Are unpaid internships the new normal?

PREETEESH PEETABH SINGH
The Dialog (George Brown College)

If you don’t get a job after an unpaid internship, you got fucked.

TORONTO (CUP) — Christopher Daniels knows about internships.

Daniels, 41, is a Red Seal certified chef, who worked as an intern in Toronto’s food industry and is still uncertain in terms of his career.

Sometimes interns are paid. More often they work for free, hoping the internship will turn into a “real” job or at least give them work experience and a beefed-up resume. But in an economy still trying to drag itself out of a recession, today’s university and college graduates have it tough.

“I was paid a minimum wage, less than the dishwashers, despite being educated in my field and having five years of directly-related experience,” Daniels said.

“It is not a proud moment when it comes to discuss one’s wage, after volunteering, educating myself, paying thousands to do so, then find out I am still working for minimum wage.”

Even so, according to research conducted by Agata Zeiba, a master’s student at Wilfrid Laurier University, 59 per cent of internships in Canada remain unpaid.

Unpaid or not, these days rejecting an internship offer is not an option for most students. An estimated 86 per cent of graduates are willing to work for free. With high unemployment it often seems the only gateway into the job market. To economists, the new realities of internships, job casualization and unemployment are combining to create a new and worrisome feature of the modern job market — precariousness.

After the economic crash of 2008, many companies viewed offering internships as a survival tactic that provided them free labour. It has now turned into a long-term business strategy that threatens to become a permanent one.

Daniels, who dreamt of becoming a successful, high-quality chef in a French restaurant, said Canadian employers have gotten used to free labour — and so has he.

“Many leave empty-handed, unpaid, time wasted. Yes we gain experience, but we all still have to pay the bills,” Daniels said.

In a large city like Toronto, the competition is fierce and employers know it.

These is a good likelihood that interns will be reduced to coffee bitch.

Internships seem to be the new normal for university and college graduates, but there are few statistics about how widespread the practice is.

“We do not know what exactly is happening in the labour market,” said Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based lawyer. “Specific actions can only be taken when we have enough data on unpaid internships in the province or country. Surveys and research needs to be conducted on a large scale.”

Labour unions have been in talks for 15 years but no concrete steps have been taken on this issue yet by any union. Lise Lareau, vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild said that it is tough to strike a balance in providing people with internship opportunities while not abusing them without compensation.

“Unions in general do not support unpaid internships” said Carmel Smyth, national president of the CMG. “We help in sponsoring, raising awareness, speaking publicly, educating people and pushing the government to do something about it. We are very committed to work on the social justice front but if you talk about individual work place, we cannot do anything with a company which we do not represent or that is non-unionized.”

The lack of statistics raises several unanswered questions. How many internships translate into paid employment? What is the length and duration of internships? How do internships translate into actual applicable work experience required by the employer for a desired position?

Internships and precarious employment is prominent in cultural sectors too. In many ways that is how it’s always been for artists, writers, actors, musicians or photographers, most of whom do not get a chance to work full-time.

In these sectors, these employees are seasonal or temporary workers with few benefits, lack of collective representation and little or no job security.

For Daniels, internships turned out to be an unsatisfactory path. He’s returned to school at George Brown College to look for a second career in finance.

“It’s time to work towards a future that will allow me to support a family. I do not see things changing rapidly and I think that people will have to prepare for a long battle with poverty before making it to the big leagues.

“It’s my belief that we need to constantly adapt and evolve. The world is constantly changing. By staying current and even creating a market for a service or product that exists or we create, we will have a future and we will make it ourselves.”


Photo: pameladrew212/Flickr
Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf

  • http://twitter.com/katewerk katewerk

    Or, they could have spent 5 minutes checking out the job prospects before spending 5 years gaining worthless credentials.

    • Peter M

      …5 years ago, wasn’t learning to be a high quality chef a good idea? Yes, the economy sucks now, and no one is opening new restaurants… but how on earth is it a young chef’s fault that the economy took a nose dive 1 year into his degree?

    • pete

      no, 5 years ago being a chef was NOT a good idea. The cost of school versus the average wage earned afterwards should have been his first clue. That being said, there are a bunch of Caribbean cruises looking to hire a chef. Pay probably isn’t great, but at least the weather is nice.

