Unpaid Internships and the Obstacles to Economic Mobility

My first year of University was ending and everyone was talking about their summer plans and the internships they had lined up (their parents knew someone who knew someone). I wondered if my family knew anyone in the corporate, professional world who would offer me an internship. The reality was, I had no connections, and I was going to take on more hours at my minimum wage retail job.

At the time, everyone would stress the importance of internships, you would gain valuable work experience, and that it would lead to jobs so if it was unpaid, it was just part of “paying your dues.” At this point, I had already completed a year of volunteering at a television network and one unpaid internship to graduate from my college diploma before transferring to university. I really could not afford to do another unpaid internship, but I also could not afford not to given how critical they are in launching careers. Coming from a single-family immigrant household, and knowing the importance of building my network and need for economic mobility, I began to apply anywhere and everywhere.

During my search, I stumbled on a position at an arts organization that was paid (minimum wage, but paid!) and quickly put my name forward. As I continued to search for openings, I received a call for an interview for a public relations internship at one of the most coveted arts organizations in the country! I was overwhelmed and terrified at the same time; this would be my big break if I could get in. At the interview, I learned that there were more than 500 applicants, I felt like I won the lottery, and that even if I did not get the job, I was recognized, and all the free work was worth it. The following week I received the call that I landed the internship (!), I said thank you and proceeded to burst into tears as soon as the call ended.

According to a 2018 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, when employers are deciding between two equally qualified candidates, completing an internship ranked higher in what influences their hiring decision compared to the applicants’ major or their GPA. Looking back, that internship was my big break, and if the internship was unpaid, I might not have been able to launch my career in the non-profit sector. I worry for the sector as unpaid internships could limit the intern pool to those with the financial means and leave students from more diverse economic and cultural backgrounds behind by lowering their chances of building vital work experience.

Today, the federal government has banned unpaid internships in federally regulated industries, and in Ontario, the Ministry of Labour has clarified that they are legal in only certain instances, i.e., academic credit. However, in provinces such as Nova Scotia and Québec non-profits are exempt and can offer unpaid internships. In a Brookings blog post by Joanna Venator, she writes,

One of the obstacles to greater intergenerational mobility (of the relative kind) is the ‘glass floor’ that keeps less-talented children born to affluent parents at the top of the income ladder. One way in which affluent parents protect their children from falling is by using personal or professional connections to arrange job or internship opportunities—but there are less-visible forms of protection, such as paying the summer living costs that make an unpaid internship feasible. This is not meritocracy: It is opportunity hoarding.

Here is the issue: If you are not paid the likely options to support yourself are:
a) work throughout the year and save enough to cover your expenses for the summer (housing, food, transportation etc. – basic needs)
b) Have the assistance of parents/loved ones to support you financially
c) spend energy and time and take on a second job.

I chose c).

I spent two hours commuting each way and then another 1.5 -2 hours (depending on transit) to get to my part-time job after my internship – I spent nearly 6 hours of my day commuting, I did this daily. I never wanted anyone to know how long my commute was or where I lived, anxious that I may not be given the job or have someone assume I could not make it work. My quality of life suffered, but I made it work for that summer. I truly believe unpaid internships pose a major barrier to entering the non-profit sector (or any sector for that matter), creating inequality and a decline in racial representation as the entry cost is too high—inaccessible.