Intern stories: tales from the front lines of unpaid employment
CBCNews.ca readers share their stories of working as unpaid interns.
Stories from the front lines of unpaid employment
"The potential networking and experience that I was promised was more important to me than getting paid."
Adrienne Middlebrook chose to do an unpaid internship at the Hockey News Magazine while attending Humber College in Toronto in 2010.
The four-month gig, during which Middlebrook interned two days a week and attended classes three days a week, was part of mandatory coursework.
“The potential networking and experience that I was promised was more important to me than getting paid,” she said. Middlebrook adds that her parents “graciously paid my tuition for me” and she would babysit for extra spending money.
She says her experience was a positive one.
“The editor-in-chief and managing editor wanted to give their interns as much experience as possible,” she said. Middlebrook attended NHL hockey games alongside professional reporters, interviewed players and wrote about games.
“It was so much more than I had ever expected from interning there, and I still carry that experience with me to this day.”
Since then, Middlebrook has completed a communications degree from York University and is now working as a paid intern at a content curation company. Though, she admits, “my internship did not lead to my current job.”
Myles Dolphin is not convinced that unpaid internships should exist, but says “in my case, it paid off.”
Dolphin did a three-week internship at the Canadian Press in Montreal last year. The Canadian Press awarded him a small stipend for his work. It was “far less than minimum wage.”
Despite the small salary, and “being virtually penniless at the time,” Dophin says he was, “more than ready to tighten my belt and do the internship.”
He acquired knowledge that was crucial to his development as a reporter.
“I worked alongside some extremely talented and experienced reporters, some of the best in the business. I got the opportunity to have my stories featured in all of Canada’s major newspapers – some of the footage I shot even made it on national television.
“I was even set free from a police kettle one night because of my association with the prestigious company.”
At the end of the three weeks, Dolphin says he received a fabulous reference, which helped land him his job in a competitive industry.
“The rewards far outweighed the risks.”
"Despite being virtually penniless at the time, I was more than ready to tighten my belt and do the internship."
- Myles Dolphin
“I applied to every design job opening I could find … No one was hiring, especially not a 21-year-old fresh out of college with minimal experience.”
- Alisha Denomme
Alisha Denomme, a graphic design college graduate, found herself in what she calls a “hopelessly dead end” retail job after a poor internship experience.
“Dejected, depressed and desperate, I realized I had become one of those millennial statistics of the un/underemployed – broke and living in my old bedroom in my parents’ house,” she says.
In January 2009, Denomme started a 120-hour internship with a fairly new strategic branding company. The internship was a pre-graduation requirement for her graphic design program at Georgian College.
Denomme says she was treated as a full-time junior designer and was responsible for a “large and profitable project” with some supervision. She says she supplied her own computer and Adobe programs for the work.
After her three-week stint, the owners asked her to continue and finish the projects she had started. But, Denomme says, “the longer I stayed, the more projects I was given.”
After eight weeks, her grades started to slip. When she approached her employers about this, they offered to pay her $14/hour, but scaled back on her work hours.“I was working half the amount of time, but still had the same amount of work to finish,” she says. “By the time I realized that they still expected me to do office work on my own time, unpaid, it was too late.”
She says the company let her go shortly after. Denomme was devastated, having hoped they would hire her post-graduation and having already informed her summer jobs she would not be returning.
“I applied to every design job opening I could find,” she says. “No one was hiring, especially not a 21 year old fresh out of college with minimal experience.”
After a year working retail, Denomme decided to move in with her dad in Wisconsin, where she completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in communication design. She now works at an advertising company as an art director.
In the States, all of Denomme’s internships have been paid, and she said she wishes Canada offered more security for interns and temporary workers.
“This system is a broken one and the longer we allow companies to keep a revolving door of unpaid interns, the faster we will win the race to the bottom.”
"My hope is that these types of negative stories won't deter businesses from providing internships for fear of being sued."
- Stephanie Hogan
Stephanie Hogan worries that the recent upsurge of former interns suing their ex-employers for back pay will stop companies from providing great internships, like the one she did.
“My hope is that these types of negative stories won’t deter businesses from providing internships for fear of being sued,” she said.
She was studying at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and her program required a three-month internship during the final term.
“I landed an internship with an awesome advertising agency,” said Hogan, who called her time there “an invaluable experience.”
Her mentor – a graduate of the same program Hogan was enrolled in – “was a great teacher, very patient and went above and beyond to make sure I was exposed to as much as possible.”
Hogan admits that every internship will undoubtedly include some mundane tasks, but argues that has less to do with being the intern and more with being the least senior ranking person in the office.
“I once tagged a few hundred cans of beer with a promotional tag not because I was the intern, but because I was the least senior person in the office and someone needs to do it. That’s how how things work in a business setting.”
Hogan believes that if someone proves they are “willing to do whatever you need to do to get the job done,” they will get the job.
Her internship led to a paid contract position, which she terminated in March 2012 to spend a year abroad.
Despite completing all of her coursework, Carrie O’Marra hasn’t been able to graduate from her two-year radio broadcasting program at Humber College because the 48-year-old mother cannot afford to take on an unpaid internship.
“I take care of my Mom who has Alzheimer's and working for nothing is simply not an option,” she says. “I have an adult life with adult expenses!”
Already involved in the arts scene through volunteering for a radio show, O’Marra decided to enroll in the program after she was forced to sell her family farm. Her father, the primary farmer from 1993 to 2011, had died.
She paid for school using government loans, while continuing to care for her college-age daughter and live-in mother.
The school requires its students to complete a 160-hour internship and in the radio industry most of those are unpaid, says O’Marra.
Only people whose parents support them or are very wealthy can afford to do an unpaid internship, she says. O’Marra – any many others in her program – do not fit into either of those categories.
She says many of her younger classmates were accumulating student debt while in college. Then, many of their unpaid internships didn’t even provide the strong experience they promised.
“A lot of them just fetch coffee, and photocopy, and file,” she says. “There’s an awful lot of unrelated work done just to get free labour.”
O’Marra knows she will eventually have to complete an internship to receive her diploma, but for now she’s at her Kwartha Lakes, Ont., home, trying to network and somehow make a 160-hour unpaid internship fit into her life.
“Whether workers feel taken advantage of or not, unpaid internships are only a way for profit-based businesses to make an even greater profit on the backs of a vulnerable workforce.”
"I take care of my Mom who has Alzheimer's and working for nothing is simply not an option."
“My career began and exists because of an amazing internship.”
- Christine Tarves
Christine Tarves challenges the notion that unpaid internships are for the posh kids of privileged families.
Tarves committed to a three-month unpaid internship while attending the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She wanted to experience a job in the public relations field that she was studying.
“I worked as a waitress in a fine dining restaurant,” says Tarves, who single-handedly paid for her apartment and living expenses while attending school and doing her internship. “I had no outside help financially from either parents or loans.”
She didn’t expect her internship to lead to a paid position, but after less than a month, the company hired her full-time. She credits much of this luck to working hard, but also “being in the right place at the right time.”
“My career began and exists because of an amazing internship,” she says. Since then, she has left the PR agency and has accepted a position as a department head at a technology company.
“Internships get knocked around too much,” she says. “They are worth it!”
Thank-you to our readers for sharing their internship stories with CBCNews.ca