Who Benefits from Un(der)paid Internships?

In Businesses, Unpaid Internships on October 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm
Broken Egg

Creative Commons, Photo by Goldmund100

[TL;DR: Internsheep opposes all unpaid and underpaid internships as they represent barriers to entry in highly competitive fields based solely on economic means, having drastic effects on workforce compilation and accessibility to opportunity in many areas. In some sense, the quality of the internship  program is therefore of little interest and the question of who benefits from these positions is a moot point. However, illustrating to just what extent interns are being exploited would nonetheless help build the case for the overarching goals of this campaign. To that end, we propose a research study using a Canadian company that has employed over 40 unpaid interns for varying tenures from the year beginning May 1st, 2010 and ending April 30th, 2011 using a cost-benefit analysis for the interns and the employer.]

Internsheep recently took part in a debate hosted by the Globe and Mail on youth unemployment. The specific question up for debate surrounded what government role should be played in addressing what is fast becoming a crisis situation.

Many suggestions were offered, we got a bit off topic at times, and the problem of unpaid internships arose as a concern for several participants. One dissenting opinion came from Lauren Friese, the founder of TalentEgg.ca, a career portal for students and recent grads in Canada. I wrote up the debate and inserted a comment in the interest of full disclosure that TalentEgg uses and promotes unpaid interns, of which I have first-hand knowledge because I was an unpaid intern as an editor and writer for the site’s e-magazine. TalentEgg responded in the comments section, and I promised to respond more fully to their concerns in a full post. 

This is a difficult post to write, as it veers into the personal. I see Internsheep as an advocacy campaign for young workers and interns. I believe Canada is still shaping the economy that gen y is entering and we have much to learn from the more advanced experiences of the UK and US. This is not meant to be a naming and shaming campaign (although GraduateFog’s PayYourInterns campaign is one to watch!). Rather, it is meant to provide positive solutions while we still have a chance and the system is not entrenched.

We want to see informed, evidence-based policy targeted at youth. There is a lack of data – let’s pull together a task force of academics, interns, government agencies, business owners, and employment specialists! Lauren was in favour of this suggestion, we only differ in thinking more immediate action is also needed. Let’s enact a best practices code for internships in partnership with all these stakeholders. Let’s get a commitment from universities to only offer quality, meaningful, and accessible opportunities to their students. Let’s bring more government oversight and enforcement to a system too easily exploited. Let’s decide what will be helpful in terms of incentives or training programs that are fair and accessible to all.

I stated that TalentEgg employs and advertises unpaid positions, which I believe is relevant to the potential bias in the opinions voiced by Ms. Friese. I meant no ill will to the organization and no comment on the overall workings of the organization other than that. I enjoyed writing for the company, and the staff were friendly and supportive if needed.

I recognize that the tone of my comment might have been perceived negatively and I apologize if that is the case. I also asserted that the benefit of the written pieces went to the organization, rather than the intern. Without evidence, I recognize that this is assertion. I made no other judgement about the workings of the organization or the quality of the internship experience.

However, the response was surprisingly defensive. I cannot comment on the inner workings or philosophy of the organization, only that they offer and advertise unpaid positions, which again is the simple fact I stated. I was told I “grossly oversimplified and misrepresented how TalentEgg works,” but the statement of fact remains.

I’m a bit baffled as to how to proceed. I could discuss the convenient blurring of the distinction between volunteer and intern, the fact that full-time internships on stipends still do not provide a living or minimum wage, the nearly non-existent paid writing opportunities I observed in four+ months, the fact that a supply and demand labour force is exactly why 200 years of labour movements have fought so hard for basic protections like minimum wages, or the cognitive dissonance required to defend a system and then call it problematic. But without  data, we are talking around each other in assertion.

There seem to be two things going on here. One is the employer’s defense that their internship program is a good program. To quibble over this point is beyond Internsheep’s mission. Regardless of the quality of the internship, the point is that there is a lack of standardization and regulation across the board, which means that it could be good or bad, but there is no standard measure to know for sure. Further, the use of unpaid positions is a social mobility and accessibility issue, which is where we draw our uncompromising line, regardless of the apparent quality of the position.

The second underlying issue is the thrust of the question on which we disagree. That is, who benefits from unpaid (and underpaid) internships? Is it the intern, employer, both, or neither?

TalentEgg could provide a neat little study to answer this question. From May 1st, 2010 to April 31st, 2011, TalentEgg had 45 individuals contribute about 336 pieces to it’s e-magazine. (This is while only employing from 4-6 employees.) If we take out three individuals (two were staff and one was a career counsellor who I assume completed work during hours paid for by her institution), we are left with 42 individuals contributing just over 250 pieces, or about 75% of the total output  of the magazine for the year.

If we assume a rate of 3 hours per piece (an incredibly conservative estimate of the time it takes to conceive, pitch, research, coordinate and conduct interviews, write, edit, and post that does not include the assistant editor interns, just the written contributions, and also does not include time spent on an additional requirement of the program to comment on other articles and post discussion questions in the discussion board), then we have 750 hours to produce this material. Or, assuming a 40 hour work week, 18.75 weeks of work, or just about 4.5 months. This also does not include the value added from a network of 42 idea-creators with connections to sources for material.

The benefit to the employer is becoming clear. Minimum wage in Ontario for 750 hours would cost the company $7687.50 and after including all of the above-mentioned factors (4-6 editors working 5-10 hours/week, comments, etc), this cost savings would likely jump much higher.

Using this same 1 year timeframe, we could further assess this benefit by looking at how many articles by unpaid contributors were picked up by large print and online outlets. What was the approximate reach of these articles? What are the cumulative hits on the average TE article? A cost calculation could be added to account for time paid staff invested in helping any unpaid staff.

Then, in assessing the benefit to the intern, reach would also be a factor. Here, we could look at the likelihood of an article reaching a platform higher than the website as well as the destinations of the intern in terms of a career benefit. These benefits would be weighed against costs of time spent during the course of the internship weighed against the equivalent number of hours of paid work.

Essentially, I propose an investigation of employer financial cost and employer time cost weighed against employer financial benefit and employer exposure benefit. As well as a counter in intern exposure benefit, intern learning and career benefit and intern financial cost and intern time cost.

Then we can begin to have a conversation. If anyone is interested in seeing this study done or coordinating a similar study elsewhere, contact internsheep.canada@gmail.com.


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