Irving Shipbuilding Inc., a company that received $300 million from the Nova Scotia government and a $25-billion contract from Ottawa to build a fleet of warships, is offering unpaid work terms for community college students.

An email sent to students of the Nova Scotia Community College, which was forwarded to the Halifax Examiner, says the company is encouraging students “from any/all educational fields to submit their application to be considered for an exciting unpaid work term opportunity.”

After the company won the crown jewel of the national shipbuilding strategy in 2011, the former NDP government in Nova Scotia committed $300-million, $260 million of which was a forgivable loan, to the shipyard to help prepare for the federal contract. It’s been said that funding was integral to Irving winning the contract.

At its height, the work at the Halifax shipyard is expected to generate thousands of jobs. Former premier Darrell Dexter likened getting the contract in Nova Scotia to hosting the Olympics year after year for the duration of the work.

Mary Keith, spokesperson for Irving, said the nature of the work students would be doing varies, depending on their program of study. The company will take up to 20 students for the five-week term.

“If they are studying steamfitting/pipefitting, Irving Shipbuilding would pair the student up with a mentor (journeyman pipefitter) to watch and learn in a safe work environment,” Keith said in an email.

“Last year we had students in skilled trade programs as well as students in business administration and accounting.”

Michaela Sam, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students (Nova Scotia), said her organization “adamantly opposes unpaid work.”

“If students are doing a job they need to be paid for the work that they do,” she said.

Irving is hardly the only company that uses unpaid work terms, and Sam said that’s part of the problem.

“Currently unpaid internships exist in all sectors of the economy and that’s actually eroding entry-level jobs,” something Sam said hurts the economy because it makes it more difficult for new graduates to find work.

It also creates “a rotating door of unpaid internships in which those internships don’t actually result in full-time work” for participants, she said.

A spokesperson for NSCC said five-week work terms are a mandatory requirement for students to graduate.

“We outline the roles of the employer, student and faculty to ensure any expectation is clear and remuneration is not a requirement,” Kathleen Cameron said in an email.

“We do enforce and monitor the working conditions provided by the employer for our students to ensure they are safe and well-monitored and that the student is able to gain a great deal of worthwhile experience from the work term.”

Cameron said work terms are “incredibly beneficial” to students because they reinforce what they’ve learned in class.

“This experience can set them apart in the job market. The benefit to employers is that it offers them a chance to help support the students’ learning and gives them access to skilled and talented graduates before they even enter the workforce.”

On-the-job learning might be worth something, said Sam, but the value is greatly diminished when it’s unpaid, especially considering it’s for a group of people who could benefit from making additional money, given the rising cost of tuition and mounting debt most students face.

When students are required to do an internship or co-op placement as part of their program and that work is unpaid, it means students are paying tuition to work for free, said Sam.

“That’s a practice that needs to stop, both at the provincial level and the federal level.”

Lobbying is happening in Ottawa to try to change the rules around unpaid work for students as part of course requirements, said Sam.

The province’s Labour Standards Code doesn’t have any specific rules about internships because “each situation has to be assessed on its specific circumstances,” according to a government spokesperson.

Although the Department of Labour and Advanced Education is aware there are complaints about unpaid work terms in other jurisdictions, “we receive very few complaints in Nova Scotia,” Michelle Lucas said via email.

Lucas said Labour and Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan has discussed the topic with her provincial and federal counterparts during past meetings.

While she didn’t address Irving specifically, Lucas said work experience opportunities for students are important, but so is the opportunity for them to earn money to pay for school.

“We know that not every organization (ex: non-profit) is in a position to pay interns or co-op students, but the province encourages any organization that can afford to compensate students, to do so.”


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  1. In the past my employer has taken on NSCC students to do tasks for which full time employees should have been hired. These tasks were not at all related to their studies – they were used as free labour and they were rightly frustrated that they hadn’t learned a thing apart from how to stuff a box and unload pallets in a warehouse. It was disgraceful and what was even more disturbing is that the employer was a department in the N.S. Government.

  2. Some years ago my three children made their respective ways through university. The sons were in commerce and engineering. Both had reasonably well-paid and useful work terms both in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in the country. None led to employment. The daughter was in nutrition and had to work for no pay, a great difficulty for her as this was now her second degree, hence little parental cash available to her. How was she supposed to earn money for her tuition and living expenses if during the third of the year she was not in class she had to work for free? Hello, second job, low-paid. And again, the work terms did not lead to employment. She’s still, years later, paying off her student loan.

