The value of an internship is indisputable. It teaches marketable skills, builds professional networks, and helps students test their careers.
But the benefits aren’t available to everyone: nearly half of all internships are unpaid, putting them out of reach for students who need a salary to pay their bills, even if the job isn’t. has nothing to do with the career they envision.
Unpaid internships are facing new scrutiny from colleges, state lawmakers — and even the White House, which announced this fall that its interns would be paid for the first time to help eliminate the “barriers to equal opportunity” for low-income students.
And students are leading the effort, saying they can’t afford to meet internship requirements and shouldn’t be expected to work without pay to succeed in any given field.
Denice Brambila, 26, completed an unpaid internship last spring required by her master’s degree in social work program at San Diego State University.
To support herself, she worked 12 hours a week in a paid job in the office of an elementary school. This was in addition to the 16 hours a week she spent on her internship, while trying to keep up with her studies.
“It was quite difficult, especially on the days when I felt really exhausted and stressed,” Brambila said.
People who can do unpaid internships have financial safety nets, meaning they tend to benefit wealthier, white students, perpetuating wealth gaps. According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, three out of four unpaid interns in 2020-21 were white.
“Let’s face it, it’s very difficult to do an unpaid internship, an unpaid work experience, when you come from a low-income background. That’s why we’re pushing for more paid internships, less reliance on unpaid internships, and hopefully that helps diversify the workforce and these industries,” said Joshua Kahn, associate director of research and public policy at NACE.
Unpaid internships can be found in all industries. More than two-thirds of internships in state governments and nonprofits were unpaid, according to the 2021 NACE study. At universities, professional programs in fields such as social work, teaching, and journalism are among those that typically require often unpaid fieldwork.
In some fields, unpaid internships are equated with apprenticeships because they are considered essential training for careers.
“We really don’t believe that students can learn to work with people unless they have some practice working with people,” said Darla Spence Coffey, president and CEO of the Council on Social Work Education, the accrediting body for social work programs.
The board requires undergraduates to spend 400 hours on internship and 900 hours for masters students. The goal, Coffey said, is for students to “learn to switch between what the theory says and how to apply it.”
But many of the underfunded nonprofits and clinics where students work cannot afford to pay them. “Students would like the accrediting body to say you have to pay your students, but that’s something we just can’t do,” Coffey said.
Shannon Swanson, 23, has seen firsthand the disparities in who can afford to take unpaid work.
As an unpaid intern at the California State Capitol, she worked up to 40 hours a week, well beyond the 15 hours expected of most interns. She wanted the experience and could work longer because she had paid jobs on campus with flexible hours and financial support from her parents.
Some of his peers had to take paid full-time jobs to get by and couldn’t devote more than 15 hours to their Capitol internships.
After graduating from Sacramento State University, Swanson was hired as a legislative assistant in the same office where she articled. She then got a job in higher education policy. While the experience has helped her career, she bristles at the attitude she’s heard from staff that newcomers should tackle unpaid internships like they once did.
“We really need to end this attitude of, ‘It was hard for me, then it’s going to be hard for you,'” she said.
Legislation pending in California includes a $5 million stipend fund to help 650 low-income students and recent college graduates take unpaid work in the state legislature and in other other state departments.
“It’s important that we focus on those who need it the most and who have been historically excluded,” said MP Tasha Boerner Horvath, a Democrat, who plans to introduce the bill early next year. .
Some companies are exploring new ways to make internships accessible. One company, Parker Dewey, has partnered with college career centers to offer students “micro-internships” – short-term paid projects that can attract students from different backgrounds who may need help. more flexible hours.
Colleges have also taken steps to make internships more accessible to their students.
At Pomona College in California, students can apply for internship stipends that offer little or no pay to help them explore possible careers.
Marina Aina, a Pomona student majoring in American Studies, has completed paid internships in politics and leadership development in the past. Last summer, she was able to intern at a nonprofit that works with Tongan Americans — an opportunity she saw as a chance to help give back to people like her.
Without the allowance, she couldn’t see herself taking advantage of an unpaid opportunity for a summer job.
“If I felt it wasn’t compensated, I wouldn’t go because I wouldn’t have the funds to cover it,” said Aina, 21. “I wouldn’t want to ask my parents, who help me pay for college, to pay for something I do in the summer.
The internships also gave her a glimpse of a potential career.
“It was nice to see a grassroots organization primarily led by a woman serving the community and achieving success,” says Aina. “I personally wanted to see what it looked like because I could see myself in it.”