Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Intern or Not to Intern

Vogue, W, and GQ hold some of the most coveted internships available to fashion students but on October 23, 2013 Conde Nast, who owns Vogue, W, GQ and many more, announced they will be discontinuing their internship programs. This comes on the heels of rising controversies regarding unpaid internships as covered by the media. Though there has long been debate over unpaid internships it has only come to light over the past few years.

Internships are generally reserved for student enrolled in a post-secondary institution. They are available in almost all industries but are most know to be associated within the media, film, and fashion industries. Almost all internships are unpaid; however, when they are paid they are rarely at or over minimum wage. They also require a serious time commitment. On average you are expected to work 3 days a week for several months. So why bother with an internship?

When asking an industry professional or administration at a university or college why partake in a program that offers an internship you will most likely hear how you will gain invaluable experience. You will receive firsthand knowledge and hands on experience in a particular job that you may be interested in pursuing. Taking an internship often provides clarity on your future career path. It gives you the opportunity to explore the different areas of your chosen industry so that you can get a feel of where you might like to end up. Internships can provide you with a competitive edge against other post graduates who have chosen not to do an internship. It shows your potential employer that you have had experience in the industry and gives you a potential reference when applying for jobs.

Another huge benefit of internships is the networking aspect. You have the opportunity to meet people in all different areas of the industry that you would not normally have access to. Knowing these people can open a variety of doors for you whether it is a reference for a potential job or to put you in contact with an industry professional whose area you are interested in. Many interns are also hired by their employer after their placement is over. The employer gets to see you in action and should you make a good impression you will be top of their mind when a position opens.  

But not everyone shares this view of unpaid internships. Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib are former interns at W magazine and The New Yorker who are currently in a lawsuit with Conde Nast, parent company to those magazines. They both acquired paid internships but were paid way below minimum wage. As reported by Susan Adams of Forbes magazine Leib was paid $300-$500 for each of the two summers he worked there. His job was to read, proofread and review articles. Ballinger said in the complaint that she was paid just $12 a day for shifts that ran 12 hours or more at the fashion magazine. These accusations are claiming that the internship was actually illegal. It is speculation that this lawsuit is the very reason Conde Nast has discontinued their internship program. This isn’t the only lawsuit; there have been an ever rising number of them throughout Canada and the United States over the past 5 years. In another incident, Andy Ferguson, an Alberta student, died in a head on collision after working his internship at Astral Media for 16 hours straight. His girlfriend, Caelie Crowley, told Kathy Tomlinson of CBC news that Andy told her a manager said if he didn't work that night, Astral wouldn’t give him the credit he needed to graduate. Though these are two very extreme cases they do shed light on how students in internship programs are being taken advantage of.

There have been rising complaints of interns working long hours, doing menial jobs that have nothing to do with the job itself, doing tasks that a paid employee would do and a push for all internships to be paid. As it stands the Government of Canada and the Ministry of Labour do not regulate or keep statistics on interns. They are not covered by the Employment Act nor are they covered by the Ontario Health and Safety Act (OHSA). This makes it all very difficult to ensure proper and fair treatment of interns. Often the responsibility lands on the administration of the university or college of the program you are taking. They will often provide students with forms for work place safety and insurance provided by the Ministry of Training, however, this is no guarantee of proper treatment.

Aside from actually taking on an internship you have to be able to afford it. Previously internships were considered only available to those from privileged families. Taking an internship could mean moving to a different city and giving up or cutting down your real job all while trying to pay for rent, food and tuition. This financial burden usually falls onto the families of the intern. On occasion the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) will provide a small amount of funds to interns to help with finances but this usually has to be requested by the post-secondary institution.

In the end, to take on an internship is an individual choice. You need to ask yourself how it will benefit you and can you financially afford it. Talk to the internship coordinators at your university or college to discuss what a proper internship entails and what to do should you find yourself in a difficult situation or feel as though you are being taken advantage of. Like Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power.” Once you have all the facts you should be able to make the right choice for you.

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