Experience or exploitation?

In our ‘brave new economy,’ dreams are free. So, too, is labour

Your dream: realized! Are you a people-person? Are you a passionate, creative, web 2.0-savvy entrepreneur? Join our young, winning team in a fun, fast-paced environment: We work hard. We play harder. Successful applicants will have a post-secondary education, three to five years of progressive experience and access to a reliable car. Salary: Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Interns: So hot right now. Kanye West took an internship at the Gap. Ditto for Ryan Adams at celebrity rag Blackbook. Even New York Rangers pugilist Sean Avery got in on the action, spending an off-season honing his fashion chops at Vogue.

If there’s broader meaning to be gleaned from these celeb coffee-slingers, though, it’s that internships — once a white-collar luxury, confined to the medical, legal and engineering professions — are becoming requisite entry points into many industries. The American (cough, Canadian) dream of climbing the ladder from the mailroom up is becoming just that: a dream.

This is the crux of Ross Perlin’s book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, released last month via Verso Books. Perlin estimates that each year about two million Americans completed internships (with Disney famously hiring 8,000 alone), feeding a “cycle of exploitation.” The phenomenon, he says, has led to a spurt of questionably legal employment, in which interns exchange work for an exclusive education — one that rarely teaches much — or a resumé line.

“I’m glad I did it,” says Lindsey Wallis, who balanced an internship at Metro Calgary while working simultaneously as a music teacher and a waitress. “School’s an insulated environment. So, internships are for your resumé, but also for your personal experience and comfort in the workplace. On-the-ground experience is very important.”

Wallis has a point. A 2010 study conducted by University of Guelph sociology professor David Walters found that graduates from co-op programs, those combining alternating academic and placement terms, annually earned $8,000 more than grads of conventional programs. And with plenty of local post-secondary programs offering co-op placements — Mount Royal University, the University of Calgary and SAIT all joined the game — entry-level experience is being priced at a premium.


As a result, today’s post-academic intern resembles Ryan from The Office (U.S.) moreso than 30 Rock’s Kenneth — that is to say, they are highly educated, ambitious and trained for skilled labour. “The thing that surprised me was how good the students were,” Mount Royal assistant professor Janice Paskey says of her editor days at Avenue magazine. “They were actually quite capable. It gave us an extra person.”

According to a 2006 Statistics Canada census, almost 20 million Canadians have either a diploma, degree or certificate. Between 1999 and 2009, undergraduate enrolment increased by 40 per cent, prompting the Globe and Mail to declare that a “university degree just isn’t enough.” Meanwhile, a diploma is also a necessity: From 2008 to 2010, Canada created 280,000 new jobs requiring a university education, while shedding 260,000 jobs that didn’t require one.

What remains, however, is the rising cost of education. As of 2009, a Canadian undergraduate degree has a price tag of about $80,000. That burden traditionally fell on families and individuals, but now, they’re also tasked with the cost of buying work experience. Sure, historically, privilege landed three-month Conde Nast stints in New York and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) placements in Ghana. But now, even bit-administrative roles often demand internships, meaning that privilege isn’t just a privilege anymore.

That, says Simon Fraser University communications professor Enda Brophy, excludes large swaths of capable workers.

“It also raises the question [about the] effects this has on the composition of those industries going forward. If you make internships the gateway into getting a job in the field, you have to ask yourself who’s being excluded from jobs,” says Brophy. “There’s a really important issue of who can afford to work internships. People who come from low-income families and social groups that are traditionally marginalized are quite obviously going to have significant difficulties to make it through an unpaid internship.”

Internships, says Brophy, are part of a broader trend in developed nations: precarious, or flexible, employment. Over the last 30 to 40 years, he says, the “old model” of full-time, permanent positions has given way to short-term contracts, temporary work and, yes, free labour. Where, then, does that leave young workers?

“When I can write my landlord a cheque with experience for my rent, then I’ll be happy to get paid in experience,” says Wallis. “For work, you expect to get remunerated in some way. And I’m sorry, experience doesn’t count.”

Unless you’re Kanye West, of course. Still, if workplace neophytes are providing real work, then why aren’t they provided real pay?


At best, many internships function as a crude barter system: Work is exchanged for hands-on experience, professional guidance, a line on a CV and networking opportunities.

“The people that take interns can be very generous with their time and advice. Training a new person takes some amount of work,” says Paskey. “Employers, they’re all looking to provide an environment where they can say, ‘I wonder if I can hire this person.’ It’s keeping a tab on who the good people are, it’s more talent recruitment.”

