Hands typing on laptop with glasses and coffee cup nearby

In many sectors, internships are seen as a quintessential step in the path to a career. Select a college major, spend summers in internships related to that major, and turn those internships into a paid entry-level position after graduation. But for many would-be job applicants, the fact that some internships are unpaid creates a barrier to entry not just for the internship, but the career after. This is an example of one of the many kinds of barriers that lower diversity and raise inequality in international development.

That’s why our new intern program at DT Global US requires that interns be paid, in addition to ensuring that we provide mentorship and learning opportunities (a legal requirement for unpaid internships).

“I felt it was important for DT Global US to be intentional about creating an inclusive internship program, and the simplest way to do that was to create a program that pays its interns,” says Natasha Thomas, Deputy Director for Human Resources at DT Global US. “Offering paid internships automatically makes an opportunity more attractive and more accessible to someone who cannot afford to work without receiving a paycheck. Keeping up with your bills, paying your own way through school, and contributing financially to your household are all real-world scenarios that a vast number of college students and young professionals deal with every day. The best and brightest do not always come from the most privileged homes, and because of that, it’s up to organizations like ours to ensure the avenues exist for those that are not always afforded the same opportunities as others.”

Benefits of having an internship

In the international development sector, internships are practically a requirement for many entry-level jobs. Job requirements ask for similar past work experience, which in practice means that applicants must have relevant internship experience (or be able to secure formal employment without prior experience—something that is often tough to do). In fact, for some of the biggest knowledge worker sectors, like jobs in Congress, large consulting firms, and tech, between 78 percent to 90 percent of workers have held internships. Employers often hire from their intern pool, and when hiring outside of it, use internship experience to choose between two equally qualified candidates.

Not only are applicants with internship experience more likely to get the job, but studies show that graduates who have interned earn annual salaries that are $2,082 more than graduates who have not had internship experience.

There’s a cost to all that free labor

Unless you live in the city in which you are interning, an internship costs money—on average, $6,200 in some of the top cities where would-be interns look for work. In places like Washington DC, New York, and LA—cities where more than 50 percent of interns are unpaid—housing, transportation, food, and other incidentals are all expensive. But these larger cities are exactly the places that graduates go to launch their careers.

The expense of an unpaid internship helps to cement income inequality and lower diversity in the workplace. By not paying for internships, companies effectively limit opportunities to those who have the financial support—usually from parents—to cover the cost of their work. Because people who get internships are more likely to get (often higher paying) jobs than those who don’t, unpaid internships function as one of the many barriers for who gets to work in what career.

Contributing to a diverse workforce in the international development sector

This is especially problematic in the international development sector. While our work intends to empower individuals and communities around the world, the individuals who get to work in this sector can be limited to those who can afford to get a foot in the door. This can translate to having internship pools where the interns are disproportionately made up of upper-class candidates from certain universities in the US, or well-off candidates from other countries—ultimately leading to a workforce that lacks in socio-economic diversity. And in the US, where white privilege also contributes to wealth gaps—the net worth of a typical white family was $100,000 more than a typical Black family in 2016—the continued prevalence of unpaid internships directly limits racial diversity in the workplace.

This is not the workforce we want at DT Global US, nor one we want to perpetuate in the international sector writ large

We’re paying our interns a living wage because we want to monetarily recognize the work they are contributing to our mission, because we want the best and brightest candidates, and because we want to contribute to equity in the international development sector, not cement cycles of exclusion. An unpaid internship might seem like a harmless rite of passage, but only to people for whom it’s an easy stepping-stone on the path to a high-paying career. For everyone else, it’s an exclusionary tactic, and one we’re proud to stand against.