On April 4th, 2014, I was listening to CBC Radio One (as I always do) and that particular day featured a discussion about “UnPaid Interns” on BC Almanac, hosted by Mark Forsythe. By the end of the program I was agitated (read: raging) and dropped everything (sorry, kids) to compose an email and send forth my thoughts on the subject.
As is the case with most, if not all, communications written in haste, it is riddled with writing errors: what I do hope is clear, however, is my disapproval of for-profit organizations exploiting the workforce under the pretence that interns are gaining such valuable workplace experience they don’t deserve a fair wage. Shame on these organizations and shame on our political bodies for not regulating this better.
Here is my letter below, copied & pasted from the original email.
Dear Mark & BC Almanac,
Your program today on unpaid internships has me all fired up. As a post-secondary instructor, I would like to weigh in on this after the fact: although the discussion doesn’t end today and thankfully will continue as proper legislation helps carve out a framework to address this very issue.
Although I recognize that there is likely a “good case” for each and every situation to be examined independently, in general unpaid internships are exploitive of the intern and fundamentally wrong for the employer. I sincerely doubt that those who decide to “hire” an unpaid intern don’t say, “hey let’s give someone a truly educational and fulfilling work experience to better their future career!”. No. They likely come to the decision by saying, “hey, let’s get an intern to do it.” Perhaps because I teach business I am more skeptical, but I’ve seen this attitude, I’ve heard these comments, and I believe this is the common attitude shared by for-profit employers when it comes to hiring interns to just, “do the job”.
I can’t help but wonder, and worry about, the kind of example these employers are setting for our future generation of leaders. They are basically telling them, and showing them, that other people do not matter. That they are not valued. They are disregarding the individual and instead focusing on the task at hand that needs to be accomplished, completed, tested, or fulfilled using the fewest resources possible. It’s bottom line driven. It’s exploitive.
There are no excuses for companies to not partner with an educational institution to ensure that any intern position is fulfilling educational goals. In the academic world these are called “Learning Objectives” or “Outcomes” and all of the courses we offer must fulfill these objectives. Perhaps a course can only deliver on its objectives by partnering with an employer, and in that case, compensation is very likely not necessary or appropriate. But it’s those companies who are approaching unpaid interns with the attitude of “just getting stuff done” that is not appropriate.
Finally, my other concern regarding this topic is the sort of “segregation” it creates in our society and more specifically amongst our working-able population. Those of privilege may be more likely to accept unpaid interns because of their own personal circumstances that allow them to forfeit income. I teach at an educational institution where many of our students are not privileged. They are likely holding down one or more jobs to pay for their schooling. And they likely are supporting family at home, or in a foreign country. Many of my students are already facing barriers to learning and work, the very idea of an unpaid internship in “exchange” for work experience further separates them from a class of students who already have a step up on them because they face few, if any, barriers. it’s wrong and it’s not what we should be condone in our diverse and multi-cultural society.
I see a number of offers come across my inbox for companies looking to “hire” unpaid interns in business roles. I refuse to endorse these and will not share them with my students. Perhaps employers don’t value them, but I do. And more importantly, I am doing my best to teach them how to value themselves and become ethical and moral leaders in the future.