Culture  A divisive demand

Why unpaid internships are a remote possibility for many studentsWhy unpaid internships are a remote possibility for many students

Correction appended February 18, 2014.

Sleepless nights working for a stellar GPA may not be enough for a breakthrough into your industry of choice – or even your first full time job. With the ever-increasing pressure to have experience before applying for jobs, students are turning to unpaid internships to get their feet wet. But as unpaid internships become more popular, it’s worth asking the question: are students getting the lower end of the stick?

It seems today that it is virtually impossible to find employment without having previous experience. Mark Lyden, a professional recruiter for Fortune 500 companies and author of College students: Do this! Get hired! explained that past experience in an internship or co-op is critical to getting a full-time job, and that students that don’t have such experience before graduation may be putting themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage.

“Companies don’t want to have to teach students when they hire them full-time,” he said. “They don’t want to have to teach them the culture of the company, what it is to answer to someone who’s perhaps old enough to be your parent, adapting to a group with a wide range of experiences and a wide range of ages. Companies want the skill of adapting to the workplace.”

Because of this necessity, students are increasingly searching for opportunities to gain hands-on experience, transferable skills, and real workplace experience. Though Lyden notes that he hasn’t seen a rise in unpaid internships, he has noticed an increased buzz about them.  “More people are talking about them, which may indicate that there is a market for it,” he said. “What’s really driving the market for it is the down economy and that college students increasingly feel internship experience is important.”

The perceived pressure to have hands-on experience listed on a resume means more students than ever before are willing to work for free. However, unpaid internships may be an unrealistic option for students in need of cash to afford their already expensive university education. Lyden noted that some students truly cannot afford such a thing. “In this economy, a lot more students are staying closer to home and so they may have the opportunity to do an unpaid internship and still be okay,” she said. “But those students who need to support themselves are not going to be able to take an unpaid internship unless they have money saved up.”

Gregg Blachford, Director of the McGill Career Planning Service (CaPS) says the phenomenon of unpaid internships isn’t new. “There’s always been a sector of unpaid internships, especially for Arts,” he explained. “Engineering and Management students do get paid, but that’s an industry standard.”

Blachford noted that this is because Engineering and Management students often work for large companies that have established internship programs and organize their payment, while Arts students – especially those interested in the culture sector – often work in organizations too small to provide payment.

As a response to the number of organizations without extra funds to pay Arts interns, McGill’s Arts Internship Office (AIO) has developed the Arts Internship Awards. Last summer, 74 students received  a total of over $125,000 thanks to the support of McGill alumni.

A U3 Art History student who travelled to Spain last summer for an unpaid internship with the Dalí Foundation had this to say, “I got the Max Stern Internship in Art History award for $2,500, which was a good sum of money. It definitely helped but it wasn’t nearly enough to cover my expenses – I spent nearly $7,000 for the three months I was in Spain.”

She is not alone in the large sums of money she spent for hands-on experience. As students travel to work in renowned institutions that will give them future prestige, they still have to consider personal finances. As well as working for no income, they are also subjected to huge expenditures. However, she feels the large expense was necessary, and sees her summer internship as a long-term investment in her future.

“If I hadn’t gotten the award I would have gone anyway, I just would have taken a larger loan” she said. “And even with the award, I lost a lot of money and I’m still in debt for it. But if I look at it in terms of my future it’ll be easier to get a job, so it evens things out. I know that if the Dalí Foundation recommends me to the Picasso Museum, I’ll probably get in.”

Unpaid internships not only harm students with less privileged backgrounds but can even be detrimental to the companies themselves, as it prevents them from having access to a segment of driven students that pay for their own expenses. “Some of the people who are self-sufficient, paying their way to school and having to earn money to live are often among the most self-motivated,” Lyden explained. “An unpaid internship is not going to be an option for them, and yet, in my opinion, this is the demographic employers are often looking for.”

Many, like Mike Boone, City Columnist and Habs Inside-Out hockey blogger for the Montreal Gazette, are adamant about the need to pay students for their labour. He pointed out that the Gazette, as a unionized newspaper, pays all its interns. However, the Art History student feels that it is logical that many organizations would prefer to have unpaid internships. “Interns don’t have any real skills to offer, so why would they get paid for it?” she said. “You go in knowing almost nothing about the world you’re going to work in. I understand why I didn’t get paid.”

Ultimately, unpaid internships have value for students as much as for companies. They have become an almost necessary prerequisite for entrance into the job market, despite being an unrealistic option for many students who cannot afford to spend months – at home or abroad – with no income. But whether or not they pay off really depends on whether the experience gives the student real skills, and becomes more than a bullet point to add to their resume.