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The provincial government’s recent crackdown on unpaid internships in Ontario is a much-needed move with a mixed result, but it may be time for employers and post-secondary schools to step up.

As the school year comes to a close, many students and new graduates will be looking for work throughout the summer or to start their careers. If you’re having a hard time finding work, it looks like it won’t be much easier to find unpaid work too.

In the last few weeks, four Toronto-based magazines have cut their internships following a slew of investigations into unpaid work by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Interns at Toronto Life and The Walrus were the first to get the axe. Only a week later, Flare and Chatelaine, both owned by Rogers Media, dropped their interns too.

The ministry had determined the companies’ internship programs violated parts of the Employment Standards Act, namely the minimum wage requirement, and would have to be paid if they were to be kept on board. Unfortunately, they were cast away instead.
Rogers spokesperson Louise Leger said in a statement that “moving forward, all our internships will be associated with an educational institution or be paid.” In a similar statement, The Walrus wrote on its website that its internship programs “can no longer be offered unless the interns have a formal agreement for a work experience with a vocational school.”

It looks like sooner or later, all media companies — in Ontario, at least — will have to either pay their interns or offer their internships in conjunction with a school program. It’s a relief to see the provincial government finally taking a stand against something that has been a hot-button issue among young workers and policymakers particularly in the last few years. But is the result what we’ve been looking for, and is it one we want to extend to all types of companies, including those in the rest of Canada?

The troubling fact is that these companies immediately chose to cut their interns rather than pay them, which tells us that young workers are nice to have around, but not really worth paying for. It’s a precedent that means we can expect a more level playing field — as the crackdown will slowly eliminate opportunities that favour those who can actually afford to work for free — but it also means we can expect fewer opportunities at all. And that’s not the point, is it?

Young workers need work. We’ve all heard the circular bit of dark humour that says, “I can’t get a job because I have no experience because I can’t get a job because I have no experience …” and this becomes even truer in the increased absence of entry-level jobs.

In 2013, the unemployment rate of Ontario youth aged 15 to 24 was between 16 and 17 per cent, 2.5 per cent higher than the Canadian average, according to Statistics Canada. More strikingly, the monthly youth employment rate in Ontario ranged between 50 and 52 per cent. It means Ontario is one of the toughest places to find work in all of Canada, and only half of Ontario’s youth are employed at a given time.

The report, authored by Sean Geobey through the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, argued that these numbers aren’t because of the recession, but instead because of a “strong structural component” in the Ontario labour market that’s making it difficult for young people to find jobs.

What do young people need? Entry-level jobs. But as we can find while browsing through job listings that describe an “entry-level” position that requires at least three years of experience, the entry-level job barely even exists anymore. Instead, we are offered internships: some paid, more unpaid, and all extremely competitive.

So if companies start cutting their internship programs, we won’t be left with very much — something needs to take their place if young people are going to make their way into the workforce and eventually replace the retiring generation.

The University of Ottawa’s work-study program offers employment options for students on campus at competitive wages, funded directly by the university through government tuition grants (which could be used for a variety of reasons). The program is an example of an employment program that is beneficial to both students and employers. Prioritizing funding for students is a model that many internship programs should seriously consider, and is not without precedent if internships are connected to an educational institution.

We can also look west for an interesting solution to the problem encountered by Toronto Life, The Walrus, and Rogers this past month. The Alberta Magazine Publishers Association, funded in part by the Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta, pays for half the salary for interns at its member publications. With the magazine itself only paying the other half of interns’ wages, internships are much more affordable for the employers and conceivably more attainable for jobseekers.

Hopefully, the Ontario government’s crackdown will force employers to realize their young workers are worth something. Hopefully, they will move forward with efforts to take on more interns and actually pay them, or work hand-in-hand with schools to offer more placement programs that will lead to permanent employment. Hopefully, the ministry’s investigations are not just a pre-election political move, but a much-needed kick in the pants to get industries to recognize us, the young people who just want a chance to prove ourselves.