Would I rather be unemployed, or work for free? That’s a question many of us face at some point during our time at university and after we graduate.

Internship season is well underway and those of us who aren’t already employed are probably looking for positions that will open doors. Job-hunting beats watching another rerun of that show we hate (in theory). But the reality is that a lot of internships for students don’t pay very much, if at all. In industries like arts, culture, and journalism, the number of qualified applicants far surpasses supply of internships (even unpaid ones). I’ve come across many enticing job postings that pay about minimum wage, are unpaid internships, or are labeled as “volunteer/internship” (it’s confusing because I don’t think of the two as the same, and yet I see the terms conflated or used together more often).

Scrolling through job ads, the question comes up again: Sit around for X months or make an effort to gain “valuable experience,” even if that means you’re not earning an income?

For some, the answer to that question will be fielded by asking other questions: “Do I need more experience in this industry?” “Will this internship actually provide me with valuable experience?” “Will doing unpaid work pay off later?”

For others, the decision hinges mainly on affordability. A recent article in the Guardian contends that “Unpaid internships and a culture of privilege are ruining journalism”—in other words, unpaid internships open the door to those who can afford to be journalists and discourage those who can’t buy their way in. Students who don’t receive financial support need to pay for groceries, housing and utilities before anything else. Taking on a part-time job while doing an unpaid internship is an option, but it’s tiring and it means you’re not at the same start line as everyone else. Transportation costs add up, too. If it’s a two-hour commute per day, that turns out to be a large chunk of the summer—time that could be spent launching a start-up, taking a course to get ahead, or just taking time off to relax.

It’s not just a moral issue but a legal one as well. Media coverage has been picking up on what kinds of internships are legal and which aren’t. It’s one thing to volunteer for a non-profit organization that you care about—it’s another to replace a paid employee. If you’re doing work you didn’t sign up for or aren’t getting any training out of an unpaid internship, the position may be illegal.

When it comes to job hunting, it can be shortsighted to give ourselves ultimatums that revolve around unpaid work (“Should I take this unpaid internship now or do nothing?”). That mentality makes it easier for us to neglect our other options and disregard our potential as self-starters. When faced with a tempting unpaid internship, we should instead be asking: “Why should I take this? Is it the best fit for me right now, and would I get the same out of it as my employer?” Forget everything you’ve read or heard about ‘entitled millennial’ – an unpaid stint is at best an exchange between intern and employer (labour for training and experience). At worst, it’s an exploitative measure that makes it more okay for other companies to keep posting volunteer positions without looking at funding options.

Even if you barely have any job experience, I’d encourage you to think twice about digging into an unpaid internship. Ask why you need it, if you really do. If you feel like it is a good fit for you, be upfront about your goals and find out if they’re attainable before you go through with it. Learn as much as you can.

 

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