Internships: The Next Frontier of Credentialism


In one of my morning foray into the Twitterverse, I recently encountered a posting for this  internship: “Help keep children’s camp memories alive AND get $1000 as a Memory Book Designer Intern!” [1]. Click that sucker. Turns out the internship opportunity is one of many posted in a Serving Communities Internship Program – a partnership between the Alberta government, Volunteer Alberta, and a range of student organizations.

This seems like a decent idea on the surface. To its credit, the program does appear to stress meaningful opportunities, and those posted on the website overall seem to emphasize marketing and communication skills, and a project-based approach with clear outcomes and goals. These are sound strategies for experiential learning, and many of the placements do sound like interesting opportunities for young people. The placements also support the always-strapped volunteer sector and encourage young people to engage with these organizations. All good stuff.

There’s an important problem here though. Although the internships are capped by a $1,000 bursary, some quick calculations based on the time requirements posted by the organizations offering the internships show that the “opportunities” on offer pay as little as $3.00/hour. I suppose you could argue that this is better than nothing, given that the work could just as easily be classified as volunteering for no remuneration at all. But in my mind, this is just another red flag pointing to the increasing use of internships as the next frontier in credential inflation.

If you haven’t read my earlier blogs, here’s the deal on credential inflation: if everyone’s got a high school diploma, you stand out from the crowd by getting a college diploma or associate degree (2 yrs). Once everyone has a two year credential, you stand out from the crowd by getting a four year degree. And once everyone’s got a four year degree… well as a (2011) New York Times piece noted, “The Master’s [is] the New Bachelor’s.” [2]

The New Credentials: Work Experience

A potential problem with formal credentials – one which I see being presently realized – is that at a certain point, the labour market becomes so saturated with graduates that there is no way of differentiating by credentials at all. In high-supply labour market areas in which an army of freshly minted grads in excess of demand-side needs is assured every year, credential inflation via formal education becomes unsustainable.

Thus increasingly, a further “cost” of education borne by young adults is the perceived need to accept internships for little or no money in order to gain needed work experience. In a particularly heinous case cited in a 2011 CTV article, one unapologetic business owner claims that unpaid internships are “part of ‘a new business model’ that pushes young workers to show passion for their job.” Points for being forthright, CEO Lady, but hey, way to make capitalism look bad. I’m sure someone, somewhere once referred to slavery as a “business model” too. However, as noted  by Toronto writer Jocelyn Anderson, interns must “share the blame for this situation” because they are willing to working for free.[3]

So Aside From All The Theoretical Stuff, Seriously… Is This Legal?

While some attention has been drawn to the legality of unpaid internships in the United States, the issue doesn’t appear to have much traction in Canada. Internships create legal, and, if you aren’t the CEO cited above, moral grey areas because there are no clear boundaries between volunteering, learning, apprenticing and paid labour. I reviewed the Alberta Labour website, and was unable to locate any resources pertaining specifically to internships. Summarily, what little I’ve found on this topic suggests that the legality of unpaid work is untested and unclear. For additional reading on the legality of unpaid internships in Canada, check out this blog by Toronto lawyer Andrew Langille.

And From the “Unpaid Internships Are Awesome” Corner…

While I maintain that unpaid internships are a form of exploitation in a difficult labour market for youth and new grads, here are some counter-perspectives from a recent edition of The Atlantic.

An interesting point I took from these comments was that there are different perspectives on the nature of the relationships between companies and their workers. Underlying my own perspective and that of others I’ve cited here is a belief that workers and their employers ought to form mutually beneficial relationships. In contrast, the pro-internship types above take a much more instrumental and contractual approach. They think like free agents, and are happy to gain experience they could use to apply for paid work in other settings. The “flexible labour” ethos works both ways, it seems: mercenary labour markets create mercenary workers.


Notes, References, and Additional Ranting

[1] I don’t know exactly what a “memory book designer intern” is. It would seem to imply that somewhere down the road one can be gainfully employed as a “memory book designer.” But I quibble.

[2] A commentator in this piece ,Richard Vedder of Nebraska’s Center for College Affordability has the essence of the problem nailed when he notes that employers and the higher education sector are benefitting from the upward spiral of credentialing, while students carry the costs. The ramping up of education requirements is good for employers – who don’t invest in their younger workers – and post-secondary institutions, who have every incentive imaginable to recruit in a hyper-competitive market. It’s beyond dysfunctional, and its entirely on the backs of students who have no choice but to play the credentials game at stakes that spiral higher and higher.

[3] Joceline Anderson (2010, June 7). Interns: Experience or Exploitation? The Star. “Interns, too, share the blame for this situation. Desperate for work (or at least the padded résumé they hope will secure it), we have shown a willingness to trade our rights for anything.”

A couple of studies I’ve read recently have also discussed the increasing importance of having the “right” credentials in the form of one’s extra-curricular activities. Travel experiences, volunteer work, hobbies, and other non-academic “achievements” are increasingly used by both employers and workers as signaling and screening devices in hiring. It is not so much that such strategizing is new – it’s pretty standard to include non-work related material in resumes. What is new is the extent to which this material is being used strategically for career building. On this, see Lehmann, W. (2012). Extra-credential experiences and social closure : working-class students at university. British Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 37-41. Also strategic use of the “gap year” and the “professionalization of travel” in Cremin, C. (2007). Living and Really Living: The Gap Year and the Commodification of the Contingent. 7(4), 526-542.

Further Reading and Resources

Anderson, L. (2012, June 3). Internships in Canada: Working for free has its benefits, but may be dragging down our economy. The Huffington Post Canada.

Neff, G., & Arata, G. (2007). The competitive privilege of working for free: Rethinking the roles interns play in communication industries. New York, NY: Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Retrieved from

Tooley, M. (2012, August 20) Business perspective on unpaid internships in Canada. First Reference Talks: News and Discussions on Payroll & Employment Law.

You might also check out my previous post on the topic of unpaid internships.



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