Shameless Exploitation: Unpaid Internships
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I’m trying to make a point. Having just finished interviewing some truly amazing PR Round Table scholarship applicants, I find myself seething at the state of our industry. Nearly all these students were, at some point, forced to accept unpaid internships to get more experience. I applaud the intention, but deplore the cause. One young woman said, “I must have applied for a hundred internships before I got this one–all of them were unpaid.”
I find that stunning. What is equally stunning is that these young people are often thrown into the deep end of the pool without a lifeguard/supervisor, and asked to do things that have nothing to do with a PR internship. One woman was assigned to hire IT engineers for her start-up employer! I guess if you believe in learning by doing, it makes sense to make a 20-year-old unpaid undergraduate the de facto head of your PR/marketing department (while simultaneously serving as HR hiring manager.) However, what she may be learning is the wrong thing; that there’s no real science to our industry and that experience and strategic thinking count for nothing.
I know some of my colleagues may differ with my point of view that unpaid internships are not okay, even if done for university credit. Too often, I’ve seen companies take work performed by these conscripts and present it to clients, whom they bill as if the work had been performed by a professional (taking credit for the work of the intern, of course.) I’ve also seen plenty of situations where unpaid interns doubled as the janitor or personal assistant assigned to pick up morning coffee and dry cleaning, too.
What’s the legal take on unpaid internships? They’re permissible, but subject to a host of requirements that most unpaid internships might not pass. You can read about the law here, but in summary, what’s needed for an unpaid internships to be legal is the understanding from the start that the intern will not be paid, and isn’t guaranteed a job at the end; they’re not taking the place of a regular employee; and that the intern is not only getting training (even when it takes paid employees away from their duties) but hands-on experience with the tools and techniques of the industry.
Most importantly, the primary beneficiary of the internship must be the intern, not the company. If you don’t follow these rules, a case can be made that your intern is just an employee who just isn’t getting paid.
This is a topic worthy of serious debate in our industry. Perhaps as an organization, we should take a stand on this matter, particularly because it dovetails well with our goal of supporting the next generation of PR professionals.
I’d like to mention a few other things:
- We’ve made some changes to our Scholarship Program, including the addition of a free Associate Membership for winners, and two free meetings in their first year. We think it buttresses our commitment to helping further our scholarship recipients’ education. Would you be willing to commit to pay for one lunch for these students in the next 12 months? We’ll have a regular option on our EventBrite Page available for you to purchase a “student lunch” going forward. Please sign up if you can.
- We will be sending out a Member Survey in the coming month as we continue our strategic planning. Please take the time to fill out the questionnaire (SurveyMonkey). Be as candid as you like–we need good feedback.
- Finally, we are seeking candidates for our 2018 Board and committee positions. We need your help! Please consider joining or leading one of our standing committees next year: Program; Communications; Membership; House; Scholarship; and Holiday Party. It’s really amazing how much we accomplish with so few resources, but we can’t do it without volunteer support.