Paid summer internships help close racial wealth gap

By Teri Williams

Contributing Columnist

It’s the time of year for summer internship programs. Internships can open doors for high school and college students by providing valuable experience and skills to students from different backgrounds. 

It can also limit opportunities given that 40% of internships are unpaid. We need to advocate for more paid internships to close the wealth gap.

An internship is defined as a trainee who works in an organization in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification, including school credits. 

According to industry statistics, 22% of college students participated in internship programs in 2022. These internship programs are likely to lead to paid full-time jobs with higher salaries than students who do not participate in internship programs. 

More internship data includes: Average interns work 18 weeks, 40% of internship are unpaid, the average hourly pay for a paid intern ranges from $16.56 to $20.76, 66% of interns secure a full-time job after their internship and students who completed at least one internship received an average of 1.17 job offers. Those without an internship received 16% fewer offers.

In the U.S, internships are important in shaping businesses and launching successful careers, transcending sectors from tech startups to financial services. Internships are more than just summer jobs. 

Internship programs blend academic learning with practical experience, playing a crucial role in individual career growth and corporate innovation. The rise of internships marks a shift in career development, emphasizing the importance of hands-on experience with academic qualifications.

Yet, given 40% of internships are unpaid, it typically takes family resources to sustain students during the summer months. Many students, particularly Black students, have to make money over the summer to help pay college tuition or other college expenses for the next academic year. 

Even paid internships have low hourly wages, which can make them inaccessible for low-to-moderate income families. To provide greater opportunities for more families, we need more paid internships to close the wealth gap.

Unpaid internships are often inaccessible to students from lower-to-moderate income backgrounds who need to earn money while in school. This limits opportunities for career development and networking to those who can afford to work for free.

Internships often provide access to valuable professional networks and mentorship opportunities. Students from wealthier backgrounds may have existing connections that help them secure internships and build their networks, further perpetuating inequality.

Employers often favor candidates with experience from prestigious internships, which are usually more competitive and less accessible to all students. This can create a cycle where those with pre-existing advantages continue to accumulate more advantages.

Students from lower-to-moderate income backgrounds may not have the same access to information about internship opportunities, due to factors like limited exposure to career counseling or less developed professional networks.

By advocating for more paid internship opportunities and by explaining to all students the importance of summer internships, we can expand opportunities for career growth for students from all backgrounds. Summer internships can be a tool for social mobility when implemented equitably.

Teri Williams is the president and chief operating officer of One United Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the United States.

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