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Kate Icely

DISPATCHES 6: Are Interns Taken Advantage Of?

A young red-haired woman with orange-rimmed glasses sits, emotionless, in front of a computer, her torso wrapped several times with a white electrical cord.

According to my recent articles, internships can be awesome. You get a ton of experience, and getting a job is a snap—all you have to do is follow the steps in my last post.

But it’s not always like that. If it were, people wouldn’t complain about internships as much as they do. They’re a controversial topic—especially since June, when two American interns won a court case against their employer, Fox Searchlight Pictures. The judge’s ruling has a lot of people asking if internships are really the way to go.

A young red-haired woman with orange-rimmed glasses sits, emotionless, in front of a computer, her torso wrapped several times with a white electrical cord. Internships are far from perfect

Internships definitely aren’t perfect. From the comments readers have left on this blog, I know that many of you are concerned that the increase in internships has meant a decrease in entry-level positions. Many also wonder if the system is fair, when only people with alternative financial support can afford to hold internships. (For an excellent discussion of the latter issue, see Alexandra Kimball’s article on the subject in Hazlitt.)

These are a few of many larger problems with internships, but what are the practical points that interns and intern supervisors need to know to make the process as complaint-free as possible?

Interns aren’t employees

First and foremost employers need to remember that interns aren’t employees. When you have a steady stream of interns completing the same tasks, it’s easy to start to think of those tasks as the intern’s responsibility. But interns aren’t being compensated like employees, so they can’t be treated like them. After all, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman sued Fox Searchlight Pictures because they felt taken advantage of; they spent their internships doing jobs that were usually completed by paid employees. Interns work for low or no wages because they are supposed to be compensated in other ways, by learning hands-on skills and gaining industry contacts.

Internships are educational

Which brings me to the next point: employers should remember that internships are meant to be educational. While there are those boring, routine tasks that will fall to the intern—and as many a seasoned intern will attest, doing something boring is better than doing nothing at all—the boring tasks need to be interspersed with interesting, educational ones. In the best possible scenario, your supervisor will take on a mentorship role, regularly checking in, asking you what fields you want to learn about the most, and setting up informational interviews with his or her colleagues, allowing you to get as much as possible out of the experience.

Interns have rights

So how do interns make sure they don’t get taken advantage of? By reading up on their rights. As the CBC’s Armine Yalnizyan said on Metro Morning, we have a complaint-based system. If interns don’t speak up, no one will know something is wrong. If you’re an intern and you want to check your rights, you can view them on the Ontario Ministry of Labour website or on your province’s labour website if you live outside Ontario. There is also a forum for interns to air their complaints at the Canadian Intern Association. And remember, your internship is what you make of it. If you really want to learn something and no one is taking the time to ask, make a point of bringing it up with your supervisor.

Despite the controversy, I think that completing an internship is still one of the most effective ways to get a job in the publishing industry. Even if you don’t scoop up a coveted in-house position, an internship gives you exposure to a variety of other ways to get a job in publishing—ways you may never have even thought of. And as long as employers and interns work together to ensure that internships are educational, first and foremost, everyone can be happy.

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