Isabelle Duchaine is a Masters of Global Governance candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She's also a (compensated) graduate fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. You can find her on Twitter at @iDuchaine.
Over the past seven years, young people have become accustomed to dour job prospects: The current unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds stands at 13.5 per cent, nearly double the national average.
Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz says he expects that gap to close over the next 24 months, a statement that would normally elicit some optimism. Instead, Mr. Poloz has reignited a firestorm of controversy with statements about unpaid internships.
At a House of Commons Committee, Mr. Poloz addressed the "scarring effect" of youth unemployment and underemployment, a phenomenon which sees new jobs allocated to the newest entrants into the labour market. In short, the plucky class of 2017 will get the crack at the newly-created jobs, not us old fogeys from the class of '14.
This is where the commentary turns from elation to despair; in the interim, Mr. Poloz counsels young people to turn to unpaid sources of labour for work experience. In his words, Mr. Poloz suggested that millennials should, "Get some real life experience even though you're discouraged, even if it's for free. If your parents are letting you live in the basement, you might as well go out and do something for free to put the experience on your CV."
If the choice is between sitting on your parent's couch and eating handfuls of leftover Halloween candy while marathoning Say Yes to the Dress or volunteering in your community, the choice is pretty clear. Picking up a shift at an animal shelter, freelancing for your local newspaper, or creating a blog are vastly more effective uses of time. However, Mr. Poloz's comments fail to address the truly terrifying news about the scarring effect: That unpaid internships aren't just for new entrants into the market. They're becoming the norm for young adults already brimming with work experience.
Lack of compensation doesn't impact all sectors equally; it seems ludicrous to suggest that grocery stores stop paying cashiers, or that banks shouldn't reimburse junior analysts. But the hazy legal definitions of unpaid internships and lax enforcement mechanisms have allowed cash-strapped organizations – many doing profoundly impactful work while operating on austerity budgets – to quietly roll back wages. I would make more money flipping burgers than I would interning for the United Nations.
Without a paycheck, young people are relying on loans – from banks, or from their families – to cover basic costs of living in cities offering coveted opportunities. And the UN is far from an anomaly; unpaid internships are the norm in many of the world's most prominent non-governmental organizations. The International Court of Justice in The Hague doesn't pay interns; neither does the Clinton Foundation. These jobs are also far from entry-level, with most successful applicants having at least one degree, relevant work experience, and a handful of intensive volunteer opportunities. This trend continues across a number of domestic industries, notably politics and media; sectors in which young grads clutching liberal arts degrees jump at the opportunity to put their academic chops to work. But after anywhere from 10 weeks to six months of interning, there's no guarantee of a job.
If unpaid internships were truly effective at preparing people for the work force, they wouldn't be stockpiling these opportunities. Young adults would have one or two, and then enter the job market with a killer combination of work experience and academic credentials. Instead, the UN example highlights a frightening cycle of unpaid internship, higher education, unpaid internship, and further education operating on a global level.
I worked an unpaid internship for an international NGO in the summer of 2014, which was a profoundly transformative and highly educational experience. I subscribed to Mr. Poloz' mentality throughout my undergrad years, throwing myself into co-curricular activities to not only add critical mass to my CV, but to construct a professional network as I prepared to kick off my career. These experiences added to my resume much more than my slightly-above minimum wage customer-service gig, with the added bonus of giving me immense joy and helping to build my community. My graduate program has an integrated internship component, but we've been cautioned that most opportunities in our field are unpaid. Most policy suggestions emphasize the need for more data, further clarification on the difference between volunteering, interning, and 'working', and increased enforcement by labour ministries. A chipper economic forecast for the next few years should have a positive impact on employment opportunities. But with Mr. Poloz admitting that 200,000 young people are out of work, underemployed, or heading back to the classroom in an attempt to get a leg up, the supply of desperate millennials doesn't seem to be running out anytime soon.
I've been working consistently since I was 14; when can I expect another paycheck?