  3. Unions are part of the problem and they don’t like talking about the issue.
    Just adopt the German apprenticeship system and be done

    1. Many unions will actully teach you a trade, pay you and reimburse costs if you do well.

      A 5 week work term isn’t real experiance. It’s a taste of work sure but it’s not enough time to learn independence or do actual work. I Say end the practice.

  4. I graduated recently from NSCC and had to do one of these work terms.

    Instead of hiring someone and taking responsibility for their development, companies can now chew through a couple students until they find one that is “just right”. Companies have always had this ability more or less. What NSCC has offered them is a guilt free way of doing it. Because the work term is a grad requirement companies see it as a “favour” or a “good deed” to the students even if they do not offer them full-time employment.

    I know a few people who took a work term under the impression it was leading to full time employment, only to be let go with little explanation when the employer found someone “a little better suited” within that 5 week time frame. For fresh grads, especially in the trades/construction you have a small window to find work. A company may take 2-3 new grads a year and if you miss that window its ‘Berta time or you wait for spring and go back to taking tables or washin dishes.

    Welcome, Mike!

  5. Michael,
    Not to defend the Irvings but did you check the position of the CAW? Many unions won’t allow ‘hands on tools’ unless that person has a union card. Ms. Keith may be right that it’s ‘watch and learn’ with little chance to prove oneself.

  6. I agree that if a student is working they should get paid. On the other hand, if there are no paying jobs to be had for these students to get some work-term experience, then what are the students to do? This is a legislation issue and an education-administrative issue. The government could try to ban the work for free option; but I know of a couple of people who turned a “work for free” experience into a full time job when the employer saw the quality of their work. Perhaps the educational institutions should liaise with the potential employers to ensure that all work-term positions being offered are paid positions? As the article said, Irving is t=not the only employer offering work for free positions…. you cannot fault an employer for trying to get some free labour… government grants really has little to do with it… almost everyone I know likes to get something for free and some do offer to pay when offered a free item/service, but those cases are few and far between. Volunteers work for free all the time… so if someone volunteers to work for free, whose fault is that. Just because a company offers free work-term positions, does not mean that anyone must take them up on the offer, right?

    1. I disagree, this leads to the problem of a lot of people having training for jobs that don’t exist. If you can’t pay minimum wage then the job is not viable when the student graduates.

    2. The issue is that there are so few jobs (at least in Nova Scotia) and so many students is that what used to be paid, entry level work is now done by interns who have very little chance of getting an actual job. With paid internships usually half the intern’s pay comes from various government programs. Once you are no longer eligible for those positions, you’re much less employable.

    3. Unless your program mandates that you complete a work term in order to graduate. If it doesn’t then no, you don’t have to take the offer of unpaid work. Otherwise, in a system where new/prospective grads are desperate for work experience, what other choice do you have?

  7. My grandson graduated from Kingstec Electrician program and did his work term with a Halifax electrical company doing the work for the CBC building in 2014. It was supposed to be a paid internship with promise of job to follow. On the Friday of the first week on the job he received a text saying that they were sorry but they couldn’t pay him. He wouldn’t graduate without the work term so he stayed as an unpaid intern. Companies in Nova Scotia are a big part of the problem in our economy and actually drive our young people out of the province.

    1. As someone who did several work terms in Alberta and Ontario while attending university in the past decade, I assure you the problem is not confined to Nova Scotia.

      In fact, the laws in Nova Scotia are basically the same as they are everywhere else in Canada. Most provinces explicitly permit unpaid work if it’s required to fulfill the requirements of a post-secondary program. It’s a national issue, though jurisdiction over labour law is largely provincial, so we’re not subject to federal whims–we could elect to change things locally.

  8. Exploiting student labour is nothing new. I’m sure the Irvings will take to the next level I’m sure.

    When is there going to be a serious conversation about the tattered remains of the social contract between employers and employees or has globalization made that superfluous?

    Can hardly wait foir the influx of Bangladeshi welders for the shipbuilding.

  9. Just to put icing on the cake, I don’t think they’d actually take students “from any/all educational fields”. I attended NSCC from 2011-13, concentrating in computer programming, and I received a similar e-mail. I asked if they had opportunities for IT students and they said no.