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The rare ‘win-win’ of unpaid internships

by Matthew Shanahan January 20, 2015
The rare ‘win-win’ of unpaid internships

How unpaid internships can be good for companies, but also beneficial to you

The rise of capitalism through the Industrial Revolution has created massive diversity in the job market. The majority of the population no longer lived on farms, but moved into the city where the jobs were stationed. Unskilled labor became coveted and exploited, while skilled labor was revered and rewarded (for the most part).

Many people argue that we are past that point in capitalist history. However, many challenges still face the job market today. Not only is there a bigger gap between the rich and poor in North American society than in past decades, but we’ve seen the rise of a new phenomenon that needs to be addressed: unpaid internships.

As is the case with many social and economic issues, there is a growing divide in opinion: the company itself, and whoever is in charge of making budget decisions with regards to interns and the youth; and a university student like myself, who is on the cusp of acquiring a full-time job in my preferred field.

I should expectedly be biased towards the common youth position of fighting back against the “big bad corporations” because they are cheating us out of potential income, treating us as undignified human beings, and because we have intrinsic rights to paid positions if we are contributing to the success of any corporation. The flip side of this argument is that the youth should be motivated to do whatever it takes to better themselves in their respective field, go through the difficult treatment of employers that normally occurs as a university student and early in one’s career. Trust, dignity, respect and character should not be entitled to anyone from the very start, but earned at a difficult cost.

I firmly believe that the truth about how this issue should be handled lies somewhere in the middle. The values that drive the corporate view are assets to any youngster while exploitation is not something that the youth should have to face. I also have personal experience regarding this issue, having interned without pay for TSN Radio for a year here in Montreal on a part-time basis. I must honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed my experience interning, even though it was only one afternoon per week. I learned many skills, made some incredible contacts and—more than anything—enjoyed the work I was doing. The staff was always understanding of the situation and never overworked me in any way, nor did they treat me like less of a human being. Also, I understood that radio isn’t exactly the most profitable industry, which factors into how I perceived my internship. I understand however, that many people share different experiences from their unpaid internships.

For example, a recent article in The Guardian illustrates how companies can take their unpaid internship opportunities to an unethical extreme. The article highlights that a British company not only required the individual to pay for the opportunity, but asked for 300 pounds per reference.

If the experience is very unique and the demand is high, I believe that unpaid internships are acceptable. However, it is clear from an ethical standpoint that requiring money for an internship is unethical. There has to be an appreciation from both sides of the experience. On one hand, the employee should be grateful and have the motivation to make the most of their opportunity as an intern. From the corporation’s perspective, they should have the willingness to train and provide the unique experience simply because the intern is providing a service at no cost. If either of these attitudes is not followed, it is only then that the unpaid internship becomes a problematic interest for either party.

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