Sure I’ll work . . . but for free?

I have been slave to many an academic institution over the course of my (nearly) 22 years of life. Since entering school at the age of four, I have (for the most part) rigorously pursued my education. I’ve done the homework, taken the tests, regurgitated the facts, and willingly returned every September to do it all again. I have eagerly jumped through all of the hoops, been graded by letters and percentages and at long last, I have a clear shining light in my sights: graduation.

It’s not that I feel hard done by; I have always had a healthy optimism when it comes to higher education. I work hard to put myself in the best position to get a good job. Of course, most of us dream a little bigger than that. My post-graduation fantasy goes something like this: land the role of editor for a hot-shot magazine equipped with benefits, a big fat pay check and someone to bring me delicious English Breakfast tea (even university couldn’t make me enjoy coffee).

The reality is, after I graduate it is more likely that I will be the one bringing the tea, the coffee, the photocopies . . . et cetera, et cetera. It all comes down to two dreaded words: unpaid internship. Shiver.

Now, I do understand the benefits for students: you get a foot in the door of the industry, meet important contacts, and get a chance to put your skills to the test outside the classroom. What an excellent idea. But to get paid nothing? Not a cent? I’m not so sure about that part.

I recently came across an article about journalism student, Bethany Horne, who has decided to publicly stand up to the Man and boycott unpaid internships. Raising valid points such as skilled workers deserving a wage and the unequal opportunity presented by unpaid internships, it was not only sensible but had a hint of an underdog Hollywood movie. One person takes a stand against the wrongs of society. Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but I certainly had a brief ‘you go girl’ moment.

When it comes down to it though, there seems to be one major flaw in this plan and I couldn’t help ask the obvious question – won’t someone else just take the position? Defeatist as that may seem, the reality is that you could boycott every unpaid internship position in the world and other students will still line up to fill them.

So, why one person would choose to boycott any offer to work full-time for nothing is not what intrigues me. That makes perfect sense. What really puzzles me is why so many young graduates are willing to do so?

In his recently published expose Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Ross Perlin takes a look into what he calls the “intern boom” that has spread across Canada and the US. Perlin argues that unpaid internships have increasingly become the standard route for students trying to enter the workplace. With a string of intern horror stories – ranging from Disney World to NBC — he highlights how students can be left doing grunt work with little to no benefits.

For employees, it is not hard to see the advantages of offering unpaid internships. They provide free labour and the chance to gauge potential employees more accurately than you could in any interview. In a time of economic uncertainty, cutbacks and lay-offs, companies can save costs by bringing in interns to do less significant tasks.

For students, the draw of unpaid internships comes from an increasingly competitive job market. With the Baby Boomer generation nearing retirement, there should be plenty of jobs becoming available for graduates. The problem is companies need experienced workers to fill the gaps in the job market.

The “credential creep,” as it is known, means employers can demand higher and higher credentials for a position. The more people pursue higher education, the more it becomes necessary to be able to offer something other than an undergraduate degree. In some cases, that means having relevant job experience.

Solution: companies will give you experience if, in turn, you work for free. It’s a system which not only excludes individuals who can’t afford to work for free, but adds even greater weight to those who have gone in to debt over years of paying tuition fees.

However, if job searching was akin to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel and you chose the route of “boycott unpaid internship,” you may find yourself getting paid to work in a job that won’t help you get to the destination of dream career.

While I certainly don’t have any real-life expectations of big pay checks, benefits or delicious English teas, I would like to think that after graduating I will be able to put my years of schooling to good use. Is getting paid a little to work too much to ask? I sincerely hope not.