A recent study conducted by the National Association for College and Employers found that 40 percent of college internships were unpaid – negatively impacting salary and employment success in the years following.
Carlos Mark Vera, Founder and Executive Director of Pay Our Interns
, discusses efforts to bring diversity and economic equity to Congressional internships.
Ortiz: Internships are very often a pathway into the workforce, providing valuable experience and an opportunity to network with professionals in a chosen field. But for even the most promising students from a disadvantaged background, internships can be out of reach if they´re unpaid. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Nathalia Ortiz. Joining me for a discussion about creating a diverse talent pipeline through paid internships is Carlos Mark Vera, founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns. I love the title -- or the name of your organization. Straightforward and assertive.
Vera: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Ortiz: Thank you, Carlos. Tell us about the recent developments regarding this initiative to pay the interns in Congress.
Vera: Yeah, so, there was some action in the Senate. We were able to get $5 million for Senate interns, and then just recently we were able to secure another $8.8 million for House interns. So, in total, $14 million, which will create up to 5,000 new paid internships. You know, so really a historic win.
Ortiz: So, I´m really curious to know why you decided to start this organization. Is there something personal that went into it?
Vera: Yeah, people say, "Oh, what inspired you?" I´m like, "Well, life experiences." I got an internship on the House side years ago in college, but it didn´t pay, and, you know, I couldn´t ask my parents for money. So I basically was interning about 25 hours a work, working a side job of 20 hours a week, and then taking 16 credits. So, you know, as opposed to, like, trying to enjoy the internship, I would fight to not fall asleep. And I guess, for me, the most vivid memory was walking down the hallways of Congress and realizing that no one looked like me except the janitors. So it really was life experience.
Ortiz: Yeah, I think you had said in the research that I read that most of the interns that were around you were either sons and daughters of politicians, lobbyists, or journalists. So you were one of the ones, the few, or the only that actually came up on his own, so to speak.
Vera: Yeah, you know, I was very fortunate, but it shouldn´t be like that, kind of like "The Hunger Games." That´s what I call it. You know, internships cost $6,000 on average, and how many Americans have that type of money?
Ortiz: Yeah, especially in a city like Washington, D.C., which is so expensive to live already, regardless of what you make. I want, also, you to address the disparity with which -- I guess there´s sort of, like, an unintentional discrimination that happens with regards to minorities with these internships because of the fact that they can´t afford to do these internships because they´re not getting paid for them. And so therefore, unfortunately, a lot of people that are in those minority groups then cannot get those jobs and then transition into an actual staff position.
Vera: So, like I tell folks, because, on average, an unpaid internship could cost $6,000, it´s a socioeconomic issue, but it tends to impact disproportionately Latinos and African-Americans. So, let´s say there is this girl named Juanita. She´s from Texas, and she´s passionate about public service and wants to intern on the Hill but can´t afford it and, let´s say, graduates with a degree in political science. Once she applies for a job on the Hill, the first requirement is Hill experience. If she doesn´t have that, she´s not gonna get a job. So we´re basically creating this glass ceiling that´s keeping out thousands of talented youth that are people of color.
Ortiz: It´s basically like a domino effect that happens in reverse.
Vera: 100%. And the numbers show it. Only 2% of the staff in Congress are Latino.
Ortiz: And I also saw that a 2015 study found that 93% of Senate staff are white, and the numbers don´t differ much in the House.
Ortiz: Could this also be -- Let´s be honest, though, Carlos. Could it also be a product of a lack of interest by some of the Hispanic community because perhaps we were not taught civic engagement back in the home?
Vera: Yeah, you know, I definitely believe it´s part that, but it´s also -- It´s never been seen as an opportunity for our community, and that´s where Pay Our Interns comes in. You know, now that this funding is gonna kick in, our job is to go across the country and let folks know that you deserve to be there as much as anyone else. But it´s 100%, right. Like, we need to talk more about civic engagement and the importance of us being there at the table, because politics is policy, and it´s who gets what.
Ortiz: Yeah, and it also sounds like there´s a chain reaction. For example, when you don´t see a lot of Hispanic faces or people of color in government, then you yourself don´t see it as a possibility, is what you´re saying. I mean, there´s no real person to look to.
Vera: Yeah, there´s really no one to, like, look up to, and I would also say, like, decisions on how much funding goes to, like, Head Start or Upward Bound, you know, programs that help low-income people, that´s decided in Congress. So it´s in our best interest to have people that look like us that have had the same life experiences be there at the table.
Ortiz: So, Carlos, you´ve secured some significant funding for your initiative. What are the next steps?
Vera: So, we´re getting ready to launch a national initiative where we´re gonna partner up with nonprofits across the country and try to recruit thousands of, you know, students or kids from places that, without this money, this wouldn´t be possible and get them to apply, give them the tool kits, and then try to connect them with offices.
Ortiz: And I also know that you´re trying to ensure that the Senate funds actually go to working-class students. So this isn´t just about minorities, really. It´s about anybody who´s working-class.
Vera: Many of them tend to be people of color, but we´re also fighting for the kids of coal miners in West Virginia because they deserve to be there the same way as a Latino or African-American.
Ortiz: Carlos Mark Vera with Pay Our Interns, thank you for joining us. And thank you for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Nathalia Ortiz.