You are here

Can Paid Internships Save Social Work?

Alena Sherman's picture

by Pilar O. Bonilla, MSW, and Elana Metz, MSW/MPH

Photo of students protesting unpaid internshipsNot unlike other countries, the United States is experiencing a cost-of-living crisis with the price of higher education steadily rising along with the price of everything else, excluding salaries. Simultaneously, economists have warned of an impending shortage of social workers, as the profession experiences high turnover rates and low salaries, driving social workers away from the profession. In response to this shortage, social work programs are under pressure to train and graduate more social work students. Nevertheless, in their most recent annual survey, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the sole accrediting body of social work education in the U.S., reported that in the last 5 years alone, there has been a substantial decline in enrollment figures for Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs (-18.23%), Master of Social Work (MSW) programs (-2.47%), and Social Work Ph.D. programs (-39.5%), alongside a corresponding reduction in degree conferment.

In light of the shifting socioeconomic and political landscape and its ripple effects on students’ experience with social work education, it is imperative for the profession to acknowledge and proactively respond to these pressing concerns. One long-overdue solution that would ensure the advancement and sustainability of the social work profession is to pay students for their mandatory internships.

Both within the U.S. and abroad, social work students are increasingly calling attention to the immense financial hardships they endure and the economic barrier that unpaid internships pose. Movements like “End Placement Poverty” in Australia and “Payment for Placements (P4P)” in the U.S. are urging national social work bodies, academic institutions, policymakers, and internship sites to take immediate action.

A growing body of research substantiates these claims of economic barriers and further reveals the negative effects that unpaid internships have on students' overall well-being. For example, a qualitative study of graduate social work students in Australia found that students are working excessive hours to maintain paid work alongside graduate studies and unpaid internships. As a result, students reported high degrees of stress and fatigue, detrimental impacts on their physical and mental health, and the inability to participate in social activities and maintain relationships. Unsurprisingly, these negative effects impact students’ learning experience inside and outside of the classroom, impinging upon their personal growth and development.

Unfortunately, the consequences of unpaid internships persist long after graduation in the form of overwhelming student debt. In the U.S., the average starting salary for recent MSW graduates is only $47,000. Meanwhile, MSW students graduate with an average of $68,000-$76,000 in student loans, burdening social workers and their families for decades after graduation. Notably, Black and Latino/a/e/x students graduate with significantly more debt than their white counterparts, exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating inequality within our workforce.

Social workers are essential workers, and we need to set up our future workforce for success if we are to address the long-term workforce shortage effectively. While paid internships may not serve as a panacea for all the workforce challenges within social services, it would undeniably represent a substantial step toward addressing and mitigating numerous pressing issues within the social work profession. Paying students for their labor during their academic training could help offset the challenges deterring individuals from joining the social work profession, such as worker burnout, racial inequities, and inadequate wages. These improvements would not only improve the quality of life for trainee social workers but, by boosting recruitment and retention in the workforce, would also benefit the individuals, groups, and communities social workers work with. Furthermore, such a move would reaffirm our commitment to the values and principles of social, economic, and racial justice.


Author Bios:

Elana Metz graduated from San Diego State University with dual MSW/MPH in 2023 where she co-founded the SDSU chapter of Payment for Placements (P4P).

Pilar O. Bonilla graduated from Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work (HCSSW) with an MSW degree in 2023 where she co-founded the HCSSW chapter of Payment for Placements (P4P).