The debate over the employee benefits and compensation ramifications of paying versus not paying your interns is still raging. Unlike many other debates currently being argued in various spheres in the United States however, it’s fairly easy to look across the battlefield and see the perspective of the other side.
Interns, entry-level workers, and former interns just starting in their career want more compensation. They think experience, connections, and office perks aren’t enough to replace a salary, or even a stipend. On the other side are business leaders, who have to view their organization from a long perspective and balance employees and profits, making difficult decisions to stay competitive in their sector.
These two opposing sides and schools of thought represent traditional versus new ways of thinking about internships and the nature of work, and these views influence company policies affecting employee engagement and millennials at work. Every company and workplace is different. There are simply too many variables in any office to make paying interns a Commandment etched in stone for everyone to obey. However, as a millennial who has worked for free to gain “experience” before, I need to make a case for paying interns. Bias aside, paying interns is worth the money.
The Case for Paying Interns
I don’t run a large company and I don’t have to manage employee benefits and compensation or worry about employee engagement. I run a company of one. I work with several clients, sometimes assisting with HR functions like hiring and evaluating job candidates, sometimes doing tasks that have nothing to do with HR. The work I do I can handle on my own. I keep overhead costs as low as possible, because I have to pay rent, buy groceries, buy gas, heat my home, etc. When I first started out, I’d take any job or task, paid well, paid poorly, or unpaid, to prove I could do it and to be able to say on my resume to future clients, “I did x, y, and z and I was successful at it dammit!” (pro tip: don’t actually write curse words on your personal website or resume).
I found myself in a trap. I had to get the experience I needed to further my career while keeping my lights on. Jobs that gave me experience and paid well were hard to come by in the shadow of the Great Recession. When I had finally built enough experience to start getting higher-paying jobs, I decided I wasn’t going to work for free ever again.
I was lucky. I wasn’t saddled with the same level of student debt that many (most) of my peers had. Looking back at the choices I made, I probably could have made different ones and found success sooner than I did, but how quickly would I have found a worthwhile job if more paid internships were available?
We’ve read about millennials at work for years now. The next generation, Gen-Z, is now entering the workforce with many of the same problems my generation had (has). From their perspective, they want to enter a workforce on the same footing that everyone else entered it: at the bottom of the totem pole, but with the opportunity to advance with hard work. Forcing interns to work for no compensation makes them more distracted—constantly looking for other ways to pay their bills. They don’t feel like they started at the company from the same starting line.
Affecting Employee Benefits and Compensation for the Entire Company
I know what you’re thinking if you’re on the other side of this equation. You have a business to run. You had to work untold hours for free or nearly for free in your early years. You can’t afford to pay everyone the highest wage possible at your organization, so bonuses and big salaries reward the people who put the time in and paid their dues.
I’m responsible for adding emotion to this heavily-biased debate, but let’s take out our sense of fairness and who deserves what for a moment. If you want to keep your best workers around, you have to create a fair and favorable employee benefits and compensation system.
Obviously, interns are never going to be the top earners at any company, nor should they be. Part of the benefit of being an intern is that you get to learn and gain experience as you work. They came to the position with no experience—nothing to add to the company except the willingness to work. In the past, getting that experience and instruction for no wage was a fair exchange. With virtually every major city in the country right now becoming more expensive to live in, that just won’t fly anymore.
Do you want interns desperate enough to steal to make rent, or ditch your unpaid intern position for a job as a manager at Office Max? Every day costs are rising along with student debt; the market for quality interns who you can eventually assimilate into your company is tougher than it ever has been. If you don’t build intern wages into your employee benefits and compensation structure, you’ll miss out on potentially game-changing talent.
What Can You Do?
Pay your interns as much as you can afford. If you can’t afford to pay them, maybe you don’t need interns. Put an add out for volunteers instead. Minimum wage is literally the least you could do. Give all your workers a reason to get up and come to the office in the morning, other than the ephemeral “experience” millennials at work and Gen-Z-ers are promised out of college. Many organizations partner with local colleges and educational programs to offer course credit to unpaid interns, which at least gives them something besides a line on a resume, but understand that interns need to live, too. And if they can at least get the means to live from your organization, they’ll be more likely to stick around and boost those pesky employee engagement numbers.