Controversial as they may be, unpaid internships continue to play prominent roles in the career paths of young Canadians. But, while they may advertise as paying in experience, knowledge and connections, sometimes an unpaid internship can be a mask for unpaid work. Knowing the difference between an uncompensated dud and a true career catalyst can save you frustration down the line.

Know the rules

While they vary from province to province, there are sets of rules governing how internships must be run. These rules are designed to protect interns, ensuring their internship helps spur their career. Most provinces ask that any unpaid internship be a requirement for a formal education program, offering practical learning experiences.

Before beginning any type of unpaid internship, be sure to consult the rules, legislature and regulations surrounding unpaid work in your province. This can help you decide whether an internship is legal. If you live in Nova Scotia, for example, you might be surprised to hear you are entitled to at least minimum wage in any internship if it is not part of a formal education program.

The warning signs

Even though an internship meets provincial requirements, some real stinkers still manage to escape notice. But, before concluding an internship is not up to snuff, try voicing your concerns to whomever is coordinating the position. There is a chance that he or she may not even be aware of the finer details of your province’s laws.

If you think your internship might not be all that it claims to be, consider these warning signs:

1) No formal interview

The application process for an unpaid internship is the same as applying for a job. Good internships are competitive, have many applicants and should have a formal interview process. If you apply to an internship and are granted acceptance without formal introductions, you have a right to be suspicious.

2) No clear objectives outlined

Before beginning an unpaid internship, be sure to ask for details concerning what exactly is expected of you, what they intend to teach you and who you are working under. If they do not have a plan or are vague in their details, it could be an indicator of unpreparedness on their part.

3) Everyone is too busy

Sometimes the busiest places are not the best environments to learn in. Be sure to ask in the interview if someone is taking you under their wing throughout the duration of your internship. The last thing you want is to be sitting at a desk twiddling your thumbs while everyone else is running around with their hands full.

4) Not educational

Remember: just because an internship is unpaid does not mean you should not profit from it. If you find an unpaid internship is 10 per cent hands-on experience and 90 per cent custodial tasks like filing or running office errands (or doing nothing at all), chances are you are not standing to benefit from this experience.

5) Someone is profiting off your unpaid labour

If you are spending the majority of your internship on tasks which benefit the company financially, you might be working for free. Although you should expect to work hard in an internship, remember you are not actually working for the company hosting you. There is a big difference between working at a task designed to educate you and working for free at a task designed to earn the company money.

Remember that you have rights as an intern. If you are giving more than receiving from an unpaid internship, do not be afraid to speak up and voice your concerns.

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