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Interns add value, companies should pay them

The world of internships is a harsh one. I am getting a specialized degree in public health, so positions in my field are limited, with many qualified applicants vying for relatively few spots. And the application process is grueling. It’s practically a full-time job in itself — on top of going to school full time and working part time.

The biggest shock for me, though, was finding out that many internships are unpaid.

I am investing a significant amount of time and money into my graduate degree. I have education bills — and I have to eat. How can I be expected to comfortably accept unpaid work for the summer and beyond?

By not offering pay for internships, companies are limiting their applicant pools to those who can afford to work without pay, taking away opportunities from those with fewer financial resources to make inroads in organizations that may set them up for future success. Or they are forcing students to take on additional debt to get these valuable work experiences.

My public health education has emphasized the importance of thinking about access and equality in our daily lives. It is ironic, then, that those organizations offering unpaid internships in my field do not seem to consider this same thinking as a priority. If some segments of the population are systematically excluded from those opportunities based on their financial situations, that is unfair, inequitable and wrong.

And the impact doesn’t end with the summer. It carries on into the interns’ future success.

Internships often lead to job offers. If you can’t afford to work for free, you lose the opportunity for both experience and potential employment. And those who can afford it may not want the jobs they’re offered: Companies who later hire unpaid interns generally offer them lower starting salaries than those businesses who pay their interns, according to an annual survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Nearly half of the internships completed by those surveyed were unpaid.

I returned to graduate school after working for non-profit organizations for the past seven years, and I admit, I had taken paid employment for granted and assumed it extended to internships, which are work, after all. The undergraduate students who served as interns in my former office were paid.

But when I started looking for summer internships this year, I quickly realized that many of them expect me to invest my time and knowledge into their work, and gain only “experience” in return — as if that will keep a roof over my head. The last I checked, my landlord doesn’t accept “experience” in place of a rent check.

The Department of Labor sets guidelines for unpaid interns and students that for-profit employers are expected to follow under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This is an important set of regulations to make sure that students are treated fairly when they do the work of employees. However, these guidelines do not extend to not-for-profit organizations.

There is value in paying for the work that interns are doing, especially when they are directly applying skills they’ve learned in school and likely teaching others something along the way. Employees are compensated for the value they bring, and interns should be no different.

College is hard — and expensive — enough, as it is. We can’t afford to give away our skills.

Chrystal Okonta (cokonta1@jhmi.edu) is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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