It’s February “reading week” at many Ontario colleges and universities, and students’ thoughts are turning to summer employment.
The lucky ones will find summer jobs that allow them to apply what they learned at school and advance their career goals. Some, with families able to financially support them, will forego paid employment and volunteer instead, or work for free as unpaid interns.
For most students, however, the reality is minimum wage service sector jobs that don’t come close to covering the costs of tuition – much less living and other expenses – or worse yet, no job at all. At over 15 per cent, youth unemployment in Ontario remains more than double the provincial average.
Equally troubling, only about half of Ontario young people aged 15-24 held paid employment in 2014, and increasing numbers of students are graduating from post-secondary education without any work experience. Not only does this make it difficult to find that first job, but it can have a permanent “scarring” effect on future employability.
Research shows that work-integrated learning (WIL) is an effective way for students to gain career-related work experience while they are studying. These programs – such as co-ops, internships, field placements, and others – can improve the “fit” between education and employment and help students achieve their long-term career goals. They are particularly valuable to connect disadvantaged youth to the labour market, and enable new immigrants to gain Canadian experience.
They also offer significant benefits to employers, providing a ready-made talent pool for recruitment efforts, and strengthening connections with post-secondary institutions. From the Conference Board of Canada to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, employer organizations are recognizing the importance of work-integrated learning, and calling for greater collaboration across government, education providers and employers to expand WIL programs. Yet a 2012 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that only 39 per cent of Ontario employers offer work-integrated learning opportunities for post-secondary students.
Without opportunities to gain relevant work experience while they are studying, many students feel no other choice than to work for free after they graduate. A quick scan of Kijiji or other job search sites reveals hundreds of advertisements for unpaid work. These unpaid positions take advantage of graduates’ desperation for career experience and, in most cases, are illegal.
Despite Liberal government claims to have “banned” unpaid internships, a 2014 Ministry of Labour enforcement blitz found that 42 per cent of employers with interns were not meeting their legal responsibilities. New Democrats believe a proactive approach is needed to stop the illegal exploitation of young people as free labour, and ensure that firms pay their new hires.
Aside from the ethics of unpaid internships, economists point out that they are also bad for the economy. They privilege those who can afford to work for free, and exclude promising young talent. But for young job-seekers, the sad irony is that unpaid internships rarely translate into employment. By contrast, employers who invest in training their paid co-op students and interns are very likely to keep them on staff.
This month I introduced a bill to establish an Advisory Council on Work-Integrated Learning, bringing together employers, postsecondary institutions, students and others to expand high-quality, paid work-integrated learning programs in Ontario colleges and universities. To help end illegal, unpaid internships, the bill will also improve oversight of unpaid WIL and extend basic workplace protections – such as hours of work and scheduled breaks – to all WIL students and trainees.
Ontarians rightly expect evidence-based policy from their government. The evidence to support legislation to expand work-integrated learning and end illegal, unpaid internships is clear and compelling. Ontario post-secondary students and their families deserve no less.
Peggy Sattler is MPP for London West and Ontario NDP critic for Training, Colleges and Universities. Previously she was Director of Policy for Academica Group and a trustee on the Thames Valley District School Board.