On Campus

Volunteering for experience

Jeff Rybak takes aim at the "extremely negative trend" of unpaid internships

Like just about anyone with a social circle of twenty-something friends, I know a lot of people who are un(der)employed. Most of them have completed post-secondary degrees and diplomas – in some cases more than one. More and more I’m hearing about offers they receive concerning unpaid internships, volunteer opportunities and the like. At times they are forced to even consider these offers. I’d refuse to describe these things as “offers” and “opportunities” if not for the fact that I can “offer” someone the “opportunity” to get punched in the face several times. Grammatically it is correct. But not in any other sense.

Moral outrage aside, there are four distinct reasons why this is an extremely negative trend. Two of them are public policy reasons. The free labour takes the place of paid jobs, and to the extent that these positions lead to real opportunities the fact that they aren’t paid lends gross advantages to the already privileged. Two other reasons are purely personal. Working for free will low-ball the value of your labour, and exactly because these positions aren’t paid the legitimacy of the experience you gain will always be in doubt.

Free Labour

The problem of free labour has been well explored in connection with workfare. I tried to find a relatively non-partisan explanation of the workfare experience in Ontario and this is the best I could come up with. Most organizations are much more scathing on the topic, but comparisons to slavery are probably counter-productive. There’s no need to so rhetorical about it anyway. The problems are right there on the face on things.

Just as in workfare, unpaid positions in the workforce (whether billed as volunteer positions, internships, whatever) do not become full-time jobs. Unpaid interns are replaced with new unpaid interns. In an ideal situation one might hope that the last unpaid intern moves on to a paid position somewhere else (see below) or even in the same organization, but regardless the work stays in that unpaid position. So whatever the value of the experience the work performed in any position such as this is work that has been permanently removed from the paid workforce. Any argument that this work would not exist otherwise is idiotic and self-defeating. If it’s completely made-up work then it can’t have much value as experience. And if it’s meaningful work then someone would be getting paid to do it, if not for the unending stream of people willing to make victims of themselves in the hope of it leading to something better.

I say “willing,” by the way, because I’m back on the topic of volunteer positions and internships. In the case of the workforce it’s anything but voluntary. But my intention isn’t to focus on that topic. I just want to illustrate a basic point of logic. For everyone who does a job for free in the hope of scoring a coveted position in some field of work, there’s actually one less paid job in that field. And everyone loses.

The Already Privileged

Of course some lose more than others. The Globe ran a great article on the issue of prestigious internships getting auctioned for charity – so instead of getting paid you actually pay (potentially big bucks) for the privilege of the experience. And privilege it is. Who can afford such a thing? The already wealthy, of course. And I do hope we can agree there are problems with this. We accept that money can buy elite education, private tutors, that privilege often contributes to networking opportunities, etc. But surely it’s a problem once it becomes even the way to buy your way directly into the workforce. Anywhere else we’d simply call this graft. But the charity angle does complicate things.

These high-profile examples aside, even your garden-variety unpaid internship is out of reach for many people. Folks need to eat and pay the rent and even (God forbid) support children. Only a limited sampling of people can move back home with their parents, or hit them up for living expenses, or fall back on a trust fund. The rest simply can’t afford to live without an income. So let’s believe for a moment that these “opportunities” are opportunities in any sort of true sense. Who’s getting them? Certainly not the most qualified or the most deserving. Just those with money

I’m aware that many people aren’t in a good position to worry about these public policy concerns. When you’ve got problems of your own to worry about it’s easy to say “life isn’t fair” and just do what you need to do. I respect that. So now I’ll get into the reasons why I believe that most of these positions are bad for the individual as well as bad for the community.

Low-balling Your Value

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from business students (and they have an interesting perspective on things) it’s that once you set a value on something you can’t erase that number. The number can go up or it can go down but the value you try to place on that thing will always be judged in relation to the past. I hear that frequently from recent graduates casting around for entry-level positions. They say things like “it’s a good job, with some interesting prospects, but I know if I enter the workforce at $38k/year I’ll be stuck down there for a long time.” And that’s an extremely good point. So what if you enter the workforce at $0/k year?

