Be punctual. A vehicle is an asset. Expect to be on call seven days a week at all hours. Remain professional. Interns must show enthusiasm. It’s a great opportunity, after all … at least that’s what they’ve been told.
For many in the last year of college or university, it is the first opportunity to get some real world experience. Until recently, applicants would find organizations with varying expectations. Some were full-time, others weren’t. Some paid, most didn’t. By 2014, Ontario’s unpaid internships went under a microscope.
But, as with all things, there are some exceptions. They are very limited, but they do exist.
Now, one will be considered an employee, according to the ministry’s guidelines, unless all of the following conditions are met: the training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school, the training is for the benefit of the intern, the employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained, your training doesn’t take someone else’s job, your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training and you have been told that you will not be paid for your time.
But the biggest exception that matters to media students is that the ESA does not apply to an individual who performs work under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university.
The purpose in creating this exception was to encourage employers to provide students enrolled in a college or university program with practical training to compliment their classroom learning.
Nonetheless, unpaid internships remain a slippery term to Tracey Bowen, Universty of Toronto profressor in the Insititute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology program.
“The most important thing we have to do as educators is to empower students. Teach them about self-advocacy and also teach them about their rights,” said Bowen.
Bowen says we should be focusing on students actually getting the opportunity they need while they are in school and showing students their value by, in short, paying them.
The reason Bowen feels so passionate and keeps a print out of the Ministry of Labour’s guidelines for internships posted on her door is because she sees big media corporations take advantage, as they know young people really want this experience and they are hopeful for a job in a competitive industry.
Derek Finkle, Toronto Life’s first intern in 1993, says that it’s always been fairly easy to take advantage of young people.
At first with John Macfarlane, the reason why there were no interns before me, at least when he was there, was because he didn’t really believe that young people shouldn’t be getting paid for their work and I think that he saw that there was a bit of opportunity. You get something out of it; we get something out of it. It was a bit of a quid pro quo. I think at the time when I was 23 or 24 years old, I thought it was okay. Although at the end of the internship I started to see that maybe it wasn’t okay and as I went along in my career, the further and further I got into my career, the more and more problems I had with the notion of unpaid internships,” he says.
“If I hadn’t been an intern at Toronto Life, I still would have ended up doing the same thing,” said Finkle.
The real problem that resonates with Finkle when it comes to unpaid internships is that essentially you are telling someone at the job that they are not worth anything, that this line, this profession, is devaluing whatever you’re bringing to the table which in turn devalues you as an individual. And that feeling, he cautions, hangs around. It hangs around for a long time.
That hanging feeling is one that Finkle knows all too well and explains in his 2014 post titled, The Unpaid Internship Conspiracy.
“I wrote a cover story for a guy whose job it was to edit and make the best mag- azine he could make. He was paid to do that and I gave him a really good story. And, you know, it didn’t matter that I was 23, I could’ve written that story when I was 33, it doesn’t matter,” says Finkle.
Matthew Griffith, a Humber College Media Communications graduate, interned at a video production company called Public Films, where he ultimately landed a full-time job.
He credits his internship with giving him the skills necessary to succeed in the real world. “I wouldn’t be able to have the skills I have now,” says Griffith, if he hadn’t had the internship opportunity, as it gave him the “kind of outlets” to hone his skills that would’ve been difficult to achieve on his own.
Despite his relatively positive experience as an unpaid intern, which ultimately resulted in getting paid work, Griffith says internships should come with some form of residuals. “At the end of the day, no one likes doing something for nothing,” he says.
Sean Doyle, Internship Coordinator and instructor for Humber’s Web Development program, thinks one of the issues we need to address is that access and availability is different in every program.
“The opportunities for a web developer versus PR, or any of the other programs, is not the same. For web developers, there is a great demand for them so they can kind of have the pick of the crop, as opposed to other programs where the opportunity is the more valuable thing to that student. So getting a foot in the door would be more valuable for them to take that opportunity or in terms of an unpaid internship that experience that you would gain would be like going to school for free,” says Doyle.
Now, having the name of a “sexy” organization on your resume would sound great but it could be overwhelming if the work you are doing doesn’t benefit you in any way.
“I’ve always been of the mindset that if there is not a job attached, I’m not sending you, a student, unfortunately … or fortunately,” said Meena Dowlwani, Careers professor and job developer for the School of Media Studies and Information Technology at Humber.
Dowlwani provides programing students with opportunities at indie game studios, but of course students are more attracted to the big gaming corporations who are constantly getting new graduates who are so passionate about programming.
But, says Dowlwani, “90 per cent out of 100, it’s free labour. I do not encourage that because I feel that they have talent, which is being abused.”
“Along with that, in web development we see a lot of project based things. Help us with this project and we’ll talk at the end and that’s something to warn against as well. Is there going to be a job or are they going to be helping for free in the end?” says Doyle.
That isn’t what an internship should entail. It’s not in the guidelines laid out by the ministry. But, as proven, just because there are laws against it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. More often than not, students aren’t aware of their rights.
To journalism student Cormac McGee, vice president of education at Ryerson University’s student union, if someone is doing actual work that an organization is benefiting from, they should be compensated in some way.
That said, the Government of Ontario is developing a new funding formula to better distribute operating grants to universities and colleges. A government report released in December 2015, recommended that funding should be used to improve student outcomes in part by increasing experiential learning.
Instead of asking companies to pay at the risk of positions being cut, the Ryerson Student Union is a leading example of a school that is exploring other alternatives that range from minimum wage pay, a travel allowance or getting rid of the course fee.
