Welcome to our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.
Working as an intern can be a great way to gain industry experience and bridge the one-to-three years of experience gap that's now often a requirement for "entry-level" positions.
The trouble with internships, however, is the lack of standardization of the term, which can lead to some serious muddy area for those seeking to gain footing in their career. And unfortunately, there are companies out there who are taking advantage of inexperienced job seekers by providing "internship" positions that are exploitative and illegal.
I've been on the good end and the bad end of the internship stick. On the good end, I was paid above minimum wage, worked only within my contracted hours, and provided with a great industry education. On the bad end, I was unpaid, overworked, received little relevant industry experience and no letter of reference.
How did I let myself end up in such a bad employment situation? All I can chalk it up to was that my job hunting desperation clouded my judgment and caused me to make a rash, ill-informed decision, and I trusted that the position my employer was offering was in line with the law.
According to Claire Seaborn, qualified lawyer in Ontario and founder of the Canadian Intern Association, that burden should be on the employer: "The employer should know that the program they're running is legal," she says.
And yet, I still wound up accepting a role at a company that capitalized on my lack of experience, simply because I was misguided as to what the term "intern" entailed.
What exactly should I have considered when seeking an internship? How could I have avoided this situation? Ms. Seaborn recommended a few tips for getting informed and protecting yourself.
- Understand what you are in your internship position. Ms. Seaborn recommends understanding your status within an organization as it applies to the law: “Figure out what you are: are you a student, a volunteer, a worker on a short-term contract, or a full-time staff member?” Once you know where your position falls, then you can seek the information you need to understand what’s expected of you and your employer.
- Know if an internship opportunity is legal or not. “Do your research – you can find the information you need by looking up your province or territory’s Employment Standards and on the Canadian Intern Association website,” advises Ms. Seaborn. Employment standards that apply to internships vary from province to province. Although the onus should be on the employer to comply, it’s also important that you know your rights so you can spot any red flags.
- Thoroughly review your contract. Don’t give your contract the scroll-through-and-click-”accept” treatment. Put the information you’ve gathered to good use and carefully review the paperwork to ensure that your pay, contracted hours, and time off are all in line with the law.
- Got the internship? Keep good records. Even if you’ve done your research, understand your position, and are one-hundred per cent certain that your contract is iron-clad, keep records of your employment in case you need to file a claim. “Keep a file and track your hours, as well as any email correspondence,” suggests Ms. Seaborn.
Fortunately, there are some excellent organizations out there that provide students and recent grads with internship opportunities that are both educational and lucrative. Unfortunately, the cloudiness surrounding the term "intern" can make these opportunities more difficult to find.
Launching your career isn't always a straight trajectory, but having the right information up your sleeve can help protect you from landing in a potentially harmful situation.
After all, you wouldn't build a bridge without a blueprint, right?