Alberta Advanced Education reviews ‘practicum’ practices at 26 institutions

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Unpaid internships are far from new to the student experience as soon-to-be graduates sacrifice a paycheque for hands-on, resume-building training. But the value of these unpaid stints has become a hot-button issue following the death of an Alberta student.

Andy Ferguson died in a car crash in November 2011 after working two eight-hour shifts at Edmonton’s The Bear and Virgin Radio stations where he was interning. The 22-year-old also worked paid hours in conjunction with the unpaid intern position, which filled the mandatory requirement to graduate from the broadcasting diploma at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

Ferguson’s family members told CBC News in September 2013 that his accident – and ultimately his death – resulted from being overworked at the station to the point where he was too tired to drive home safely.

Unpaid internships are illegal in Alberta, unless a student completes one for post-secondary credit. According to Alberta labour laws, employees are exempt from minimum wage if they are students doing a work experience program approved by the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education or the Minister of Human Services, or the student takes part in an off-campus education program that falls under the School Act. This means students must be enrolled in an internship course to qualify, says Andrew Langille, general counsel for the Canadian Intern Association, an advocacy group against intern exploitation.

So Ferguson’s unpaid position was legal, according to Alberta labour laws, as he would have received credits toward graduation upon completion.

Although there are no concrete numbers on the amount of unpaid interns, Langille estimates there are currently about 100,000 to 300,000 illegal unpaid internships in Canada.

Though cases like Ferguson’s are thankfully few, unpaid internships can become a significant financial burden on students.

A 2013 BMO survey suggested that Alberta post-secondary students expect to graduate with an average debt of $27,334. And for some, part of that debt is acquired while completing mandatory work terms, sometimes without pay.resize NickiGrantNicki Grant leads a meeting of the MRU Student Justice Society. On top of being a student, working two jobs, volunteering, and acting as president of the society, Grant is also taking on an unpaid internship.

Photo by Roxanne Blackwell

Fourth-year criminal justice student Nicki Grant, who is studying at Mount Royal University, is preparing to complete a required three-month internship. But she will be doing it for free.

“I’m stressed out about my financial situation going into this practicum. It’s definitely going to cut down on the days that I can work for other jobs where I get paid.

“I still have bills to pay, and I still have to survive as a student. And of course it stresses you out.”

Kirk Patterson, who represents Ontario on the board of directors for the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education says that he personally feels that unpaid work terms are “enforced slavery.”

This was never the goal of student work placements.

History of the internship

Nearly 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians codified a law that required craftsmen to teach their skills to the next generation. And over the millenniums, learning from a master has evolved from blacksmith apprentices in medieval Europe to today’s system of co-operative education. In the early 20th century, co-operative education gained traction in the United
States as educators recognized that those students who worked before graduation were more successfully employed than their classroom-only counterparts.

But Patterson says it wasn’t until 1957 that this model of learning was introduced in Canada. The University of Waterloo engineering students test-drove the first co-op program, where students would alternate work terms with school terms.

Co-operative education experiences are generally paid – though there are always exceptions – whereas internships may not always guarantee income. However, their goals of providing professional experience to post-secondary students are the same.

Patterson, who is also a co-operative education business developer at the University of Waterloo, says the growth of the co-op program over the past 50 years speaks to its success. What started out as an isolated case in a small engineering faculty in Ontario has now been picked up across Canada in areas of study from business to health. The University of Waterloo alone offers 120 different co-op programs and the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education lists 79 post-secondary institutions as members.
Seven of those institutions, including the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University, are located in Alberta.

And this growth wouldn’t be possible without marketplace buy-in.

Patterson says that at first employers were hesitant to become involved because they lacked knowledge about the programs. But semester after semester, he works with companies who he says are on “the co-op treadmill” –employers come back every term to get their hands on fresh talent and young minds.

Patterson says that this style of learning has become “entrenched in the Canadian education.”

But he also recognizes the need for students to benefit employers. He often tells employers, “These are your future employees…the benefit is you get to train them.”

Kelli Stevens, senior advisor for media relations and issues management at Suncor Energy Inc., says she believes that hiring student interns benefits the organization.

“We always value people who can bring in a new perspective and help us think innovatively about how to resolve the unique challenges facing our industry. Students and new grads can provide great perspective,” Stevens says.

“If we train people well from the outset and then remain actively involved in their career development, we should end up with stronger teams, stronger leaders and a stronger company overall.”

Grim reality

But it would appear some employers are taking advantage of this model of learning, seeing it as a chance to fill temporary vacancies, complete projects or just have an extra pair of hands without salaries to pay.

Patterson says he’s encountered employers who question why they are required by some schools, like the University of Waterloo, and the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education, to compensate students.

resize IMG 3569Many students who complete unpaid internships end up working multiple jobs to support themselves or go further into debt, with the average student graduating with a debt of $27,334 as suggested by a 2013 BMO survey.

