Not all Internships are Bad

Done well, paid internships break down employment barriers and function as valuable learning experiences.

By Margaret Eaton & Ratna Omidvar, The Toronto Star

To intern, or not to intern? Recently, this has become a much-debated issue with experts, interns and employers weighing in on the pros and cons. Many of the featured stories in the media appear to focus on young, unpaid interns who have had less-than-savoury experiences.

For interns, the question is whether this costly investment of their “free” labour will pay dividends in their future. Will their hard work result in a job or, at the very least, valuable learning? Or will it result in exploitation and unpaid bills?

For employers, the question is whether and how an intern could benefit their business. Will they take the time to select, train, coach and mentor an intern who might eventually become a valuable employee? Or will they simply look for a warm body to do the grunt work? Are they using an unpaid intern to displace a paid employee, and what implications does this have for their business? Given the litigation pending in some cases, employers will need to be cautious when taking on the responsibilities of working with an intern.

Conversations about internships often focus on people looking to enter the labour market for the first time, such as recent graduates. But many who already have work experience in other fields or in other job markets have come to rely on internships as well — such as women re-entering the workforce, recent immigrants or those who want to change careers. For all of these groups, internships are often a backdoor into employment. In a tight labour market, even unpaid internships can be as hotly contested as “real” jobs.

And possibly with good reason: many interns end up being employed by their internship host. Moreover, successful interns walk away with a work reference, which can be extremely difficult to get for some groups, such as recent immigrants.

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