How The Paid Internship Movement Has Evolved

Download Audio
Many interns are still not paid in the U.S. (Photo by Green Chameleon/Unsplash)
Many interns are still not paid in the U.S. (Photo by Green Chameleon/Unsplash)

Students hoping to beef up their resumes must decide whether to take unpaid internships that offer college credit or recommendations instead of compensation.

The old thought process is internships provide educational experiences and an individual pays their dues before moving into a paid position.

Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder of the nonprofit Pay Our Interns, doesn’t think that’s how it should work. Vera worked unpaid internships in different government offices and realized his hardships were not unique.

Pay Our Interns has a tagline: “Experience doesn't pay the bills.” Since its founding in 2016, Vera and co-founder Guillermo Creamer Jr. have successfully pushed for interns in government and other industries to get the pay they deserve.

“When we founded [Pay Our Interns], people thought of it kind of like world peace,” he says. “It sounds nice, but it's not going to go anywhere, especially in this political climate.”

Interview Highlights

On the experience interning in college

“So my first unpaid internship was on the Hill. And, you know, because I grew up in a low-income family, I had to do a part-time job and then take six classes as a 17-year-old and was interning over 30 hours a week. I remember those days of just fighting not to fall asleep, always doing my internship or walking down the hallways of Congress and realizing that no one looks like you except the custodian.

“At the White House, you have to wear a suit every day. So those are just some things that people don't think about when the internship requirements says ‘professional clothing’ — that costs a lot of money, especially when you're not getting paid anything.”

On the push to get interns paid opportunities

“Two years ago, we got Congress to come together and agree on creating a $14 million intern fund, which now has been increased. And just in the past two years, it's $31 million so that each office has allotted money to start offering paid internships. And when they passed that, it really sent a strong signal around D.C. and across the country that times were changing. And we've started to see so many more organizations and nonprofits do the same.

“So, for example, like the PR Council in New York, they represent over 100 [public relations] firms. They passed a rule that all their PR firms that they represent must pay interns starting this year. We've worked with presidential campaigns, with other organizations, and also this has allowed for [us] to have that conversation because, you know, there are folks in countless organizations that want to change the policies internally, right? But sometimes they just don't have the power. So this is really given them that space to speak up and say, ‘You know what, maybe we should do something different.’”

On the relationships between schools and companies to provide paid internships

“You know, for those small companies, I can sympathize, right? We're a small nonprofit and we pay our interns. I think the first thing is being intentional about adding that to your budget. If it is limited, say, ‘Hey, you know what? At a minimum, we can give you a stipend for transportation and to cover your food cost.’

“... More schools nowadays are offering stipends for their students who intern. And now, even some state governments are passing tax credits so that if you take on a student and you pay them, you can get a tax credit. So a lot of it is just being creative and asking for help.”

On how to measure the educational benefit of an unpaid internship

“In reality, it really should be. The program is structured. They're learning about different aspects. The loophole that a lot of employers have done is they say, ‘We don't pay, but you have to do a college credit.’ And the college credit is the ‘educational part,’ which means that students are paying thousands of dollars to work for free.”

On how interns are dealing with not being paid

“That is one of the parts that is the most frustrating for us is just the lack of data. The Department of Labor doesn't even actually track. We don't know how many interns there are across the country, really.

“The movement isn't just about saying, ‘Hey, pay,’ but also ‘Pay an adequate amount,’ because you have employers saying, ‘Oh, we offer paid internships in D.C., New York, or Boston.’ And you ask them, ‘Well, how much are you paying?’ They're like, ‘Oh, $400 stipends for six months.’ And, you know, that barely covers transportation. So what we've ended up doing is teaching a lot of these interns negotiation skills, how to advocate for themselves. And we're realizing that these are skills that they're learning at a young age that will then help them later on in their career.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this story for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Derek J. Anderson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 17, 2020.

Headshot of Tonya Mosley

Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live