After doing some research, McGee and the rest of the student union found out that 10 per cent of Ryerson’s population has to complete some sort of internship or placement in order to graduate. Most of these opportunities were, of course, unpaid.
McGee says there’s an even bigger trend going around with organizations avoiding student interns all together.
“A number of the major newspapers in Toronto, instead of hiring actual paid writers, they know they are getting these free interns every 6 to 8 weeks and they are the people in the office besides the editors.
“In our Ryerson fashion school, they get a whole bunch of advertisements for internships and they have to do about 800 hours over their four years and some of these internships are literally retail positions in stores that are taking free student interns instead of hiring some- one to do that job,” says McGee. “So our campaign stemmed from that issue where these unpaid internships are taking the place of real jobs and at Ryerson nation we think that’s not right.”
Bowen doesn’t think we should let up on this. “It’s not always having to fight against the big company, it’s that we don’t have funds to subsidize that people are getting paid for their work and that for this society to know what students are doing by making sure these companies pay for it.”
“If someone was doing a full-time internship it should be a co-op and then, it should be paid, because that is a full term. If the organization isn’t paying, then students shouldn’t be working there. I think the more we have our students say ‘no’, the more we stand up to these huge media corporations. They have to be held accountable,” said Bowen.
And Genevieve D’lorio, community legal worker, agrees.
“If you are told how to work for a certain amount of time every day, then it becomes more of an employment situation and that’s concerning,” says D’lorio.
It would appear though that money can be brought into the equation somehow. Finkle speaks of The Walrus and how they actually replaced the unpaid internships with paid internships. They managed to cough up money from the various foundations they are affiliated with, so it is possible.
Other companies will find a loophole in having people come as interns when they are in school as part of school credit. This is something Finkle doesn’t really agree with. This is how he breaks it down.
“If you’re talking about magazine, the idea is that a student pays to go to, let’s say to Humber, either they are paying or their parents are paying or they have student loans, and then you are paying an institution to teach you and then to get a credit from that institution, you then have to go work for free for a massive corporation like Rogers.”
Then, he says, it’s up to Rogers to prove that they are “teaching” the students. “Why is it up to Rogers to teach the student if the student is paying Humber to teach the student?” he says.
And while being at your “dream job,” Finkle gets how hard it can be to be in the position of asking something like, “Can I get paid for this piece?” He knew by asking that question that he was now changing the dynamic between him and then editor of Toronto Life John Macfarlane.
“Instead of just keeping my mouth shut and saying ‘I hope you love the piece and I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me,’ now being a little more demanding and I’m saying ‘Hey, I just wrote your cover story and I’d like some money. I’m living in my grandmother’s basement and I’d like to get out of it,’” says Finkle.
It takes guts.
Often students will let things pass because they are just the intern. Students will tell themselves this is them paying their dues in becoming a media studies graduate. In response, Finkle says, “You’re not paying any dues while you’re working for free. All you’re doing is setting yourself up for disappointment in a career that is already telling you at the beginning that you’re not worth anything.
“I hope the next step is that we start examining these programs where students are working for free in order to get a credit. I think that’s the next order of business on this issue,” says Finkle.
Carl Kaufman, a community legal worker who spoke to Humber students about Legal Aid and ESA, says when it comes to unpaid internships rules being strictly enforced, the answer is no.
“There’s no evidence. Oh yeah, com- plaints are daily. You need to first tell people that there’s no such thing as unpaid work and that’s the bottom line,” says Kaufman.
“I can tell you what I think the expectation should be … the agency or the employer has to be very clear with what is going to happen after,” he says.
At Ryerson, McGee suggests if there was a system where you do your six week internship and there’s a high chance you’re going to get a job at this place after, that would be great. But that’s sadly not the reality.
“The experience you get in any sort of internship is valuable, right? If you’re doing like a real job as an internship, you’re learning a lot and that’s some value but you can’t take experience and exposure to the grocery and buy food with it. You need money to live,” he says.
McGee has also taken on free internships outside of his classes because they were in different areas that he wanted to learn more about and improve his skills in. In the end, he figured those are the same things as him sitting at home practicing.
Today Gregory is a photography intern for Urbanology magazine.
Because Gregory is not enrolled in school as of now, she decided to take it upon herself, like McGee, to find opportunities where she can learn and expand her knowledge in photography. But after doing a lot of research and speaking to those who also completed internships with Urbanology, Gregory applied and got accepted.
“I heard good things for Urbanology … I did know that I would actually have work. I’ve heard of other situations where people were hired for internships but they were used to do personal things, or be support for another staff member,” says Gregory.
“But I find that with Urbanology, and with the internship I’m in, I have a lot of control over what I do and how much time and effort I put in.”
Gregory says what you put into the internship is what you get out of it. Dowlwani says to have somebody in the middle, a faculty, a coordinator, is important to see that there is somebody watching over so students are not abused.
“Students also need to be able to speak up. If they are feeling something is not right, they should let the internship coordinator or faculty know. ‘They asked me to do this, but I’m really not comfortable’,” says Dowlwani.
“To have that authoritative figure in between, especially in internships, is extremely important because it clears the lines of communication.” She suggests written rules.
“This is what our student has to learn during this internship. Week one it didn’t happen, week two it didn’t happen, okay week three come on, we’re missing the deadline, what’s going on, what’s going to happen?”
Her advice: As a student, you must share your fears. Even if it sounds stupid, you must share because no question is stupid.
The unpaid internship quandary is straightforward. If it’s educational – great. If it’s work – you should be paid.