Editorial: Want a trainee to work for you? Pay them

Two women wearing navy blue hats and polos with the city of San Diego logo on the shirts.
The city of San Diego launched the Employ and Empower youth workforce program with $18.5 million in state funding. The program offers paid internships in local government for people between the ages of 16 and 30.
(City of San Diego)

Applications closed last week for a first-of-their-kind crop of White House interns. These college students aren’t any more skilled or motivated than the many who have passed through the West Wing before them. But they will be the first to earn money for their work.

Unpaid internships first came under serious scrutiny in 2013, when the magazine publisher Conde Nast was sued for paying its interns such ridiculously low sums as $1 an hour, or $300 for an entire summer. It settled for $5.8 million and promptly closed its internship program; it reopened the program last year, with full-time, paid positions.

For the record:

1:44 p.m. Aug. 1, 2022The editorial incorrectly described a survey of graduate students. The story said only 15% of those doing field work received some sort of financial support from their employers. However, the survey included all forms of employment during graduate school, which could have been fieldwork or outside jobs.

Since then, a lot of for-profit companies have gotten the message. According to Carlos Mark Vera, executive director of the advocacy group Pay Our Interns, the for-profit sector is where internships are most likely to be paid.


But there still are far too many unpaid internships, which are unfair for several reasons. Students are in more need than ever of money-earning work to help finance their educations as college costs rise. Though internships are mostly supposed to be educational, interns are generally spending much of their time on tasks that mainly benefit the organization. And no matter how well designed unpaid training positions are, they put lower-income students at an inherent disadvantage. Internships look great on a resume and give the student a head start on finding good jobs, but many students can’t afford that sort of prestige; they need paid work to get by. And frankly, all work should be paid, even apprentice work. Most employers should either pay their workers, even temporary and part-time staff, or do without them.

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Many private colleges also take advantage of the system. One legal way for a for-profit company not to pay an intern is for the student to earn course credit for the internship. This doesn’t reduce the tuition the student pays — the college gets to charge for education that it’s not providing. In other words, everybody wins financially except the people least able to afford it: the interns who do the actual work.

The situation is particularly troubling for service-oriented professions such as social work and teaching, with students required by their universities to do fieldwork in order to gain certification. This work is generally full-time and lasts for months, yet most of it is unpaid; according to the Council on Social Work Education, only 15% of social work graduate students are paid for their fieldwork; 11% receive government assistance. During this phase, Vera said, students continue paying tuition, but because their full-time work requires certain work hours, they are less able to earn money through part-time outside work.

Our society bemoans the shortages of teachers and mental health workers while it puts unfair obstacles in their paths to train for this essential work.

It’s time to end most unpaid internships at government and for-profit employers, with new laws, if necessary. Of the nation’s 3.3 million internships each year, 1 million are unpaid, according to the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s actually a reduction from a decade ago, when about half of all internships were unpaid.


California is lagging on this. The governor’s office, for example, doesn’t pay its interns but requires schools either to give them academic credit or pay them. The latter is unlikely to happen at community colleges and other public schools attended by many low-income students. Internships in the state Legislature are largely unpaid, according to Pay Our Interns. Its 2019 report found that only 10% of internships in the state Assembly were paid, and none in the state Senate. This is especially shameful for a government that has dedicated itself in many ways to social equity — and that currently has a giant budget surplus.

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California is also home to the music, movie and film industries, which are among the least likely to pay their interns, according to Vera. Sports is another big offender, he said, as are the media, especially smaller outlets. (All Los Angeles Times newsroom interns are paid.)

Legislation introduced this year would have set up a fund for paying legislative interns, but has been put on hold to strengthen its provisions.

Nonprofit organizations are a different matter. They already have the legal right to have people volunteer without pay; the relabeling of volunteer work as internships serves more as an incentive to draw in more workers in exchange for the prestige on their resumes, even when they’re doing tasks like driving people around or answering phones. For many nonprofits that are barely getting by, that might be essential to continuing their operations. But larger operations, with annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, should be reviewing their policies to help students whose incomes don’t allow them to work for free.

A fund to pay legislative interns would certainly help, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. President Biden should ban all unpaid internships at the federal level, and Gov. Gavin Newsom should do the same at the state level. Ideally, Congress should pass a law that prohibits unpaid internships by government and for-profit entities, as well as for graduate school apprenticeships that require students to pay their schools instead of being paid by the employers. If work needs to be done, that shouldn’t happen at the expense of these college students.