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Unpaid Internships: A Class and Gender Problematic

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

A recent article in the Halifax Media Coop by Rachel Bloom paints unpaid internships as a gateway into a career. While she pays homage to the dissenting voice of a journalism classmate who disagrees with unpaid work the article focuses mainly on an individual who reminisces about his time volunteering at the Metro in a wholly positive light. As the article points out this individual was afforded this "opportunity" because he was able to live at home free of rent. This is a privilege many individuals simply do not have.

I have been extremely disappointed by the lack of insight on the part of journalists reporting on the social phenomena of unpaid internships, many of whom have first-hand experience with this in their field. Metro International, the news agency mentioned in the article, is a multi-million dollar corporation which, as a free newspaper, exists for the purpose of collecting ad revenue from corporate sponsors. To imply that they cannot afford to pay journalists due to declining print sales is preposterous.

As a former audio engineering student at Pacific Audio Visual Institute in Vancouver, I am all too familiar with unpaid internships. I interned at a recording studio in Vancouver for approximately two weeks and eventually left to pursue a paid position with a live sound company. As an intern my responsibilities included; cleaning the studio, making coffee, answering phone calls, booking studio time, and driving to various parts of the city to pick up gear and personnel. I spent absolutely no time mixing bands or preparing the studio, skills which I would consider crucial to the craft. These unpaid internships - volunteer positions - rotated approximately every two to three weeks due to the large influx of audio engineers entering the job market.

A fellow classmate, who happened to be a single mother, was not afforded the opportunity to participate in the internship process. She had to work to make money to raise her child. Similarly students who were paying their own living costs and did not have the financial support of a middle-class family did not have the opportunity to take two weeks off work to volunteer at a studio. I understand that internships can lead to job opportunities and that networking is an important aspect of getting a job but internships are excluding a vast percentage of the population from joining the work force.

I know many people will say "well if you wanted a paying job you shouldn't have entered audio engineering."

This may very well be true, but there are few industries that have escaped the grasp on the unpaid volunteer. Unpaid positions have been built in to university programs ranging from applied human nutrition to journalism to education. There is certainly a need to gain on the job experience to grasp the concepts in ones study but paying to work – which is exactly what built-in internships equate to – seems to cross the line. Is there any evidence to suggest that volunteering boosts job placement rates? Is there any evidence to suggest that corporations relying on unpaid workers do not have the capital to pay interns a living wage?

Unemployment rates and corporate revenues would suggest that there is not. When discussing unpaid internships – or as I would call volunteer positions – journalists cannot ignore the gendered and classed elements of who is being excluded from the workforce through the implementation of unpaid positions. By having unpaid positions we are effectively allowing for private debt to be socialized and for increasing income inequality to continue unabated.   

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