Fight against unpaid internships will hurt volunteering

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz is being taken to task after he recommended that jobless university graduates beef up their resumes by working for free. The central banker made the remarks a day after he told a Toronto business audience that 200,000 young Canadians are out of work, underemployed or back in school trying to improve their job prospects.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, described Poloz’s comments as “extremely problematic.” She said the comments mischaracterize existing employment laws, devalue the abilities of young people and show no sympathy for the socioeconomic issues related to unpaid internships.

Nonprofits and NGOs: you need to be paying attention to this controversy. You need to be thinking about why any task at your organization that is being done by a volunteer – and that includes unpaid interns – beyond “We don’t have money to pay someone to do that.” You need a mission statement for your volunteer engagement and you need to be talking about the value of volunteers far beyond dollar/Euro or other monetary value for their hours!

While I cringe at young people being exploited, told to accept full-time, unpaid work with for-profit companies in order to help their employment prospects, I also cringe at people deriding the idea that volunteering at nonprofits and other mission-based organizations is a great way to gain experience and explore careers. Volunteering IS a great way to gain much-needed experience, insight for a career and references. Not every volunteer is engaging in unpaid service just out of the goodness of his or her heart; many are using volunteering to get experience and references for their résumé, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. So many of the volunteers I’ve worked with have gone on to successful careers in work related to their volunteering – and I’ve done it myself.

For nonprofits and other mission-based organizations out there: in addition to being able to say why a task has been reserved for an unpaid intern beyond “We don’t have the money to pay someone,” are you also thinking about how your unpaid internships might be limited to only certain economic classes, and excluding some people because they can’t afford to give you that many unpaid service hours? Are you thinking about how to ensure a variety of people can undertake unpaid internships with your organization, not just those that can afford to?

My other blogs on this GROWING internship controversy in North American and Europe:

Note that the links within these blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a year or so ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

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