#30 Please pay and manage your interns

 
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It’s that time of year again - summer internship aka summer free labor season.

It was a little surprising how many people expressed newfound consideration when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pledged to pay all her interns $15 an hour – a move that in part prompted both the House and Senate to set aside funding for staff interns.

And for good reason. While internships on the hill are highly coveted and a sure step forward in a political career, Black and Latinx students’ disproportionate loads of college debt makes an unpaid internship make zero sense when it comes to any theory of equity, and thus only kids coming from some semblance of privilege get to take on unpaid work.

Yet elsewhere, I still see a bunch of problematic practices and behaviors in regards to interns.

Especially in the nonprofit and broader social impact space.

Need an extra hand for admin work? Get an unpaid intern.

Want strategic guidance from a grad student but don’t have the funds? Get an unpaid intern.

In some rare cases, I think this makes sense. I took on an unpaid internship with an ed tech startup during business school as part of a very structured experiential learning program. I not only got credit but academic guidance as well as insanely valuable hands on experience. My hours working essentially replaced the hours I’d be in class and doing homework and resulted in a ton of hands on experience and discussions around a post-MBA job opportunity if the funding I helped work on came through. Totally worth it.

But in other cases, especially those that aren’t structured and don’t come with a lick of academic credit or support, organizations are farming out free labor. End of story.

This is especially problematic to me in the social impact space because of the hypocrisy of the inequities it perpetuates.

If you don’t have the funding to sustainably pay all your workforce – interns included – your business model is unsustainable and inauthentic in its claim to leave a positive impact on the world.

What can you do to remedy this?

If you’re a nonprofit, ask for more money. Don’t celebrate or advertise or sell the fact that you’re getting more labor and help without impacting costs. Create a special workforce development opportunity or partner with workforce development programs to help target and attract funding.

If you run a for profit, build intern labor into your financial and revenue model. Make it transparent to investors.

And also, make sure you have the capacity to develop and manage your interns. Otherwise, you’re not hiring interns, you’re hiring part time admin support. Have integrity and honesty when it comes to the career development of young people.

Internships were definitely not a thing when I was in high school and I only had a couple in college (one during school and one the summer before senior year; other summers I had good old fashioned jobs), but it’s encouraging to me, especially in the era of realizing that not every kid needs or should get a 4 year degree, to see work based learning opportunities get renewed attention and investment.

So if you’re doing all this right and managing and paying your interns this summer or otherwise, I’d love to hear your story!