A Paycheck Deferred

Stephen Lurie raises a provocative question about a high profile government internship program in his recent Washington Post opinion piece. With all the emphasis President Obama has given to a fair minimum wage, wage equality, and access to overtime pay, is it a bit surprising that a group of workers very close to the president will work for the next four months for no wages at all?

Participants in the White House Internship program — about 150 in all this summer — will work for four months for no pay. During this time the average intern will spend around $4,000 (and in some cases much more) in basic living expenses.

And why wouldn’t they, some might ask! An internship at the White House can be a valuable stepping stone into a successful career in public service. Taking a $4,000 hit for one summer is a relatively small investment relative to your entire career, right?

But Lurie points out that “instead of offering more ladders of opportunity into the middle class, the president and other employers are handing prestigious internships — often key to future employment — to those already in the lead.” To people whose family’s have the resources to sustain an unpaid internship.

What are we supposed to make of all of this?

Internships help launch successful careers. And it is in government’s interest to train and retain top talent through its internship programs. There is no short supply of young people who will eagerly work prestigious internships for free, but there are countless more who cannot afford to pursue unpaid internships at all.

Making sure that internships — one premier gateway to a career in government service — are open to all deserving candidates seems to be a worthy goal toward the future of a strong government workforce.

Did you ever work a paid or unpaid internship? Was it beneficial to your career in the long run?

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David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Samuel. My advice to young people (and all age groups) is don’t underestimate the influence of internships on short-term and long-term career success, whether paid or unpaid.

Internships are an integral part of career success and open many doors if one does exemplary work, networking and makes the right contacts. I completed several key internships as an undergrad at the University of Maryland (College Park), both paid and unpaid. These internships were absolutely instrumental in launching my federal gov career. They included the following:

  • U.S. Congress, Office of the House Majority Leader. This six-month press internship was unpaid, however, I earned college credit via my minor in political science. During this internship I had the opportunity to work with some high-profile Hill veterans who are now household names media and politics, such as former staffers George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala.
  • Greenberg-Lake, the Analysis Group (paid). This global survey research firm on the Hill was headed by prominent pollsters Stanley Greenberg and Celinda Lake. Their clients included members of Congress, congressional candidates, national advocacy groups, international politicians, and former Governor Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign. Stan Greenberg subsequently became President Clinton’s first White House pollster.
  • The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (paid) — now “Bloomberg BNA”. This was a summer journalism internship in which I worked full-time as a reporter for the Daily Environment Report. I covered environmental legislation pending in Congress as well as the EPA and Dept. of Interior.
  • The Diamondback newspaper (paid). I served as the editorial page editor and an award-winning columnist for the nationally-recognized daily independent student newspaper at the University of Maryland,

Each one on these internships proved invaluable in terms of sharpening my skills and learning new ones; gaining first-hand knowledge about government, politics and journalism behind-the-scenes at top level organizations; as well as networking with high-profile experts in my field of study.

Without these key internships, it is highly doubtful I would have landed a job at the White House six months after graduating from college.


Lisa Roepe

When I was in college, I came to DC and had an unpaid internship with the Washington, DC, bureau of Newsday. That internship gave me a taste of life in DC — I went to press briefings at the State Department and the Pentagon, I sat in the press gallery at the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives, and I participated in the newspaper’s election night coverage. That experience is why I ended up working and living in Washington, DC. And, for at least five years after I graduated, that internship always came up in job interviews. What I learned from that experience was priceless.

Samuel Lovett

Those all sound like amazing opportunities!

It’s pretty clear that internships open doors for people; they let you test whether a certain job or organization is where you want to be long term; they set the tone for a career.

Savvy schools know this. Savvy departments and agencies know this. Savvy people know this.

Government should make them as accessible as possible…

Samuel Lovett

Would love to hear about other people’s internship experiences as well!

It’s very interesting to track a career back to its beginnings…