Commentary, Opinion

Stuck between income and internship

For many students, the return from winter break marks the start of an annual scramble to track down that internship deemed crucial to curated resumes. The scarcity of paid internships limits opportunities for students who rely on a summer income, meaning that many undergraduate students are unable to acquire work experience in their field of study, leaving them without an understanding of what future jobs might entail. While McGill has some organized initiatives to mitigate this issue, like the Arts Internship Awards, a solution to the problem of unpaid internships will require government intervention and leadership.

Today, internships represent an integral part of the university trajectory. Even in their first year, students are expected to begin working in their field of study to beef up their CVs. The lack of relevant positions can be panic-inducing for many. After hours of cold calling, in-person meetings, and feverish LinkedIn updating to no avail, students can feel disheartened.

Organizations and societies at McGill have taken steps to help students gain work experience in their fields of study. Resources like the Arts Internship Oasis (AIO) and myFuture offer undergraduate students exclusive access to postings through which they can apply directly for positions and funding. McGill’s Career Planning Services also offers students workshops on resume writing, LinkedIn best-practices, and interview techniques to boost their chances of securing employment. Despite these initiatives, McGill simply cannot cater to the 27,000 undergraduates in need of work.

In addition to a shortage of opportunities, even the students who succeed in securing employment through McGill still face the dilemma of insufficient income. On the AIO website, for example, it states: “the majority of internships are unpaid, and many of our students are self-funded”. It is unclear exactly what ‘self-funded’ means—likely it refers to students with generous parental support. And, while the AIO does offer some successful applicants up to 5,000 dollars to offset expenses, those who receive this funding are few and far between.

To give all students a chance to gain the work experience they need for successful professional futures, employers, governments, universities, and students must all coordinate to counter underpaid internships. McGill students have already recognized the need for compensated labour. This past November, 54,000 students took part in a week-long protest against mandatory unpaid internships across Quebec. In response, provincial Minister of Education and Higher Education Jean-François Roberge iterated that he plans to address the issue in the near future.

While McGill should feel a duty to assist its students in securing employment, the government is the main body that needs to subsidize internship opportunities. There are already some instances of government-sponsored internship opportunities across Canada: In New Brunswick, for example, the government-run Student Employment Experience Development (SEED) program subsidizes companies to create internship positions for youth. Students can enter a lottery to receive access to these positions and apply to relevant summer jobs. This random lottery circumvents the access barriers which privileged networks like Panhellenic societies uphold. Moreover, by paying companies to offer internships, SEED not only creates more relevant work experience opportunities for students, but it also provides a source of income for those students so that they can afford to take the positions.

Currently, Quebec does not offer any programs like SEED, but Roberge’s response to the November protests offer a glimmer of hope for students. However, if the Quebec government aims to resolve the issue of inaccessible employment for students, it must go further than just paying interns out of pocket and look to increase the overall number of internships while ensuring that they are accessible to students of all backgrounds—not just those born with advantageous connections.

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