Column: Pay your interns for their work

Columnist Alice Wilder

This one’s for the employers hiring interns for the summer. Before you decide to post an ad for an unpaid internship, put yourself in your potential interns’ shoes.

Option A: Your dream is to be a professional baker. But the baking industry is notoriously difficult to break into. You can’t get a job in the industry without experience, but all the good ways to get experience require you already having five lines on your resume with the finest bakers.

But you see a great internship being offered by one of North Carolina’s finest baking academies. You’d just be working 20 hours a week, doing prep work and you wouldn’t be paid, but hey — it might help you get the job. You apply and somehow make it through the tests and interviews. And a miracle happens: out of the hundreds of aspiring bakers, you’re offered the internship.

You’re overjoyed, but now it’s time to figure out how you’ll afford to work this dream internship. You have a little money saved up, but you do the math and realize you’ll have to take another job on top of your internship.

You consider negotiating with your employer, asking if they can afford to pay you a small stipend or reduce your hours so that you’re able to work another job.

But what if they’re insulted by your request and decide to ditch you for one of the other applicants who might have the money to work for free? Is advocating for yourself worth the cost of an internship?

You decide to say nothing — after all, you really need that experience. Over the summer you work harder than ever before, and you worry about money all the time. Some of your co-workers make sexual comments to you, but you shrug them off. What good would reporting them do? The same thought hangs over you — you must keep working hard and avoid causing trouble because you’re replaceable.

At the end of the summer, you have a line on your resume that might help you get a better job.

Option B: You’re looking to break into the world of professional baking and you desperately need experience in order to get a good job. You search for internships and find one offered by a prestigious but small bread company. They note that they’re a small business, so they can’t pay an hourly wage but they offer a small stipend for interns. They also offer flexible hours for interns who may need to work in order to make ends meet.

You apply for this internship and miraculously, you’re offered the position. Your employer works with you to balance hours. In the mornings, you work at a coffee shop and at night you’re learning how to prep bread from industry greats. At the end of the summer, you have a line on your resume that might help you get a better job, and you’ve worked with people who truly value your labor.

If it is at all possible to pay interns, employers should do so. Even if it requires holding a fundraiser or paying interns a small stipend instead of an hourly wage. Paying interns shows that your organization truly values their labor and keeps them from having to make impossible decisions.

Thanks for reading.

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