The importance of paying people what they're worth -- including interns

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I recently spoke with someone who was interested in an internship at Provident this summer. When I asked about salary expectations, the would-be intern said money didn’t matter; it was the opportunity to learn that was most important.

This surprised me. My first job in journalism was an internship at The Canadian Press, which turned into a great full-time gig when I graduated. This was back in 2000 or 2001. CP paid interns $600 a week then. I remember this primarily and vividly because it allowed me and my parents to move out of our one-bedroom apartment -- yep, I slept on a fold-out mattress in the living room at age 21 -- and into a two-bedroom place.

That people just starting their careers would be willing to work for free is troubling, especially in a market like Toronto where the cost of living is exceptionally high. But you can’t blame them for thinking that’s the only way to get their foot in the door. For too many years, some of Canada’s most profitable companies routinely used unpaid interns until a public outcry a few years ago caused them to reassess that strategy.

It’s for good reason. Too often, companies were using unpaid interns to do actual paid work, not just as a means to teach them or to help them learn by observing. A major hotel chain once actually advertised for people who would bus tables for free.

Unpaid internships also primarily benefit upper-middle-class young people whose parents can afford to support and house them as they toil away for 40 hours a week without earning a dime. They can also unfairly penalize women, since unpaid internships have been more common in industries stereotypically seen as “feminine,” such as teaching and social work. They also contribute to higher youth unemployment rates, and prevent young Canadians from fully participating in the economy.

And they still exist. The federal government has yet to make good on a promise to crack down on unpaid interns in federally regulated workplaces. The only exception would be student placements required as part of a school course.

Nearly 40,000 students and interns in Quebec launched a five-day strike in March against unpaid internships, and called on the Quebec government to “end the injustice."

And so if your business needs help this summer, perhaps due to vacationing full-time employees, pay your interns. People have value, and value in the workplace is typically rewarded with money.

It speaks volumes about what kind of employer you are if you’re not willing to pay people for their time, and word can travel fast, torpedoing your company’s prospects of attracting top talent. Relying upon unpaid labour also fosters distrust among your existing, paid workforce, particularly in a unionized shop. It also affects the reputation of your brand, as some banks and telecom companies were dismayed to learn first-hand several years ago.

If you’re short-staffed, plan better. Stagger people’s vacation times. Make it more attractive for them to take time off in the spring or fall so your company isn’t left short-handed. Clear your decks of big projects or initiatives during the summer. And if you still need extra help, pay for it.

And to all the would-be interns out there: Claim your worth. You deserve a paycheque.