Pinsent had garnered the prestigious CBC internship he’d been yearning for, but the unpaid job left him strapped for cash. He was barely able to afford the bread to make his sandwich, let alone be able to grab pints with coworkers at the end of the day.
This is the reality for most interns.
In an era of belt-tightening, Canada’s workforce depends on free labour. At the same time, so do students and young professionals who need the valuable work experience. It’s a vicious cycle and one that will not be going away anytime soon.
Unpaid internships are synonymous with glitz and glamour, going along with highly sought-after jobs. But they come with a price, and Pinsent isn’t the only one who finds the cost hard to stomach.
When a bachelor’s degree or a diploma doesn’t set you apart from the rest of your peers, an internship is often the only way to get your head above the crowd.
“There’s a saying that you can’t get the experience without the job, but no one will give you the job without the experience,” said Jenna Bryson, former partnership co-ordinator for International Association of Students In Economic and Commerciall Sciences (AIESEC) at the University of Ottawa internal communications department.
Bryson admitted that unpaid internships can be tricky because students could have a difficult time supporting themselves, but said that overall the experience is valuable.
“Internships, whether, paid or not paid, are always good experience, especially for those who want to advance their future careers,” she said.
While Pinsent was fortunate enough to find two internships in his field of journalism, both which offered invaluable experience, he admits that they came at great financial costs.
“It is free labour and it is good experience, but maybe [the employer could] try to see what the situation is like with an intern,” he said.
He added even helping to pay for transportation would go a long way.
“Every little bit helps and it’s always crunch time during the year for students. There’s always budget issues,” added Pinsent.
Money was so tight that what should have been a six-week internship for Pinsent was cut short because he could not afford to live in Toronto one more week. For Pinsent to make it through those five weeks, he had to sell his laptop and DSLR camera—his two most prized possessions.
With the cost of paying for rent in two different cities, transportation, and food while at a full-time unpaid internship, Pinsent simply couldn’t afford it any longer.
He even lost 25 pounds because he couldn’t afford to eat properly. He had to return to Ottawa to secure a summer job in order to be able to start paying off his student loans.
Although Pinsent has never had to turn down an internship opportunity, he has been prevented from applying for placements because he would not be able to afford it.
It’s an experience that made Pinsent realize the system uses people, even though he was treated with the same respect as a paid employee.
“The flip side is that the internship probably put me in consideration for more jobs,” said Pinsent. “It’s really hard to argue the value.”
But with internships playing an integral role in the labour force, what impact do internships have on the Canadian economy?
According to Carleton University economics professor Frances Woolley, internships mirror the bigger picture of the economy—a product of a leaner, more bare-bones workforce.
“I think in some ways internships are a reflection of what happened in the overall economy rather than a driving force,” said Woolley. “I think it’s a reflection of the pressures that those fields are under rather than something that’s causing and driving changes in the overall economy.”
For certain industries such as publishing and journalism it is now expected—and in many ways required—that people have internships. Woolley explains that this is because internships pertain to “glamour industries.”
“Basically any job where it’s hard to get in and lots of people want in, you’ll start seeing internships,” said Woolley. “If you start seeing unpaid internships at McDonald’s you know that the labour market is really in desperate shape.”
Woolley explains that in competitive industries, internships simply become a part of the business model.
Some students are so determined to land an internship in their field, they’re willing to pick up and go abroad.
“People are desperate to find a job anywhere,” said University of Ottawa student Katey Potter, who travelled to India to get work experience in international relations. “People need to broaden their horizons and see what else is out there.”
Her employer was even able to pay her a small subsidy to help cover the cost of housing.
“Being the slave labourer in an office is never fun and nobody wants to do that so you might as well go somewhere where they will pay you,” she said.
By taking an internship abroad, she is adding a unique element to her resume.
“That’s exactly what I want to set me apart,” said Potter.
What makes an internship valuable though? Is it more important that it adds to your resume or that it’s a learning experience?
For University of Toronto law and economics student Peter Flynn, his paid internship provided an alluring learning experience that was worth more than money.
“It was more of just a learning experience, that’s how I viewed it,” said Flynn. “It was eye-opening and very worthwhile.”
He worked at a political marketing group in Toronto, just the position he was looking for to bridge the gap between his degrees.
“It was more as if it were a job, but it was also trying to give me a whole experience rather than sitting behind a desk and stuffing envelops,” continued Flynn.
He also made note that at no point did he ever feel taken advantage of.
Finding a job or a placement can often be daunting, but there are many resources to assist students. If your school doesn’t offer internships, the federal government offers the Youth Employment Strategy (YES), a way of helping youth make a successful transition to the workplace.
“Youth employment programs are part of the Government of Canada’s broader strategy to create an educated, skilled and flexible workforce,” YES told Glue in an emailed statement. “Today’s youth are tomorrow’s workers and leaders, so by investing in them we are contributing to Canada’s long-term growth, competitiveness and overall prosperity.”
However, internships are not for everyone, and this is due simply because some people just can’t afford to “work for free.”
Woolley says glamorous internships make a two-tiered society when it comes to students applying for prestigious gigs. Students who are backed by their parents or have hefty bank accounts from summer jobs have a clear advantage when they’re chasing internships out of town.
“It does really worry me that there’s inequality of opportunities with these internships because not everybody can afford to take one and when that’s the gateway, it becomes harder for certain types of people to get through the gateway,” she said.
The problem is compounded when internships drag on for six months to a year while students are supporting themselves financially.
For recent graduates, this can be especially difficult if they received OSAP throughout their schooling because they only have a six-month grace period before they have to start paying it off.
Yet an internship is a leap into the unknown—a chance to stare your dreams in the face—and for many, that brief flirtation with the big leagues is too enticing to ignore.
And the experience, the confidence gained in the field is well worth its weight in unpaid sweat and tears.