Actually, I can see the benefit of that in one regard. It’s more like having no income history at all rather than a low one. I’m willing to believe that maybe in the best positions it isn’t a problem that you started out by working for free. But most of these unpaid positions aren’t the fantastic kind that go up on the auction block at charity events. Most of them are the step that comes before the entry-level position and salary. So how exactly do you negotiate your starting salary from any position of strength when the person across the table knows that last time you agreed to work for nothing? Unless you’re one of those independently-wealthy types, who can continue to work for nothing as long as you want until the right offer comes along, there’s got to be a limit. The need to pay the bills will trump any desire to hold out for a good income.

Many people eventually face this soul-crushing choice, and realize that it’s better to volunteer than do nothing at all. I can see the logic to that and I wouldn’t advise against it. But I’d add that it isn’t any way at all to jump to the front of the queue for a real job. You’re far better taking paid work at any level with the intention to move up from there than doing it for free. Either way you’re stuck low-balling your value. But at least in the later instance you can salvage some of your dignity. And more than that, when you apply for better jobs it will be apparent from your CV that the first job you held, no matter the low income, was indeed a real job.

Legitimacy of the Experience

The worst thing about unpaid positions is that you’re never quite sure how legitimate the experience really is. As I’ve said already, it’s often the case that unpaid positions remove real jobs from the workforce – which means that the experience must be valid. But how about all the expectations that accompany a real position? New entrants in the workforce need to prove they have some essential skills such as the ability to show up five days a week on time, dress and act professionally, navigate the work environment, and so on. Volunteers often escape from these requirements, and in any case the rules apply differently to them. It may be that any particular person treats the position exactly like a real job and deserves to be acknowledged for this. But there’s no way to be sure from outside the environment. All that’s certain is that the company was getting free labour from this person, and probably wasn’t motivated to be as strict with them as they might normally be.

In the best of worlds unpaid internships reflect an opportunity to engage with all the most interesting work in the field as a sort of sidekick. But more often than not the fact that there’s no overhead results in a lot of boring or repetitive work going to the volunteer. Unless there’s a lot of direct contact with a supervisor in the field there isn’t a lot that an untrained volunteer can do alone. In fact, I’ve heard of more than one unpaid position that doesn’t come with a real supervisor at all. Some company needs IT work done, for example, and figures they can get a free “intern” to do it rather than hire someone. But if there’s no primary IT person to learn from then there’s no experience to be gained – or at least nothing that couldn’t be learned from simply applying what the student already knows on his or her own.

Free work will always come with many questions attached. It might represent good experience. That’s certainly possible. But if you’re trying to leverage that experience in the future you’d better be prepared to prove the substance of what you learned. It won’t look good on its own, because the very people you are trying to impress understand all the unresolved questions.


My advice regarding unpaid work comes down to a basic truism. People won’t buy a product if you give it away for free. If you ever intend to work professionally in a field then get used to the idea of charging for your labour and insist on it as early as possible. You may not be able to command much at the beginning – especially if you’re freelancing. If you’re a photographer and people keep asking you to do their weddings then ask for something, even if it’s only $50. If you do web design then charge for it. I paid a student $100 to put together my website and I’m glad I did. He’s doing it professionally now and it was his first paid job. He deserved more, really, but I was a broke ass student myself at the time. Get people used to the idea that you’re a professional and they’ll respect that. If they can’t afford the full value of your work you can still cut a deal, but be clear on why you’re doing it.

Final bit of advice here. It isn’t only businesses that exploit people desperate to find work. This whole culture where we imagine people should be glad to work “for experience” is shot through many segments of society. I see it all the time, where even folks who have the money to pay look for people who are “just starting out” (read: one or more post-secondary qualifications) to do all kinds of things for cheap or for free. Build me a sundeck. Sell me some art. Do my taxes. It’s scummy. If you really want to give people a leg up then treat them like professionals and pay them as well as you reasonably can. What goes around does come around. These people will be your network in the future.

If you want to do something as a hobby, that’s one thing. Be clear you’re doing it for kicks and if you ever happen to earn some cash at it that’s a bonus. But if you view it as your profession then act accordingly. Sadly, not everyone will support this view, and still expect you should be grateful for the chance to work for free. But if you stick to your guns, you’ll find people who respect your choice.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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