Ninety minutes, three buses, and a 15-minute walk in sticky late-spring weather. That was my twice-a-day routine for a six-week internship I completed at a community newspaper back in 1994. The editor kept irregular hours, so I was required to come in around 11am and usually ducked out between 7pm and 8pm. I felt guilty stepping out into the twilight because I knew he’d be there until at least 11pm.
At first, I was asked to read back issues of Share, the Black and Caribbean community newspaper the editor and an assistant single-handedly published every week. In time, I was tasked with re-writing international news from the wires. Eventually, I graduated to writing stories that took me out into the community. And, finally, I was asked to mentor a high school co-op student as she learned about journalism.
The internship was an opportunity that allowed me to apply the skills I’d been learning in journalism school in a practical way, navigate through a few inevitable on-the-job sticky situations, and figure out some truths about how I wanted to shape my career when it officially began a few months later. All under the supervision of a sage man with a twinkling smile that simply beamed encouragement.
In his lilting accent, he praised my every effort while gently nudging me to sharpen this, tighten that, “That’s right, now you’ve got it.” At the end of the six weeks, I was offered a $300 honorarium and a letter of recommendation. I was thrilled. This isn’t always the reality of internships. The Toronto Star reported earlier this year that unpaid internships are on the rise in Canada, with some organizations estimating as many as 300,000 people currently working for free at some of the country’s biggest, and wealthiest, corporations.
Due to a legislative gap, many of the thousands of unpaid internships in the province are actually illegal. In an age of soaring unemployment levels, more and more young people and foreign workers are so desperate to gain experience and access to an industry, they’re willing to work for free. Some companies are taking advantage, offering positions with 50-hour workweeks, while others are calling for the abolishment of all internships as a response to the abuse.
Legislators have clarified internship rules. In order for a business to be legally exempt from paying its workers, it must meet six criteria. The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school. The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills. The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained. Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job. Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
You have been told that you will not be paid for your time. My internship operated exactly as it was intended: it was a temporary boost to my education, work ethic, and self-esteem. It allowed me to graduate with more confidence in my abilities as a reporter and a writer, and it helped sharpen my determination to find work that compensated me for the marketable skills I knew I could bring to prospective employers. If you’re considering venturing into unpaid work outside of an academic program, you’ll want to review the rules. Or consider other ways to get a foot in the door.