Who gives a hoot about paying interns?

There is a great deal of commentary regarding HootSuite, a Vancouver social media company, and its practice to offer unpaid 40 hour per week internships in exchange for work experience. Apparently, the internships are not linked to the fulfillment of any academic program requirements, but are intended to provide opportunity for interns to gain work experience that will make them more employable and able to secure paid work.

HootSuite is not unique. I know a student who worked part-time for free as a summer social media intern to gain relevant experience in hopes that it would enable her to get a paying job. Living at home, this intern’s main expenses were her transit costs; however, not everyone may be as fortunate to have parents helping to “pay the rent” so to speak.

Should the practice of free internships be stopped or regulated? One may argue that those who are not part of an academic program may lack skills, and are actually “repaying the employer” in exchange for the training that is provided.  Unless the intern has some related or relevant skill base that they bring to the internship, the employer is “paying” for the loss of productivity, and training resource time to ensure that the intern develops a level of skill and knowledge to be able to contribute to the workplace. In other words, although the company is not paying the intern, there is a cost to the company in hosting the intern.

However, let’s consider this more closely.  I would suggest that a company would not put an untrained, unpaid intern into a role where there is a great deal of risk associated with error. I would also suggest that the learning time required to handle the intern opportunity in this instance is likely not protracted. In other words, one could conjecture that within a few short weeks (or even days!) the intern is “qualified” and “productive” and able to contribute on the job.

Therefore there is a strong basis to argue that there should be no unpaid internships as the interns do provide value to the company. In other words, lets not continue with this practice that is like having a version of “sweatshops.”

As an offset to the unpaid internships, many companies offer stipends. The student who I mentioned earlier in this post progressed to a paid internship the following summer. She received $500 per month and got excellent experience. But given her knowledge from her Post Graduate Certificate in Corporate Communications, and the expertise from her unpaid internship of the prior summer, she did feel somewhat undervalued and underpaid.

What she received was far less than any minimum wage payment. Unlike some “paid” internships, she got her stipend monthly versus some internships that only provide a stipend if you fulfill a minimum service requirement which is generally an entire summer.

Regardless of the amount of the stipend, this student’s parents, however, were thankful that she was experiencing “positive cash flow” – anything is better than “no flow.” Well done, daughter of mine! This did lead, post-internship, to a more significant and better paying job.

So, the progression here was clear, straight and sound. The unpaid intern role served as experience that she presented when seeking the paid intern role as part of her academic program; and the stipend paid intern role resulted in her getting an actual salary! So, like it or not, the unpaid internships can serve a purpose and provide that important introduction to the workplace.

It would be wonderful and fair, however, if companies did acknowledge the contributions of their interns with a financial reward. The offset for the contributions made by the intern would more than pay for any stipend they receive. Also, lets look at this way; think of how that remuneration would help the intern to contribute to the economy via discretionary spending? “A Tim’s double-double, anyone?”

What do you think? Should companies be required to pay for interns? Is a monthly stipend enough or should a minimum wage be mandated in all instances?  Do you think companies will stop having interns if they are required to pay?

To read more about HootSuite and their unpaid intern problem read Howl over to HootSuite’s unpaid internship program.


Marylka Empey
Marylka Empey
Marylka Empey is management consultant with more than 20 years successful experience in working closely with organizations to address the “A to Z” of HR related opportunities and challenges. Ms. Empey has significant involvement with the HR Association of Ontario, having served on the Provincial Board, on the Chapter Board as President, and on the Provincial Professional Standards Committee where she contributed to establishing the professional benchmarks for the Certified Human Resources Designation (CHRP). A trusted advisor to management, Marylka collaborates to build effective relationships across the client organization, and acts ethically and with integrity. As a corporate executive, Marylka has experience in both the profit and not-for-profit sector, and was a member of the Executive team reporting to the President / CEO, with full responsibility for setting and executing the HR strategic direction in support of corporate business objectives.

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