Sean Geobey skeptical of unpaid internships


Some students say they simply can’t afford to work for free. (EDMOND LU photo)

A researcher from the University of Waterloo sees youth unemployment as Canada’s “collective problem,” and the rise of unpaid internships in the job marketplace may be hindering more than helping.

Several students said they can’t pay bills with job prospects alone.

“An amazing opportunity is no good if I’m living in a cardboard box.” Said Megan Muir, an environmental studies student.

Some students see it as an investment for the future.

“As long as it’s in my field, I’d still be able to put it on my resume, even if it’s unpaid.” Said Jo Marcilla, a nursing student.

A recent report published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives titled The Young and the Jobless examines employment problems for those aged 15-24 in Ontario. Sean Geobey, the author of the report and a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo, doesn’t believe these internships actually lead to job opportunities.

“If they’re not paying you, they don’t have a strong incentive to ensure that you are going to be doing real work that’s providing real value to the company,” said Geobey in a phone interview. “So it’s questionable whether or not it’s giving you skills that will be valuable in the marketplace.”

The Employment Standards Act in B.C. states that any work that would normally be done by a paid employee must be compensated with the provincial minimum wage, unless the work is being done for school credit, which makes many unpaid internships technically illegal. Still, there is some evidence that unpaid internships persist in the marketplace. The Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, HootSuite and even Bell Mobility were recently the subject of some controversy over advertising unpaid internship positions.

Unfortunately, very few statistics are gathered on interns, so it’s difficult to know for sure how these unpaid positions affect employability. The Canadian Intern Association, a non-profit organization that “advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve the internship experience for both interns and employers” recently partnered with two graduate students from the University of Victoria to conduct a survey to “address the gap in knowledge surrounding unpaid internships in Canada.”

But this is not a problem young people can solve alone, says Geobey. “Too much of the conversation is about what responsibilities young people have. This is an inter-generational responsibility, older workers have to train younger workers, and young workers have to learn the skills to be productive in the future.”

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