scrambling to finish work, do exams, do your internship AND attempt to find a job.
I think it will always be subjective depending on how your career goes.
I actually don’t really agree with that statement. I think people’s thoughts on internships will be subjective depending on how their career goes. Internships are difficult, there is no denying that… however, the value, connections and experience is incredibly valuable
– Christopher (in response to Renée)
I posted a shorter piece than this to my Facebook and the discussion is interesting. It is anecdotal and proves that an internship can have value in of itself. What has tainted it is turning it into a process that replaces paid labour and isn’t part of a degree.