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Friday, November 6, 2009

Should we pay our interns?

I was listening to an interesting piece on the radio a few weeks back about internships on NPR. The piece talked about the importance of getting an internship for students hoping to get into good jobs after college. Not surprisingly, the more sought after the job field, the more competition there is for internships. And it is increasingly common that companies don’t pay interns. Of course, it can take quite an investment of time to get someone acclimated, linked-up and trained-up and then they go back to school just as they are performing effectively. And there are plenty of potential interns chasing even the unpaid positions so why is there a need to pay?

The journalist then went on to talk about the cost of going to school and how some students have to get paid work during the holidays or they cannot afford to be at school. Of course those are the students from less advantaged backgrounds. And so, unintentionally, unpaid internships perpetuate the economic divide. Students from more advantaged backgrounds can take internships that lead to the best jobs. Students from less advantaged backgrounds cannot afford to go for those internships and so are disadvantaged in applying for those jobs.

Corporate responsibility and sustainability are amongst the most sought after fields these days. I see unpaid internship positions advertised all the time. I have had students come up to me at conferences and offer to work for me as interns for free. It is a tough call. I have no budget for paying an intern, so it is that or nothing. Why deprive someone of the opportunity? But if removing barriers that discriminate against the economically disadvantaged is going to be recognized anywhere in the corporate world it would be from within the corporate responsibility field and it seems to me that unpaid internships are one of those barriers.


  1. Excellent question, Kevin, and one that we at Framework:CR have also struggled with. The temptation for using unpaid internship work at smaller firms is extremely high: unpaid interns can help provide that extra push to maintain competitiveness, develop a new product, or accelerate marketing or business development efforts. (and there's the perception that "everyone else is doing it"!...)

    But: would we then be giving up on the values that are supposed to undergird the whole concept of sustainability? Is work experience an adequate compensation? Or is this a more insidious form of discrimination, as you note above?

    Our CEO, Kathee Rebernak, has decided that this is a non-negotiable issue. We only have interns if and when we can pay them. It may not be the highest wage around, but we don't expect our interns to work for free.

    So: MBA and professional students... what do you think? Is unpaid work worth the experience? Or is it a cop-out? And is it just?

  2. In college, I had the opportunity to take an unpaid internship in my senator's office, because Harvard's Institute of Politics has a program through which it makes grants to students pursuing government internships. (This was close to 10 years ago, but I think the program is still in place.) I wouldn't have been able to take the internship without the grant. The IOP is in the fortunate position of having the resources to provide such a stipend, of course, but perhaps this is a model that others should consider replicating.

    That said, as a recent MBA graduate, if I had come across an unpaid internship that was the right fit with my career goals, I would have taken it. I couldn't have done it during the summer, when I needed to pay for rent and food and such, but during the term, when my student loans covered my expenses, I would have done it in a heart beat. I was lucky enough to attend a full-time program that offered extensive loans and aid, though, and the student budget didn't rely on students earning money during the school year.

  3. Kevin,

    So here is a different perspective.

    Since sustainability and CSR should be about profitability as well as viability of the company make payment of the intern contingent upon providing revenue or savings value.

    Many Sustainability Manger positions are funded or at least justified by the fact that the innovations and initiatives that their office generate/come up with will end up directly servicing the financial bottom line (via cost savings + new products + risk abatement) multiple times if not exponentially over the cost of that person's salary.

    So, what if one of the roles of CR/CSR/Sustainability intern is tracking ROI of their projects? Then offer a "bonus" or a "dividend" of their work at the end of the intership based on the ROI of the projects and the investment into training the intern?

    This would be a win-win-win
    * Win for the company - getting measurable ROI on the work & for the cost savings or value add it creates; data for financial and GRI reporting; passion and innovation from the intern
    * Win for the CR/CSR/Sustainability Manager - Walking the talk of fiscal responsibility and social responsibility. Additional ideas, input, labor for the department. Steps up their game and pays it forward.
    * Win for the intern - walking the talk; hands-on ROI experience; motivation/incentive to be creative and serve the company/planet/society; demonstrate the business value of sustainability/CSR; concrete numbers for their resume.

    Just a thought.

    Matthew Rochte
    CSR/Sustainability Consultant