Fair enough. But while some employers pay their interns fair wages — The Alberta Magazine Publishers Association helps fund many magazines’ student hirings, while the feds offer to subsidize half the wages with its Canada Summer Jobs program — others don’t. Why? Quite simply, because they don’t have to.

“That’s the way things have developed. It’s an evolution of the transition into the workforce,” says Peter Clarence Bowal, a University of Calgary economist and employment law specialist. “With the economy coming and going, it’s a buyer’s market. As long as there’s demand [for internships] from the workforce, we want to see people who have experience — that people are committed. And that’s putting in your time, paying your dues, working for free — or nobody else is going to provide that training. I guess that’s what we’re stuck with.”

Not that there aren’t consequences, says Brophy. “It tilts the power balance in favour of employers. If you have a glut of graduates who want to enter a certain field, it becomes easier for an employer to make demands,” he says. “In many industries, unpaid internships are no longer a choice, whether a job-seeker wants to participate in one or not.”

More troubling, perhaps, is that the grey-area definition for interns means their labour isn’t tracked. According to Statistics Canada analyst Vincent Ferrao, “If you are an intern and you indicate to the interviewer that you were working [when surveys are conducted], you will be classified as employed. However, there is no information produced about the number of interns that are working.”

What that means, then, is that of the 500,000 jobs created since 2009 — a key stat used during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s election campaign, although most were part-time jobs and in the service industry — a significant amount may have been internships. And in a still-tender recession economy, it’s a fair assumption.

Still, even though the try-before-you-buy system is greatly beneficial to employers, those benefits don’t often translate to interns. In fact, according to Bowal, the City of Calgary legally defines unpaid interns as “volunteers,” meaning that employers aren’t responsible for pay, benefits or workers’ compensation.

“They don’t fall under most employment regulation if it’s unpaid,” says Dorothy Koch, a career counsellor with Alberta Employment. “Unpaid internships are part of a training program or a placement. [They don’t have] things like workers’ compensation, and they don’t have things like insurance.”

Indeed, Canada has yet to develop organizations such as Britain’s Internocracy, France’s Generation Precaire and Germany’s Fairwork — organizations that advocate for the rights of interns. The good part? As “volunteers,” interns can quit any time they want, says Bowal.

“From a legal point of view, I don’t know of any obligations. It’s not a recognized category any more than me volunteering at the Mustard Seed,” he says. “They can withdraw at any time.”

But with the selling points of a beefed-up CV, networking opportunities and a supposed investment in the future, why would a young worker want that? It’s a buyer’s market, after all.

Brophy adds: “You’ll frequently hear employers suggest that a free internship is a choice that’s made — it’s not exploitation because someone walks freely into my office and asks for an internship. To an extent, they have a point.... But when you have internships becoming necessary to access a job in the industry, then it becomes a lot less of a matter of choice and a lot more of a matter of necessity.”


Calgary-born entrepreneur Jeremy Gutsche is recession-era success. A finance grad from the University of Calgary, he launched trendhunter.com, a website that accrues 35 million views per month, which, in turn, curates trend reports that have been sold to conglomerates such as Google, Microsoft and Pepsi. Its meteoric, five-year rise has earned Gutsche plenty of accolades: He was his alma mater’s alumnus of the decade; he was the Business Development Bank of Canada’s 2011 Young Entrepreneur award-winner; and he earned Cisco’s 2011 Innovation Excellence award.

But aside from Gutsche’s efforts — he says he’s always felt “like an entrepreneur” — he also managed to launch trendhunter.com without using venture capital. Largely, that’s because he identified the realities of the modern workplace, and, by extension, the realities faced by modern workers. He capitalized.

“It causes you to give away a lot of your company, a lot of your control,” says Gutsche of using venture capital. “We didn’t hire a lot of writers. We started Trend Hunter Academy, which is like an internship, but it’s also an education.”

That’s what Gutsche called, on a segment of Business News Network, a “creative solution” for tight-belted startups. At present, he says, his company employs 10 full-time employees and nine interns. Each of those interns — who learn marketing, journalism and/or social media tools — is not paid for three months, then gets compensated $1,500 at the end of their fourth.

This is the pinnacle of the new-school model: While offering an environment nurturing of his interns’ “passions” and a vibrant company culture, Gutsche essentially gets cheap labour and, potentially, trained candidates (one of three academy grads, he says, goes on to work with trendhunter.com in some capacity).

