As many people know, before I became a full-time news editor I started out as an unpaid intern for a small communications company. People don’t even need to know me personally to know that; most people assume that any journalist who has broken into the field in the past ten years started out as an intern. Unpaid internships are increasingly common, especially in the suffering publications field. There are many mixed opinions on unpaid internships. Personally I do NOT think they are morally okay, but I also understand that they are an inevitability and CAN, if managed correctly, serve a good purpose. However, after experiencing a not-so-great internship and then working for a company that offers some of the best internships I have ever witnessed, I have some advice for recent or soon-to-be grads, or anyone looking for an internship in the publications industry (unfortunately my advice is best-applied to Ontarians).
1. Don’t look for an internship where you will only be a writer, copy editor or contributor.
Why [not]? This seems weird — you want to write/edit, correct? So you should be doing just that. However, a little-known fact about the Ontario Employment Standards Act [ESA]’s rules on unpaid internships is that you have to be actually learning something in your internship.
From the ESA: “The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school; The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.” If you are not gaining actual marketable skills that you may add to your resume, your internship is using you only for free work and you will not come out with a better-looking resume.
Look for: an internship where you will be acting as an assistant to writers and editors — not assisting them in the sense that you get their coffee, but assisting them in their other duties such as fact-checking. You should be an integral part of the team, which means remote internships in which you contribute pieces from your bedroom (which I did) are not real internships.
2. Do not trust an employer who tells you that you may/will get a full-time job at the end of your internship.
Why [not]? This is the kind of internship where interns feel like they are on a sort of “trial” period to see if you are actually fit for the job. You know where this should actually be determined? In an application and interview. Your portfolio and interview should speak for themselves. No, you can’t tell everything from a resume, portfolio or interview, but can anyone in any industry? No one sees engineers hired on a basis of working for free for the first 6-12 months and then if it “works out” they will have a salary. And giving even a hint of a job on the other end of the internship is not only cruel, it’s illegal.
From the ESA: “Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.” Not only should you not believe the employer if they do this, you should probably steer clear from them. This means that they’re willing to disregard part of the Ontario Employment Standards Act — someone who thinks they are above the rules, and not someone you want to work for.
Look for: An employer who provides very specific stipulations on the length of your term, and an employer who can answer in the interview what his or her previous three interns have gone on to do. If they keep it general (“They’ve all gotten jobs,”) ask them to be a little more specific — where did they get jobs? In the publications industry? Did you provide a reference?
3. Your employer shouldn’t hold you to the same standards that they would hold a paid employee.
Why [not]? Okay, this is tricky. Yes, your employers should hold you to a high standard (think of them like a professor or teacher). They should also expect a regular commitment out of you and for you to not abuse time off, to come and go as you please, etc. However, an employer who does not pay you should not give you grief about calling in sick or needing a day off to go to an appointment. It should hardly even be a question if you’re allowed to take that afternoon off to go to a dentist. If you get a paid job in the middle of your term, your employer should not attempt to negotiate with you and/or force you to stay. Most importantly, your employer should not expect mandatory overtime outside of the hours they have set for you. Looking for a paying job in itself is a full-time job when you’re trying to break into publications, so anything that demands more than 40 hours a week from you is not an employer that cares about the future and education of its interns.
This actually isn’t in the ESA. This is just common decency.
Look for: An employer who clearly outlines the hours during the week that you will work. Ask in the interview if you will have to adhere to the same process as paid employees for requesting days off. As if you will ever have to work overtime. If the answer is yes, be wary.
I don’t want to make anyone shoot themselves in the foot while they’re fresh out of school and desperate to get into the field. The fact is, we are all young and desperate at one point, so we will often throw our standards away for the sake of something that seems like work. The problem is that many of us end up with six months under our belt of having learned nothing new and being very exploited by employers who won’t offer any valuable reference in the long run.
Respect yourself. If you’re not going to be paid, assure that your employer will be held to a lawful standard.