Recently there have been articles in the newspaper about students protesting unpaid internships. They feel that they should be paid an hourly wage, as they are usually expected to work at their host organization full-time for up to 3 months.

I totally understand why students would prefer to be paid for their internships. Usually they do not have time to work for another company because they are at their internship placement during the day and then they need to study at night. I completely understand, as I have also been a poor, starving student at different times in my life.

The Éco-quartier NDG receives many internship requests every year, as we have many interesting projects on the go, and have lots of experience hosting interns. We do not, however, have a budget to pay interns. We can only accept interns who are not looking to be paid, and thus it limits the partnerships that we can engage in. For instance, I received a call recently from a masters student who wanted to do her internship at Éco-quartier NDG. Unfortunately, her university’s internship contract clearly states that it is expected that she will be paid, and it was suggested that it be at least $21/hour, which is more than any of the Prevention CDN-NDG staff are paid! It would be very hard to justify paying an intern (who is there to learn) more than the employees who have already completed their studies and have worked for the organization for several years.

Prevention CDN-NDG is not alone in not being able to pay an intern. Many community organizations and nonprofit groups would never be able to pay an intern. Their budgets are already stretched so tightly, they don’t have the funds to pay someone who would like to join their team on a short-term basis. This limits the internships available for students, and often they are forced to do their internships at for-profit companies, which may not align with their values, or may not provide as enriching an opportunity as may have been found in the community sector.

Based on feedback from the many past interns that Eco-quartier NDG has hosted, there is value in having work experience in an organization, even if you are not paid. We have hosted countless language interns (amongst others) throughout the last 10 years, and the partnerships that we have with the language schools do not require that the interns be paid. Almost without exception, the students are so grateful for the practise speaking another language, it would not occur to them to ask for payment. In fact, many of them buy the staff a thank you gift at the end of their contract (often pastries or a pie!).

Internships are created so that students can learn from a mentor, so that they can ask questions, and be free to learn on the job without having all of the qualifications that would be required of an employee. Even if an intern is not paid, they benefit from the resources at an organization. When an organization hosts an intern, they agree to provide a working space, access to a computer, a phone and the internet. The host organization also agrees to mentor the intern, complete evaluations, and to offer some of the staff’s time to help the intern understand the project. All of this time spent with the intern is not negligible (can vary from 2 to 20 hours per week of the coordinator’s time).

In short, each intern is free to choose if they can afford to participate in an unpaid internship or not. They should recognize that whether they are paid or not, the goal is that they gain valuable work experience in their respective field.

By Nikki Schiebel