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When Lena Dunham’s character in the TV series Girls suggests that her employer actually pay her, she gets fired. (JOJO WHILDEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
When Lena Dunham’s character in the TV series Girls suggests that her employer actually pay her, she gets fired. (JOJO WHILDEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

YOUTH EMPLOYMENT

Is it time to say goodbye to unpaid internships? Add to ...

In the first episode of Girls, creator Lena Dunham’s alter ego Hannah, a writer interning for a publishing company in New York, gets unceremoniously cut off financially by her parents, who demand she do the unthinkable – make a living. When Hannah cautiously suggests to her “employer” that he should consider paying her, she is fired.

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Many of us, especially in the media industry, can relate in some way to Hannah’s experience. I remember when my first internship ended, the staff gathered around to tell me what a wonderful a job I had done and wish me well. But instead of eating cake, I really wanted to blurt out “just put me on the payroll!”

On the other hand, that internship helped me land my first paying job. The hiring manager even overlooked his requirement that I possess a master’s degree in journalism from an expensive Ivy League college after seeing clippings of my articles published during that internship.

But somewhere along the line, internships – meant to bridge the skills gap between formal education and an entry-level job – evolved into an accepted way for companies to demand free labour.

In recent years, a chorus of discontent has arisen over unpaid internships, most notably in several high-profile lawsuits, including ones against Fox Searchlight Pictures and Hearst Magazines. Condé Nast shut down its internship program last week after an earlier lawsuit.

It seems the time has come to say goodbye to the lowly internship. But before we do, we need to find solutions to fill the gap in the marketplace for recent graduates who may not possess the skills and opportunities to land that critical first job.

Let’s not forget that the reason many of us begged and borrowed for the honour of picking up coffee and answering phones came down to one thing: access to opportunity. Internships allow young, inexperienced wannabe professionals to learn the ropes, widen their networks and open themselves up to being in the right place at the right time when paying opportunities do arise.

“There seems to be an explosion in internships in Canada, which is why they certainly merit more scrutiny than they have in the past,” said Sean Geobey, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the author of a recent report called The Young and the Jobless. He cites data by Andrew Langille, a labour lawyer and founder of www.youthandwork.ca, which estimates there are between 100,000 and 300,000 unpaid internships in Canada each year.

While Mr. Geobey acknowledges that these internships fill a gap in the education-to-employment system, the impact of exploiting young workers desperate for a job not only hurts them, it damages companies and industries as well.

“This isn’t necessarily about greed – though for some employers that plays a role. It is more that once an organization has access to free labour, it can outcompete other organizations in its field, forcing them to use free labour as well. Eventually, it hollows out an entire industry. To make matters worse, it burns people out, makes it hard for them to acquire skills and really can destroy the productivity of a work force,” he warned.

Even those of us who benefited from an internship think the practice may have gone too far.

Meaghan Kappel, a 28-year-old media professional working at a startup in Toronto, characterized her internship for an American fashion editor living in Prague as “The Devil Wears Prada, Soviet-style.” Yet, she credits her later success to the experience. After six months, Ms. Kappel possessed the skills and contacts to freelance independently and her former boss remains a close mentor and friend.

“When I was young and just starting out, I wouldn’t have thought twice about whether my internship was a necessary evil or important stepping stone. Today, I do see how companies can take advantage of young people by essentially disguising unpaid labour as an internship,” Ms. Kappel said.

She’s thrilled that big companies are re-evaluating their internship practices. She also believes that co-op programs and apprenticeships may provide a strong alternative to internships – an idea shared by others, including Mr. Geobey. However, she said the appeal of internships for many young workers is symptomatic of a much larger issue. For many young professionals, viable work opportunities simply don’t exist.

“I do see this as a trap that some young professionals fall into – they see working as an intern as better than not working at all,” she said.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah@rallyyourgoals.com

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