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The intern economy

Full-time salaried jobs continue to be a scarcity

By David Wilson

I graduated from university in 1977 without the foggiest idea about what to do next. I spent most of the next year backpacking, doing odd jobs and filling out application forms in factories. The rejection notices piled up, and I sank into a funk.

Finally, the editor of a small-town newspaper agreed to let me write some articles. I wouldn’t get paid, but I could shop around my bylines. I threw myself into my assignments as if I’d landed a job at the New York Times. I chased ambulances, covered local council meetings, worked the police beat, shivered in freezing hockey arenas and crafted gushing accounts of Rotary barbecues. I sped from assignment to assignment in a 1965 Valiant my parents bought for $75. I gassed it up on my own dime.

For all intents and purposes, I was an unpaid intern. The paper probably broke the law by taking me on. My work wasn’t tied to any educational program, and the stories I wrote for free meant someone who should have been paid a salary to write them wasn’t. But I never gave the law a second thought. I was grateful for the chance to learn and prove myself.

Fast-forward 45 years. As doctoral student and journalist Chelsea Temple Jones reports this month (“All work and no pay”), internships have become a way of life for young adults seeking a foothold in the job market. As many as 300,000 interns in Canada and upwards of a million in the United States are working in jobs that too often provide little or nothing in the way of wages and offer only a faint hope of opening doors to a career. Many end up trapped in a dispiriting cycle of go-nowhere positions as more and more employers build low- or no-paying internships into their business plans.

Temple Jones knows of what she writes. She’s been through four internships. One of them was a year-long turn with this magazine while one of our editors was away on maternity leave. She did not get rich from the salary we paid her (read her story to find out how much it was), but I’m content that we lived up to a commitment to make her time with us as rewarding and enjoyable as possible. We make that commitment to all the interns we employ, whether they come our way through our paid summer program or on short-term course-work assignments. I suppose that commitment has something to do with my own time as a rookie learning the ropes.

In the seven years we’ve been running our summer program, we’ve watched the number of paid journalism internships in Canada plummet. Today a paid internship with a magazine is the exception, not the rule. Internships that lead to full-time salaried jobs are even scarcer. I take great satisfaction in knowing that some of our former interns are well established in their careers. But I’m also aware that some haven’t been able to find jobs that pay a decent salary and offer a respectful working environment.

The grim truth is that the intern economy is probably a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have careers owe it to young people starting theirs to pay forward the breaks others gave us early on. We can urge our elected officials to support measures to toughen labour laws against unscrupulous employers. If we employ interns, we can provide a clear work plan and agree on a set of expected outcomes.

Cleaning up the intern economy needn’t be rocket science. It’s really a matter of basic justice. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you — or your kids or grandkids — is as good a starting point as any.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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