Over the course of several years as an editor with Peterborough This Week/mykawartha.com, I was privileged to play a role in the mentoring and training of a number of co-op students, or interns, both of the college and the secondary school variety.

To witness a young person, or anyone for that matter, at the moment the light comes on is tremendously satisfying. More often than not, I was taken back to the fall and early winter of 1979 when I was college student intern with CBC Radio in Toronto. Producer Paul Mills was my supervisor. He embodied all that a workplace mentor should be – infectiously passionate about his work and eager to share his knowledge; a leader by pure example with patience to spare.

Decades later, much of who I am in terms of my professional dealings remains rooted in that initial workplace experience.

My internship wasn’t a paid one. In fact, between commuting from my east Toronto home to the downtown core and buying lunch five days a week, it cost me a few bucks. But that was a very small investment for a terrific return in the form of several new skills acquired and increased confidence in my decision to pursue a career in journalism.

But despite my feeling now what I felt then, that my intern experience provided full value, is that enough of a return for today’s interns and co-op students? Should they expect, or even demand, to be paid for their efforts as well?

In her frontline experience with the internship component of Trent University’s Business Administration Program, lecturer Cammie Jaquays says financial compensation shouldn’t be the measuring stick when it comes to rating an internship as having been successful.

“If they’re coming in and doing necessary work and leaving, that’s one thing, but if it’s interactive; if they’re being taken to meetings and there’s guiding and mentoring, that’s what a true internship is,” she told me.

“Does that need to be paid? Well, as long as they’re not replacing someone else’s full-time job, as long as they’re not doing work that normally you would pay someone for, then it qualifies as an internship.”

What’s often lost in any discussion re: paid versus unpaid internships is there is indeed a significant investment on the part of the employer that costs dollars and cents in terms of paid staff’s time mentoring and training. Ms Jaquays is well aware of that but does advocate “fair compensation for effort,” suggesting an honorarium may be the route to go.

“There are many forms of compensation…it doesn’t have to be a straight hourly rate,” she says.

Ms Jaquays notes the paid versus unpaid debate aside, internships “in my view are why people are going to school.” Before bemoaning the fact that there’s no monetary compensation “keep in mind the issue of experience…what are you experiencing; what do you gain and what do you learn.” If your place of internship “employment” is holding up its end of the bargain, the answer should be quick in coming: plenty.

Much has changed since my internship in the late 1970s but one thing has remained constant in terms of internships: the true value of the experience lies in what the employer makes of it and to what level the intern accepts the opportunity to learn and grow.

All the power to you if you can snag an internship that puts a few bucks in your pocket but don’t shut the door to any workplace experience that takes your skills and interactions to the next level. That has value that will potentially pay off handsomely down the road.

That plus if you’re open to not being paid for your internship labours, the number of opportunities out there increases dramatically.

“There a lot of really good companies that have done wonderful things and really offered a whole life-changing opportunity for a young graduate…we can’t lose sight of that,” reminds Ms Jaquays.

“If the investment is there, if the mentorship is there, if you’re getting additional training, if there are things that can go on your resume, then we can really create a strong win-win situation.”

Next week, two Peterborough employers who have opened their doors to students seeking workplace experience share their views.