This text was initially published in L'Invisible, a publication by the newspaper committee of the Montreal Coalition for Paid Internships.
Psychoeducation apprentice, aspiring midwife, future medical extern, budding administrator, speech therapist in the making, less-than-junior engineer, young student nurse who survives on ramen noodles. It doesn’t take much to see that interns are everywhere. And yet, they do not exist. Neither in the Act respecting labour standards, which only mentions them to strip them of basic protections, neither in the surveys of official statistical agencies, disinterested by the thousands of young people who discreetly wait for their opportunity on the outskirts of the labour market.
Trainees are nobodies, and we find them everywhere. All universities have them! At least, all those that we asked. Laval, McGill, Sherbrooke, Concordia, Montreal, UQAC, UQO, UQAM, UQAR, UQTR, HEC, ÉTS and Polytechnique have confirmed: nearly 100 000 internships were completed in more than 200 programs in these 13 institutions during 2016-2017. 87% at the undergraduate level, 11% at the graduate and 2% at the doctorate level. 54% in Montreal, 46% elsewhere in the province. One hundred thousand, an army! That's a lot of nobodies.
Trainees have a thousand faces, which are somehow very similar. In universities, a handful of programs offer the majority of the province's internships: medicine, nursing, preschool and elementary education, pharmacology, secondary education, social work and psychoeducation represent 50% of the lot.
With 49% of the student workforce, internships in the health and medical sectors take the lion's share. Honorable mention goes to the world of education at 19% of internships listed, far ahead of the social sciences, hotspot of psychosocial intervention, with a modest 9% of the lot. We could easily come to the conclusion that three-quarters of university internships are directly or indirectly related to care. And that they are mainly dedicated to training the future women workers of various State organizations.
Women, you say?
In Quebec universities, two out of three internships (66%) are worked by women. This is much more than their relative weight in the student population, which is around 57%. They represent the vast majority of the social sciences (82.3%), health (80.4%) and education (75%) sectors, as if they were retained by some glass wall. The most masculine sectors - what a surprise! - are those of science, where women hold a weight of 59%, management (55%), and engineering, which takes the cake with a ratio of hardly 18% women.
Statistics produced by the Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur, de la recherche et de la sciences (Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Science, or MESRS) show that women are the majority population in trade programs within colleges, where they represented 60% of the workforce in 2011. Just like in universities, gender composition is highly differentiated between different sectors. Biological and social trades have the highest proportion of women at 79% and 77%, respectively. The latter are also in the majority in arts techniques (65%). Women, however, are in the minority in the administrative trades (46%) and in the physics trades, where they represent only 17% of the students enrolled.
Paid internships, male internships
Internships within traditionally male sectors are also those where being paid is the most common. At the Université de Sherbrooke, 63% of internships in the science sector are part of the university’s co-op work term scheme, a ratio that is propelled to 99% in the management sector and to 100% (!) in the engineering sector. Because, as chance would have it, students within traditionally female fields of study are much less likely to be paid than their colleagues in the aforementioned sectors: almost never in the humanities and in education, and only one out of five times in the health sector. At the Université de Sherbrooke, barely 20% of internships worked by women are paid, while 47% of those worked by men are paid. Men are therefore two and a half times more likely to be paid for their internships than their women colleagues.
These inequities are also true in the college network. In a report produced during the winter of 2018, the student association of Édouard-Montpetit assessed that, among their members, women who carry out internships are only paid 17% of the time. This proportion rises to 45% among male students.
Millions for paid internships... in the private sector!
Both in the private and the community sector, interns are popular. Short of bodies and brains, many of today’s employers turn to universities and colleges when they are short of labour. In addition to getting their future employees from these schools, they also find a useful workforce capable of relieving senior workers of less complex or more difficult tasks, of absorbing work overloads, or of carrying out special projects likely to make their organization shine. Interns are a valuable and inexpensive workforce, all the more affordable because they are generously subsidized by the State.
For the private sector, Quebec facilitates the creation of internships through grants and tax credits. The State therefore covers a significant share of the costs related to the salaries and supervision of students who complete an internship of 140 hours or more as part of a program attached to a recognized educational institution.
Refund requests sent to Revenu Québec doubled from 2001 to 2016. Their cost jumped from $21.5 million to $48.1 million, an increase of 123% over 16 years. This is probably only the beginning, since the Couillard government announced an increase in eligible reimbursable expenses in its last budget. At the Université de Sherbrooke, the total payroll for interns benefiting from this program has jumped by a spectacular 27% since last year, from $38 million in 2016-2017 to $48.1 million in 2017-2018. Clearly, the private sector will remain wide open to subsidized internships as long as the labour shortage persists.