On our Radar – A HEQCO intern reflects on (her) internships

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.

My fellow interns: if you haven’t noticed already, we’ve become media darlings as of late (who says twenty-something CEOs get all the fun?).

Unpaid working arrangements are a hot topic these days.  From intern activism in the UK, to mass internet backlash on the West Coast, debates surrounding this highly contested rite of passage continue to gain momentum among organizations, job seekers, policy-makers and the labour community at large.

Two camps consistently emerge from the commentary: those who cry exploitation and those who laud its benefits.  The former argues that unpaid internships are essentially entry-level positions in disguise, carried out at no cost by highly qualified candidates such as post-graduate students and even senior workers in career transition. There’s also the notion that internships are inherently classist – occupied by those who can literally afford to work for free and hindering the mobility of other social groups.   Also don’t forget that pesky legal snag.  These types of working arrangements, when unpaid, are in violation of most provincial labour laws.

What some deem as exploitative, advocates of unpaid internships consider advantageous.  Professional development is perceived as a substitute for the monetary, because learning and mentorship are the currencies in this exchange. Supporters of unpaid internships argue that this is an adequate, perhaps even a superior method, to managing junior workers.  After all, why should one pay for inexperience?  In fact, some employers and interns propose that the lack of compensation is, in fact, beneficial for workers – that it is character building and sends a good message for future employers.

So what is a grad student who’s done her fair share of co-ops and internships supposed to do?

I struggled with the paid/unpaid debate while searching for co-operative work experience during my undergrad.  My father often spoke to me about the axis of opportunity and compensation, encouraging me to always keep my eye on the sweet spot without veering to its parameters when looking for work.  Like all twenty-somethings, I rolled my eyes and told him he knew nothing.  After all, this was post-2008.  Competition was so fierce that to me, a “foot-in-the-door” was equitable to compensation.

I still remember landing my first co-op job, literally feeling like I had won the lottery.  It was a position in the industry of my choice, with a reputable employer and paid.  Nevertheless I firmly reminded myself that this stroke of luck would never “change me,” that passion would operate at the forefront and I would continue to pursue the best opportunities for my career no matter what the cost. Entitled millennial, I was not.

Looking back on my employment history, I feel very fortunate to have built my resume on opportunities that were fairly compensated. While I initially considered this as sheer luck of the draw, I realize now that my choices were far from arbitrary.  I gravitated towards paid opportunities because I knew my lifestyle couldn’t afford the pay cut, even if temporary.  I negotiated for my one unpaid internship to be a part-time arrangement.  And I’m one of the lucky ones – there are many bright candidates who will never get a chance to prove themselves because of financial constraints more dire than mine. One can have passion but sentiment does not pay the bills.

Most importantly, wage was the safety net that ensured protection as I swung from one potential career path to another, trying to figure out what role was best suited for me. Paid internships meant opportunities for professional reinvention, to fully explore my interests as a young worker while also developing a diverse skillset that would benefit my future employers.  And here I am still, a recovering marketer and creative type trying her hand out at research and policy – thankful for a position where learning, accomplishments and even mistakes are all still considered part of a day’s work and wage.

I made the decision sometime ago that I would no longer support unpaid internships – this meant no longer exercising my privilege to apply and educating myself and others about the issues surrounding  youth and work.  While this may sound trite, it was a significant paradigm shift for me, especially having previously worked in an industry where paying your dues meant, well, not getting paid.  While I recognize the ramifications of such a stance, I stand by my views.  I want to know I’m alongside the most talented people in the field.  This means recognizing and removing barriers to access. My employers did for me, and I owe my generation no less.

-Loren Aytona, research intern

2 replies on “On our Radar – A HEQCO intern reflects on (her) internships”

And fair play to HEQCO for not taking advantage of the demand for the experience, and going the ‘free’ route. A look at university job boards shows all sorts of work that used to be paid (even co-op level jobs) now positioned as interns.

HEQCO has done it’s utmost to sell out an entire generation of Ontario’s students via putting out research that supports post-secondary institutions renting out students as free labour to corporations and governments. Increasingly the gig is up as young people are catching on to the fact that they provide billions of dollars in free labour (which is often illegal) each year. With over 300,000 unpaid internships occurring each year in Canada one really has to wonder what the real impact of blind adherence to neoliberal and human capital orthodoxy. It’s clear that extensive economic scarring has been inflicted on the current generation and public policy “leaders” such as HEQCO act like nothing is amiss.

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