But if Gutsche built his business on the backs of interns, he’s hardly a bloodsucker. Instead, he’s exercising solid business acumen: He tapped into a pool of innovative talent that will grow his business at the monthly rate of less than $400 per head. That’s a bargain he’d be insane to pass up. That’s not even mentioning the amount of user-generated free content — that hallmark of Web 2.0 — the site uses.

So, are companies like Gutsche’s walking a fine ethical line? For Brophy, that’s difficult to answer.

“Speaking personally, I don’t agree with the practise,” he says. “It’s unethical for at least these two reasons: First, it’s ageist. It assumes that people who are new entrants to a labour market don’t deserve to get paid. Second, it’s classist, in that it gives an advantage to those who can work for free. I think the practise, as far as it encourages those two forms of exclusion and exploitation, is unethical.”

“I’d personally like to see the practise abolished.”

No such luck yet. Now, even the Alberta Government has hopped onto the internship wagon. The province recently announced its Serving Communities Internship Program, which promises interns working at non-profits and/or volunteer organizations bursaries of $1,000 upon completion of their job. (Its website’s tagline: “How do you grow Alberta communities? That’s easy. Simply add interns.”)

Where that experience at a non-profit and/or volunteer organization takes interns, however, is unclear: While every intern interviewed for this story was satisfied with their experiences, none landed a full-time position at the place they interned. “How successful internships become and how successful [interns] are at securing a job — keeping an eye on that dynamic will be important,” says Brophy. “If it turns out that internships are replacing entry-level jobs, you’ll find more and more people that are frustrated and upset about their internships.”

Former intern Wallis says that appears to be the case.

“You’re looking at these [businesses] saying ‘We have no money, we’re going bankrupt,’” she says. “But if industries aren’t sustaining because their business model doesn’t work, you can’t just say, ‘Well, I’m not going to pay people who work for me.’”

Follow Mark Teo on Twitter at @excitement

[CORRECTION: Lindsey Wallis's name was incorrectly spelled "Wallace."]

Comments: 5

Cawlin wrote:

What really scares me is how often interns are expected to work long and hard without any real guidance, opportunity or networking. The trade isn't happening they are just being treated as free labourers.

on Jun 2nd, 2011 at 10:03am Report Abuse

Lindsey Wallis wrote:

What, you guys have unpaid interns doing your fact-checking now? ;) Wallis. Not Scottish, British.

on Jun 2nd, 2011 at 10:53am Report Abuse

mducasses wrote:

This makes me really sad - I lived in New York City for 3 years where this has been the norm and acceptable for years now, and I was happy that it wasn't the case here, but I guess the system has migrated over just like all the American companies: Victoria Secret, H & V, etc have.

on Jun 2nd, 2011 at 2:14pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

As population persistently increases, the number of jobs persistently decreases because of technological advances. So many people are severely exploited as they try to gain the qualities required to retain a meaningful, satisfactory job that pays a reasonable wage.
I remember way back in 1962, as an 8-year old living in Windsor, Ont., listening to a radio program on a Detroit station. Walter Reuther spoke about the need for the governments of the western world to change labour laws. He suggested that they reduce the standard work week to 30 or 32 hours (5 X 6 hr. day, or 4 X 8 hr. day).
By so doing, they could ensure that virtually everyone could have a full-time job. Crime would decrease and unemployment would be near to zero.
That was almost a half-century ago, and it still has not happened. Of course, back then there was almost no "homelessness" at all. Today, despite great efforts by many, it just seems to increase. We seem to be losing ground.
I am near retirement age, so I am "safe", but I feel very badly for people who are under 30 today. Their future seems bleak. I wonder whether Anthony Burgess was prescient when he wrote "A Clockwork Orange"? Sometimes it is difficult for me to remain an optimist.

on Jun 2nd, 2011 at 11:25pm Report Abuse

panelsmasher wrote:

What makes these jobs so damn popular?? In the 30 years of my trade, I haven't heard of not paying people at least 8hrs a day. . . .for trades. . .I bet to say some or most of these jobs promise high wages after all the "free" experience has been made, and most of these "desk jobs" are bottle-neck or on their way to becoming just that. I can't count the amount of hours I've eaten because of my passion, I was told by one of my Mentors that to be fully employed for a very long time, a person should know as much as three. . . .it pays off when your older. . . imagine telling that to a youngster today. Whatever these "interns" do, they probably don't get their hands dirty. . . this system works just fine, don't change a thing. . .

on Jun 3rd, 2011 at 11:41pm Report Abuse

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