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Should students work unpaid internships?

Would you work an unpaid internship? (Photo by Mel Hattie)
Would you work an unpaid internship? (Photo by Mel Hattie)

I’m a journalist, by some small definition. To broaden this definition, I’m taking classes at King’s, with the goal of obtaining an honours degree in journalism. Along this path, I will eventually be seeking internship with news media companies. My preliminary inquiries into the matter yielded two vats of internships: paid and unpaid. But as much value as I am willing to give immersion-learning through internship, it would have to be a juicy opportunity to make me work without pay—academic credits or not.

‘Unpaid’ specifically indicates money, of course, and experience is a different kind of currency that we can often gather for our use. But this value that interns gain through experience is kind of like points at the grocery store: each unit is ultimately worth fractions of a cent, you can’t use them at other stores, and you have a vague suspicion that your benefactor is screwing with you. Kind of bleak, but given that ‘intern’ can carry an unfortunate connotation of ignorance and lackey status, they can be milked for hard work by dangling the promise of social acceptance at the end.

Being the only type of person in the workplace who is not paid in real currency for their hard work is not easy. Since the intern is seen as gaining ‘valuable experience’ as a form of payment for their services, it automatically presumes a hierarchy that puts a lower value on any contributions the intern makes. Good ideas come from everywhere, and since there are plenty of ‘inexperienced’ people who are on the cutting edge of their own fields of interest, intern input could be useful. Here again, intern culture rears its ugly head; a pool of new ideas for free, hierarchically designed to benefit ‘gatekeepers’ in companies who ‘discover’ the ideas.

Of course, I am picking away at all the worst parts of internship, spawning monsters where indeed there may be none. Internship is an attempt at closing the gap between basic theoretical skills and practical experience, and it is difficult to come up with alternatives. Given bleak job markets, I’m a little confused as to what internship might hope to achieve as a general idea, though I’m sure some fields are in high demand—as TV ads tell me. Still, it is entirely possible to have a positive unpaid internship experience, and if it truly feels worthwhile, then it must be.

What I want to fight is the notion that unpaid internship is an acceptable practice in every case, especially when citing ‘bad economic conditions.’ In my opinion, you pay people for the work they do for you. Part-pay, housing paid, training period, all are decent compromises if deliberated openly and mutually. In the end, the donation of one’s labour must have the potential for a positive, tangible result. In cases where skilled, unpaid labour is required as part of an already-expensive degree programme, unpaid internship may fit some definition of exploitation. At its worst, unpaid internship is the exploitation of hopeful aspirations and willing attitudes for cheap labour and ideas. At its best, unpaid internship is a calculated risk, a mutual investment of resources to gain valuable experience.

In a market already flooded by unemployed, educated people my age, my time is either worth something or it isn’t. Potential careers abound, but a fulfilling one is in the development of craft that begins with cultivating the value of your skill—and you’re worth every cent.

THE FLIPSIDE: Absolutely!


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