Unpaid internships: They're not for everyone

Making the case that paid internships are more than an investment in the future, they're also a key to improving diversity.

Maria Rodriguez
Maria Rodriguez

Barbara Bates’ opening statement in the debate with Gerry Casanova in PRWeek’s Gloves Off section was spot on: whether to pay interns should not be a question in 2017.

We all agree internships are critical learning experiences; an unpaid internship, however, comes with a price tag that not everyone can afford. What may seem like a financial question to an agency considering whether to fund these opportunities is an issue of access and affordability for disadvantaged students who are not in a position to work for free.

Unpaid internships are only accessible to those with other sources of funds from family, investment accounts, or trusts. As such, they perpetuate and exacerbate the gulf between underserved and affluent students. This divide becomes apparent when graduates apply and interview for jobs.

If we accept that internships can prepare a student for real-life work situations — not to mention introduce a student to key contacts — and make him or her a competitive hire in PR and communications, the question we must ask is: how do we make them accessible to all students and increase diversity in our field?

The immediate answer is simple: fund internships.

As a first-generation American, I know how difficult it is for Latino students to pursue unpaid internships. Some of these students are the first in their families to go to school; they do not have a network of mentors advising them on academics or introducing them to people in influential positions.

The notion of unpaid work leading to a career with upward mobility can be foreign to a Latino father or mother who regards work as a series of paid jobs that help ends meet. Their perspective may be that getting by today is more important than preparing to get by in the future.

When I was pursing PR in college, my parents made it clear that an unpaid internship was not an option. To them, working for free provided no value, and my time was better spent working more hours at the car dealership where I had a part-time job.

Another solution is to develop strategic partnerships that create multifaceted internships. In March, my company, Vanguard Communications, announced a collaboration with the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute at George Washington University to provide paid communications internships at local nonprofits in the Washington, DC, metro area. Making internships accessible to these young leaders is tantamount to giving them a front-row seat to the power of PR and communications in nonprofit advocacy.

Diverse viewpoints are critical to effective, comprehensive communications strategies. By funding internship opportunities that all students can access and afford, we can build a diversity pipeline that ensures the strength of our industry and our ability to continue shaping critical debates.

Maria Rodriguez is president and cofounder of Vanguard Communications.

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