I’m gonna take a break from the tour of houses to put forth my opinion on unpaid internships. This is a topic that affects the publishing industry greatly (and this blog is my platform, so allow me to step atop my soap box).
I’m currently enrolled in the Humber Creative Book Publishing Program. An internship is NOT considered part of the program (as it is with other publishing programs in the country), but it is definitely the expectation—not of the college, but of the industry. At least in Toronto, it seems that to break into publishing, students are told a couple internships, maybe more, are protocol.
The debate on unpaid internships is a hot topic right now, and I’m not going to rehash the same points from both sides; there’s enough out there and you can Google it. Overall, though, I feel that if you have to triple-check the legislation and analyze the wording to decide whether or not your internship program is okay, what you’re attempting to do is—while perhaps not illegal—probably unethical.
I am not attacking publishers for their current practices. Up until now it’s been standard and what everyone has just known, but this current spotlight is an opportunity for change, and there’s a solution.
In one word: volunteer. The concept was glossed over on today’s Q.
By volunteer I do not mean simply changing the vernacular within the industry (and I speak to the publishing industry, but I feel this would work well across many industries).
While I do think that the start of the solution is in changing the vocabulary (the word “intern” is tainted), calling it volunteering is not enough. I am proposing a change in parameters across all sizes of companies and organizations. Here’s the scope.
1. Volunteer work is NOT full-time.
This is key and seems simple enough. It allows those from all levels of financial health to garner experience and pay the bills at the same time. If the volunteer position for the company requires full time, in-office work, then guess what? You have a position that ethically you should be paying someone to do. Make it an entry-level position and attach a salary to it.
2. Valuable work traded for valuable experience.
The idea is genuine win-win.
Forget about the gopher. Instead, what if volunteer programs were offered by project, whether it was decided by the company or pitched to the company? What if newcomers to the industry were offered to volunteer help with an event or to develop a marketing campaign or to develop an ebook? What if interns in all capacities and in all companies had the authority to contribute with mind, body, and heart in ways they decided would contribute to where they wanted to take their careers?
The idea here is that volunteer project work provides the newcomer with desired, valuable experience and space to handle the financial logistics of living. Meanwhile, the volunteer provides the company with valuable work and the opportunity to mentor. In all, it becomes a more holistic environment where both sides are contributing to a healthier, stronger, and more ethical industry and community.
I have turned down internships in the past for the same reasons many do, mainly because of “adult expenses” on top of a very heavy student debt. While turning those internships down, I was still volunteering within the community I wanted to be (and am now solidly) a part of. Recognizing the value my volunteer work had for me and for the literary community, I will continue volunteering (which now includes a lot of mentorship) alongside my fulltime work within the industry. For life. Because that’s how stronger communities are built.