Unpaid internships cross ethical lines


Story by Baker Orange editorial board

Canadian publishing company St. Joseph’s Media shutdown its unpaid internship program on March 28 after the Ontario Ministry of Labour informed the organization its program violated Canada’s Employment Standards Act.

Following the closing, the ministry issued a statement regarding its launch of an “enforcement blitz” on internship programs in a variety of industries. For our North American neighbors, unpaid internships are illegal unless the experience is tied to an academic program. While some opponents of this law argue that eliminating unpaid internships will affect businesses as well as student experiences, the United States should consider adopting a similar policy.

Students participate in a variety of internships for free or limited compensation with the hope of adding experience to a resume. There are many fields where lectures, textbooks and research are only a portion of thorough job preparation. While this ideal form of career training is a critical component in any undergraduate experience, some organizations are taking advantage of student interns.

Numerous companies have utilized their internship programs as a way to avoid hiring full-time employees. If organizations cannot afford to add permanent staff members, let alone pay interns minimum wage for their work, the future isn’t promising for those industries. When companies do not have the extra resources to pay interns but still wish to provide the experience to students, they can create a partnership with area institutions.

Although it may seem that undergraduates can demonstrate their commitment to a particular field of study by participating in internships for experience rather than financial compensation, a study by the National Association of College and Employers shows that unpaid internships may lead to fewer full-time job offerings.

For the last three years, NACE’s student survey found that paid interns significantly exceed unpaid interns in both job offers and starting salaries. The survey revealed that 63 percent of paid interns receive a job offer upon graduation, while only 37 percent of unpaid interns receive at least one job offer. The more frightening statistic, however, is that 35 percent of students with no internship experience received at least one job proposal.

From these statistics, students can infer that they are considerably less desirable to potential employers if they’ve completed unpaid internships. Although the pressure to have a variety of experience, even for an entry-level position, is ever-present, students are not forced to participate unless an internship is required for an academic program. Ultimately, it’s a student’s choice to obtain an unpaid internship, but he or she should be compensated for producing quality work.

Canada’s concentrated effort to crack down on unpaid internships sets an example for other countries, but there are still holes in its system. Interns must report the unpaid internship to the Ministry of Labour before the organization will undergo an investigation. If interns are reliant on supervisors for future job references, they will have little motivation to file a complaint. It’s also difficult to criticize the experience students desperately need to be successful in a professional environment.

Maintaining lengthy internships while attempting to balance schoolwork and a part-time job is arduous for university students. The U.S. should be mindful of Canada’s actions toward internships and expand on the country’s precedent.