Unpaid internships face new scrutiny as barriers to careers

The value of an internship is unmistakable. Teaches marketable skills, builds professional networks, and helps students try out careers.

But the benefits aren’t available to everyone: About half of all internships are unpaid, putting them out of reach for students who need wages to pay their bills, even if the job has nothing to do with their jobs. scheduled races.

Unpaid internships are facing new scrutiny from universities, state lawmakers and even the White House, which announced this fall that its interns will be paid for the first time to help remove “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 make it in a given field.

Denice Brambila, 26, completed an unpaid internship last spring required by her master’s program in social work at San Diego State University.

To support himself, he worked 12 hours a week at a paid job in an elementary school office. That was in addition to the 16 hours a week he spent on her internship, all while he was trying to keep up with his studies.

“It was quite difficult, especially on those days when I felt really exhausted and stressed,” said Brambila.

People who are able to do unpaid internships have financial safety nets, and that means they tend to benefit wealthier, whiter students, perpetuating wealth gaps. Three out of four unpaid interns in 2020-21 were white, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“Let’s face it, it’s very difficult to take an unpaid internship, unpaid work experience, when you’re in a low-income environment. That is why we are pushing for more paid internships, less reliance on unpaid internships, and hopefully it will help diversify the workforce and these industries,” said Joshua Kahn, associate director for research and public policy at NACE.

Unpaid internships can be found in every industry. More than two-thirds of state government and nonprofit internships 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 commonly require fieldwork that is often unpaid.

In some fields, unpaid internships are compared to apprenticeships because they are considered essential training for careers.

“We really don’t think 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 work programs. Social.

The council asks that undergraduates spend 400 hours on internships 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 clinics and nonprofits where students work can’t afford them. “Students would love to be told by the accrediting body that they should pay their 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, far more than the 15 hours expected of most interns. She wanted the experience and was able to work more hours because she had paid jobs on campus with flexible hours and financial help from her parents.

Some of his peers had to accept full-time paid jobs to survive and could not spend more than 15 hours on Capitol Hill internships.

After graduating from Sacramento State University, Swanson was hired as a legislative assistant in the same office where she interned. She went on to get a job in higher education politics. As much as her experience helped her career, she bristles at the attitude she heard from staff that newcomers should go through unpaid internships like they used to.

“We really need to remove this attitude of ‘It was hard for me, so it’s going to be hard for you,’” he said.

A legislative measure under consideration in California includes a $5 million stipend fund to help 650 low-income students and recent college graduates take unpaid jobs in the state Legislature and other state departments.

“It’s important that we focus on those who are most in need and who have been historically excluded,” says State Assemblywoman 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 connect students with “micro-internships” — short-term, paid projects that can attract students from different backgrounds who may need more flexible hours.

Universities 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 potential careers.

Marina Aina, a Pomona student majoring in American Studies, has done paid internships in politics and leadership development in the past. Last summer, she was able to intern at a nonprofit organization that works with Tongan Americans, an opportunity she saw as an opportunity to help give back to people like herself.

Without the stipend, she couldn’t see herself taking an unpaid opportunity at a summer job.

“If I felt like I wasn’t compensated, I wouldn’t do it because I wouldn’t have the funds to cover it,” said Aina, 21. “I wouldn’t want to ask my parents, who are helping to pay for college, to pay for something I’m going to do over the summer.”

The internships also gave him insight into a possible career.

“It was nice to see a predominantly female-led grassroots organization that is serving the community and successful,” says Aina. “Personally, I wanted to see what that looks like because I could see myself in it.”

The Associated Press educational team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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