    • http://twitter.com/Rose215 Rose215

      This is about a depressed economy where it is hard for new graduates in many fields to find work. Many fields where there have traditionally been jobs, there are no longer jobs — many media jobs, for example. With some exceptions, I do not think this is largely a problem of young people not having sufficient foresight — I think it is more a matter of the economy and job market changing very rapidly. In a depressed economy, young people must also compete with experienced people who have been laid off.

  • gvanderleun

    Dear Morons, Get. A. Job. Or. Starve.

    • Micah Ferguson

      Joke is on you dipshit as you get to pay for their foodstamps if they can’t find one.

    • gerardv

      You clearly don’t really understand how the world really works, do you?

  • Shewasn’tthinking

    Ahhhhhhhhh. Poor little babies degree in GLBT basket weaving and Foreign Muzzie Terrorship not pay off?
    Suck it up,buttercup!

  • NME

    There’s plenty of work in Ft Mac that will pay $20 an hour for no experience. If these people were willing to move out of their hipster enclaves and do some work that the real world values, they wouldn’t be in the predicament they’re in.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=650582510 Don Morris

      But the work in Fort Mac is hard,and the weather’s cold! Better to try for a government grant to get a higher degree,which is very impressive to others on the unemployment line.

  • untangledmind

    That final paragraphs are a fine collection of cliches that show why Daniels is working for free at 41; “I do not see things changing,” followed by “The world is constantly changing.”

    What should be changed is looking at education automatically giving you employment; when it should be your choice of employment dictating your education.

    Finally; “we will have a future and we will make it ourselves.” – No, you won’t make that.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_US4CS5RX55WIGKU2XWSVLO2WYA Marco

    Most of these low-lifes vote for the NDP. And didn’t study math. (If they did, they’d actually have jobs) Christopher Daniels is a failure. I took several unpaid internships. I impressed. I wasn’t hired. But I didn’t complain.

  • JohnWest

    If you don’t want to be a free chef … try being a paid dishwasher … then start making better career decisions. i didn’t get to be what I wanted, so I did something else. There are no guarantees in this life. Didn’t your liberal teachers tell you that. How about mom and dad … what did they advise you to do with your life?

  • Steve E

    Christopher Daniels blew it. At 41 to expect to make it in a Michelin star restaurant without having paid your dues (apologies if he has done that circuit, in which case he’s just not good enough) at an earlier age is naive. He’s competing against the best in the world who are taking less than minimum wage and are in their twenties.

    By the way, Red Seal’s web site does not list “chef” as one of its certified skills; instead, it lists cook. A cook is not a chef!

    Mr. Daniels should consider opening his own restaurant and finding a way to finance it…after all, he found a way to pay “thousands” for an education which doesn’t seem to be getting him anywhere.

    I wish him well. There is a lot of bad food out there served at outrageous prices!

  • Steve E

    By the way, nice awkward sign juxtaposition: “F*** Your Unpaid Internships” beside “Money = Greed”. Since I’ve been given a choice, I choose to honour her latter statement and not take the former seriously.

  • Seriously!

    Why is someone an intern at 41 years of age? I’m 10 years younger and I’ve already been in the work force for 15 years.

    I’m happy to say I have a great private sector job, great benefits with a pension plan, all the luxury items I could want, three cars paid off and a roof over my head and no debt.

    How is that intern thing working out? Seriously go look in the classifieds under Short Order Cook. You could get a paying job tomorrow and all the job experience you want. Then you can leverage that to look for something better.

    Interning is something you do in your teens or early 20’s. By 40’s your supposed to be in mid career thinking about how your going to pay for or what you do for retirement.

    If you want to work for free, get an entry level job first even if its crummy and go volunteer at a soup kitchen or meals on wheels or something else in your spare time and NETWORK! You’d be surprised what someone will tip you off on or hire you for. Its who you know, not how many PHD’s or BA’s are on your resume.

  • Kevin Lafayette

    I have no sympathy. In fact, I think you deserve it. You want free education, you voted yourselves that nice little Sask grad retention thing (I graduated 20 years ago, so I was out of luck). This is where clamoring after other people’s money gets you. Welcome to the world you worked so hard to get, and thought you wanted!

    (Oh, and in about 10 or 20 years, welcome to the Conservative party.)

  • KenRoberts200

    They picked their vocation…..why complain about your own pick….in the trades you are paid for your work….apprentice…if you have no way of getting experience….then no pay it must be….not looking into the future of your vocation is not any ones fault but your own…////