Photo by Pauline ZuluetaHe says employers think their time invested in students is payment enough. And criminal justice student Grant agrees with Patterson.

“(Our instructors) kind of make it seem like these agencies don’t have to bring on students so we should just be kind of overjoyed that they are even considering taking us on,” she says.

But some students who think a big name on their resume is better than pay will take on an unpaid position.

Nicole Landsiedel, a 22-year-old student at the University of Western Ontario, has done both paid and unpaid internships. She says her unpaid internship experience in corporate communications was a positive one, as she was able to work two other jobs to support herself and she knew that she would be receiving a reference letter at the end, which for Landsiedel was adequate payment.

“It depends what you’re getting from it,” she says of unpaid internships, but generally “I don’t think they’re very fair.”

While there is no concrete Canadian data, a recent U.S. study suggests that unpaid positions don’t give students the advantages they seem willing to sacrifice for. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey completed in May 2013, only 37 per cent of unpaid interns were offered jobs upon graduation. But the real kicker is that they only beat their non-intern counterparts by 1.8 per cent.

However, paid interns held a significant advantage with 63.1 per cent of more than 38,000 responses from graduating college students surveyed reported at least one job offer.

The association also reported: “In terms of starting salary, too, paid interns did significantly better than other job applicants: The median starting salary for new grads with paid internship experience is $51,930 –far outdistancing their counterparts with an unpaid internship ($35,721) or no internship experience ($37,087).”

“They (students) are being taken advantage of,” says Langille of the intern association. “They are being asked to work under extreme conditions.”

Not only are companies getting free labour, but often interns are misclassified as volunteers, Langille says.

“What matters is what they are doing,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you call the person. If they are doing something that looks like work, answering phones, photocopying, it’s work.”

Change is coming

The 2011 death of radio-intern Ferguson has caused public outcry on the issue and his family continues to work with provincial and federal governments to provide more protection for interns.

Former Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education Thomas Lucaszuk asked for a review of practicum policies at all 26 public institutions across Alberta in Sept. This was in response to Ferguson’s death, says Kevin Donnan, Lucaszuk’s spokesperson.

Canada’s Terminology Confusion

There are many terms used to describe student work experience, but the goal is the same for all.

Practicums: The oxford dictionary defines practicums as, “a practical section of a course of study.” During practicums, students combine work experience with classes. In one week, they could be in classes three days and work twice.

Intern: The oxford dictionary says an intern is, “A student or trainee who works, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification.” Although, an intern does not have to be a student.

Co-operative Education/Work Experience (as defined by the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education):
“Co-operative education combines academic study with alternating work terms. The employment is a practical application directed towards the student’s academic course of study. The co-operative education student is paid for their work experience, which is supervised and evaluated by both the employer and the co-operative education institution.”

Each institution has its own public policy on practicums, Donnan says, and the provincial government intends to share best practices and improve the situation for all students.

“The government needs to do its due diligence,” he says. “It needs to make sure these practicums are responsive, meeting the needs of students and institutions and students aren’t being put in a position where they are being stretched. We want to make sure it is an equitable situation all the way around.”

On Dec. 12, 2013 Dave Hancock was appointed Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education. Donnan says this review will be brought to his attention.

More information about this review is expected sometime in 2014.

Despite the review not yet being complete, a shift in views is already occurring.

Experts say public opinion is becoming an increasingly important factor when it comes to companies hiring unpaid interns. Langille, of the Canadian Intern Association, says that the public has a negative opinion of companies who don’t compensate their employees.

“If you look at comments on blogs and Reddits, call-in radio shows, the public opinion on unpaid internships has turned against (companies),” Langille says. “Publicly, people don’t like the idea of people working for free, it offends their sense of fair play.”

The Canadian Intern Association website hosts a “Wall of Shame” to bring attention to companies who have advertised unpaid positions. Companies include successful names like Fairmont Hotels and Resorts as well as Vancouver-based digital media company HootSuite.

In 2013, HootSuite ended their unpaid internship policy after facing public outcry on social media.

“They faced an unprecedented amount of negative publicity and that can be quite damaging, particularly for a company that’s looking at taking itself public (like HootSuite was),” Langille says.

The bad press that can be associated with an unpaid intern catastrophe is slowly turning companies away from the idea of unpaid interns all together.

Langille says he’s seen more companies attending seminars in Toronto that deal with the issue of unpaid internships and the ramifications they can bring. They discuss the legalities of paying interns and what duties you can ask them to perform.

Patterson hopes that the government steps in to give companies the ability to pay students. He says incentives for start-ups, which are often strapped for cash, would increase the number of paid placements available to students and give the new company a chance to bring in talent they might not otherwise get.

“There’s a role for internships (in the job market) but given the undercurrents that are happening right now, the role of unpaid internships will be diminished. That’s a reality,” Langille says.

And these changes would be welcomed by students like Grant who says: “Just being able to be paid would make it more worthwhile.”

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