Last week, 18 Degrees North founder Zahra Burton visited my Fundamentals of Journalism class. It was a lively discussion which seemed to ultimately settle on the subject of internships. This was also recently the subject of a fierce Twitter discussion that brought up the age-old question of fair compensation. (One well-known broadcaster was complaining about the quality and lack of work ethic amongst today’s young people who participate in internships. Some people reacted quickly, saying that employers today take advantage of these young interns.)
These are usually the two schools of thought- one being that employers use and abuse young people without sufficient compensation, and the other being that any experience is valuable, even if there is no pay.
I myself side with the latter argument, although I’m fully aware that I’m coming from a position of privilege. As one young man said, he’s been on his own paying his own bills since he was 16 years old. He cannot afford to work for free. At this point, Zahra suggested that there are several government-funded internships, and many do offer a stipend, as she does.
What I know for sure is that my first unpaid internship changed my life and set the trajectory of my career. I also know that internships are geared towards people with financial means and privilege and that this systemic issue needs to be addressed. I have always been of the mindset that the experience and connections are invaluable, perhaps more so than financial compensation. But what if you cannot afford bus fare or lunch money to get to the internship, let alone to pay your rent while you work for free? Why should a similarly qualified and talented person get the opportunity, while you miss out because of your financial status? This perpetuates privilege and prevents people from advancing in their careers. It is a complicated issue with many questions and many answers that have yet to be explored properly.