Working for a better world: Good work for no pay

How young people can prepare for a life in international development
Why unpaid internships are the norm

Internships can be key to your career development. They allow you to experience a new type of work, learn skills, network with people who matter in your field and build a killer resume. But in organizations working in human rights, social justice and development sectors, internships are rarely paid. Are internships just free labour, or are they necessary and rewarding additions to your university experience?
To find out what an internship at a nongovernmental organization might mean, I spoke with three specialists: Sylvain Schetagne, a labour market economist at Canadian Labor Congress; Iris Unger, the Executive Director of YES Montreal (Youth Employment Services); and Jessica Lockhart, Programs Administrator for Youth Challenge International (YCI).

Nonprofits and charities use volunteer power and modestly-paid professionals to undertake most development, human rights and social justice work. The notion of an internship – especially an unpaid one – is considered normal by most students and recent graduates in those fields. Interns may accept meager or no pay because they know compensation in the nonprofit sector is typically lower than the for-profit sector. And NGOs pursue goals that attract young university graduates who forego compensation for the chance to work on social issues they feel are important.

“In NGOs the level of compensation is lower because they are dependent on federal and provincial government revenues, donations, and memberships, to survive” said labour market specialist Sylvain Schetagne. “NGOs also tend to use more of their resources on achieving their goals than on compensating their workers.”

Iris Unger of YES Montreal says that the unpaid internship trend might also be due to a generational shift, with young people more interested in philanthropy and helping the world than in their level of income.

While attractive goals and philanthropic ideals might be reasons why many students and university graduates accept unpaid work, their employers usually ask their interns to work for free simply because they lack the means to do otherwise.

“A lot of nonprofit organizations do not have the resources they need, and there are a lot of people who want to work in these areas,” Unger says. “Unpaid internships become the solution.”

She also linked the phenomenon of unpaid internships to the gap between the number of interested applicants and the number of paid positions in human rights, social justice and international development. “It’s the result of a need and a want that isn’t financially supported.”

Jessica Lockhart of Youth Challenge International agrees that the NGO job market has difficulty absorbing the high numbers of interested applicants. “We see a huge influx of graduates from international development programs who are having difficulty finding paid placements or employment.”

Defining the internship

Traditionally, an internship was a practical learning experience associated with a student’s education, but Schetagne is concerned about the use of the term “internship” in the current labor market. “It’s important to debate what constitutes an internship and what has been a tendency to overuse the term to gain access to cheap or forced labor.”

According to him, an internship should be defined by the student’s ability to receive recognized credit from an educational institution for the work they are doing. “Everything else after that becomes a work related program or volunteering.”

Unger agrees. “Once a student leaves this defined experience, it becomes volunteerism,” she said.
To make the most of an internship experience, students should remember that the goal of an internship is to integrate it into their education, Schetagne says. “There seems to be a growing number of students doing internships in order to gain work related experience, and that’s good. Expecting students to do an internship after they graduate, to integrate into the labor market, is problematic.”

Incentives for unpaid work

To help relieve the burden of unpaid internships, more schools are offering academic credit and recognition for participation in work-related programs. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of students applying for co-op credit through their experience here at YCI,” Lockhart said.

She thinks that universities are recognizing that there are a number of unpaid internships out there, and she has noticed new incentives to encourage students to incorporate practical experiences into their academic degree. Even so, she believes that students don’t know about the many free government services that help people find internships at low or minimal costs.

Students should also consider government and scholarship programs within their local or university communities. “If I was still a student, I would explore options within my university. And these can usually also be accessed as an alumnus,” she said.

Unger thinks a lack of funding in nonprofits is a concern. “Theoretically there should be more money for these organizations so that they can afford to pay people to be in those fields,” she said. But even in the absence of funding, internships are valuable, Unger says. “Organizations and companies can use internship programs as a means to help people gain experience, get a foot in the door, and put something concrete on their resume.”

Tips on finding an internship

1. Find out what your school offers. Most universities have an internship office that helps students find placements and scholarships to help offset the costs.
2. Check on-line resources:
Federal Student Work Experience Program
International Youth Internship Program
International Scholarships
Department of Heritage
Job Bank Canada
Youth Employment Strategy

Laurie Drake