Get skills, not bills, on an unpaid internship

Each summer, students flood desks as unpaid interns, soaking up their knowledge and seeking positive references while taking lunch orders and organizing storage cupboards. But this reliance on unpaid work leaves students unable to afford free work. From moving to another city temporarily, buying and maintaining proper office attire, and paying day-to-day costs, adding a few lines to your resume can cost thousands of dollars.

According to Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit that fights to end unpaid internships across the country across all industries, unpaid internships disproportionately hurt people. specific populations. Women work without pay more often than men, and compared to white interns, black and Latino interns take on more debt during their internships. “It really creates that glass ceiling for people of color,” says Vera.

Vera, who is still paying off the credit card debt he racked up during an internship at the White House seven years ago, was inspired to start Pay Our Interns after a conversation with a young college student who skipped groceries. to pay for the dry cleaning for his clothing internship. “I think this whole grind / hustle mentality is so ingrained that you have to pay your dues,” says Vera. “It’s daring to imagine how things could be.”

Unfortunately, unpaid internships are still the norm. Perhaps the Great Resignation will make employers pay interns for their work, as they should. But until then, if an unpaid internship could help you gain experience, here are some ways to ease the financial burden and limit the amount you put on your credit card to get by.


The US Department of Labor has guidelines on what constitutes a legal unpaid internship – your job cannot replace that of a paid employee, for example. If you believe that your internship is in violation, you can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labor or your national employment agency. You may be entitled to back pay.


Many universities offer scholarships specifically for unpaid internships, depending on your school and major. You must apply and funding is not guaranteed, but the effort can pay off.

You can also find paid opportunities through specialized programs created by nonprofits and professional organizations. For example, aspiring black and Latino financial planners can apply through the BLX internship program to be placed in a paid internship at a paid financial planning company. According to Luis F. Rosa, certified financial planner and co-founder of the BLX internship program, they placed 38 candidates on internships last year, and of those, 20 received job offers.


“I would combine an internship with other side assignments or part-time jobs,” says Mark Reyes, a certified financial planner at Albert, a financial wellness app. “Depending on the internship time commitment, you may be able to balance more than one job at a time.” However, he cautions that it can quickly lead to burnout.

Vera felt the pressure as a student working part-time while doing an internship 20 to 30 hours per week. “Sometimes I struggled not to fall asleep during my internship,” he says.

School and two jobs is a lot to manage. To ease the burden, you can work for pay during the school year and save that money to cover the cost of a summer internship. Or limit unpaid work to a part-time schedule so that you can have time for paid work as well.


If you need the income from your paid employment to fund tuition, living expenses, and other costs, it can be difficult to direct some of that money towards your living during an unpaid internship. But your paid work can already offer the chance to learn beyond your actual role.

Rosa could not afford unpaid internships as a student because he was contributing financially to her family. He found he was able to create internships in some of his paid jobs, like when he worked at a law firm and also asked to spend time learning about the industry.


The pandemic has turned many office jobs into entirely remote positions, and that’s a boon for interns who can’t afford a summer in an expensive big city. With a remote internship, you will avoid paying for the move, travel expenses and work clothes. In addition, having remote working experience on your CV will strengthen your application for a virtual position in the future.


You can use your student loan funds for living expenses if you are doing an unpaid internship for college credit. It’s still debt, but student loans charge lower interest rates than credit cards.

“People mistakenly think that all debt is bad, but student loans are there to add value to your life,” Reyes says. “It takes discipline and it’s not for everyone. It’s not free money, but it’s cheaper debt than credit cards.”

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