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Unpaid internships in post-secondary settings

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Internships are as much a part of post-secondary life as late-night cram sessions and student loans. As with the aforemen tioned, the relationship between students and internships is complicated.

The idea behind internships is one of experience and value to the students, but that isn’t always the case. Sure, the intern ships were implemented with good intentions, but the reality is far more complex, especially where unpaid internships are concerned.

Internships come in various forms, but the main concerns for students are whether they are paid or not, and if they are optional or a requirement for your post-secondary degree. Paid internships generally don’t offer a very high wage, but something is better than the alternative, which is getting paid nothing at all. Although paid internships are ideal, some areas — such as the arts and media — have very few paid options, leaving students in some programs with a greater struggle.

Separate from the issue of payment is the issue of require ment. Students use internships as an experience builder they can place in their resume, but when your program doesn’t require one, you have more options. Students with greater options can accept the internships that work for them and aren’t locked into a specific number of hours or a set timeline.

This means a student can take on a paid internship lasting months or even a year while still attending school, or a non-paid internship that allows them the flexibility of working very few hours per week, gaining experience without affecting any employment they may need in an effort to pay bills and survive.

Such was the case for Becca Willson, a fourth-year student in the communications and journalism program at MacEwan University. Although Willson’s program does require an intern ship as credit, she was able to get an unpaid internship ahead of time, in addition to the one she will be required to do, to build experience. Because this was not a mandatory position, she was able to negotiate a small number of weekly hours that wouldn’t interfere with the regular job she needed to meet her basic finan cial needs. “I was able to negotiate with them what hours I would work around my job. I worked about four hours a day, three days a week,” says Willson.

Willson’s experience with her additional internship is quite different from many of those required for credits. Depending on the scenario, a student may be obligated to complete a specific number of hours within a semester, leading to full-time free employment where the student can’t hold down another paying job to make ends meet.

In some provinces, the number of unpaid internships is higher than that of paid ones. Quebec is such a province, and as reported by Global News, in 2019 more than 35,000 students once again took to the streets asking to get paid. It is not that students don’t see the value in an internship, but more so that to work unpaid is an entirely different beast.

For some students, such as Ishita Verma, a recent MacEwan graduate, the situation is entirely different. She says she was fortunate enough to have three paid internships, but taking an unpaid internship wouldn’t have been so bad, “My situation at home is very easy going, I live with my parents, and they are very supportive of me pursuing my career…. So I have never had to worry about being able to survive,” says Verma.

Similarly, Meghan Capicio, a second-year student in the e-com merce program at MacEwan, still lives at home, and although she does have some expenses, she doesn’t currently have to pay for items such as food and rent. She is about to start a paid intern ship in May, which is full-time for four months but would have taken an unpaid opportunity if that was the only option she had. “I do think the experience is really beneficial even if it is unpaid, but also with COVID and everything I do think a paid one helps … I think if I had an internship that was unpaid, but it would give me a lot of experience, I would definitely do it,” says Capicio.

However, that isn’t the case for every student. There is evidence that there is an influx of older students returning to higher education. An article from The Hechinger Report stated that there had been a 35 per cent increase in college students aged 25 to 34 between 2001 and 2015, with another 11 per cent increase projected between 2015 and 2016 based on US numbers. Meaning an increase in students who may live on their own, with more extensive financial responsibilities who no longer have the safety net of family to cover their basic life needs.

Willson is among those students, and with her official program-required internship around the corner, she has concerns, “The hours that are required for it seem daunting. It seems quite hard to do, and it is treated as a full-time job for the compressed amount of weeks that it is for. And still having to try to find time to do anything outside of that, I’m quite worried about it,” says Willson.

Of course, no one interviewed is questioning the importance of internships. Often these internships lead to jobs or longer intern ships beyond just the experience. Courtney Webb is one such student whose internship turned into something more. Webb, a sciences student at MacEwan who is in her last year, didn’t have a required internship but chose to do one for the experience, which she says was invaluable. The internship, which was paid, went so well she extended it and continues working there. Webb says that in her field, getting experience can be difficult and internships, though not required, are often the only option. This seems to be a shared idea between those interviewed not only here but in countless articles and studies such as those done by National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

As beneficial and valuable as they may be, the experience gained still doesn’t resolve the issues and stress that unpaid internships can cause. In one study done by NACE, titled Understanding The Impact of Unpaid Internships On College Student Career Development and Employment Outcomes, the findings showed that those in unpaid internships were less likely to be converted into full-time employees. Although the study does not foresee an end to unpaid internships anytime soon, it is clear that changes to, and assistance for, unpaid internships are necessary by expanding structured integration.

The reality for students, especially those with little work expe rience, is that internships are a fact of life, but they are far from a one-size-fits-all. Even though equal requirements for each student are the only fair thing to do, a possibility of more options with longer timelines or rules against unpaid internships may be needed to curb the problem. In the meantime, students will have to fight the good fight to get an internship that meets their needs and school requirements, something that has only become increasingly more difficult with the current COVID pandemic, which has diminished options further. “I haven’t seen anything really advertised, especially specifically in journalism,” says Willson about her search for an internship during the pandemic.

In the end, as far as money goes, students who are required to take an internship and are unable to secure a paid option have no choice but to find a way through. Often this could mean increased student loans — or worse, bank loans — which puts them at a disadvantage as they make the hard call: Start your career with even higher debt or don’t graduate at all.

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