A debate continues to rage in the US and UK over paid versus unpaid interns, further fuelled by last week’s news that Arcadia, which owns Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, sent hundreds of pounds worth of backdated payments to dozens of its former PR interns.
In the US, the prevalence of internships has grown quickly in recent years. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), more than 52 per cent of 2011 college graduates reported completing internships, compared with just 17 per cent of graduates in 1992. It’s easy to understand the factors driving this growth.
Most university officials and employers now agree that completing at least one internship before graduation is an important step towards finding meaningful employment. Nearly 75 per cent of employers taking part in NACE’s Job Outlook 2012 survey, said they prefer to hire job candidates who have pertinent experience; just 4 per cent said experience didn’t factor into their hiring decisions.
In addition, when full-time jobs are down, as they are in the US (the national unemployment rate in the U.S. stands at 8.2 per cent, compared with 5.5 per cent in May of 2008), internship opportunities go up. This is because people who are unable to find full-time jobs seek out internships as an alternative form of employment.
Under the best of circumstances, an internship will both further a student’s professional aspirations, and provide money to offset the cost of their education and/or living expenses. But it seems like the number of new, unpaid internships is outpacing the number of paid internships.
No one keeps official count of how many paid and unpaid internships there are, but estimates put the number of unpaid interns every year at between 500,000 and 1 million, and the amount saved by the US firms employing them at $600 million a year. Anecdotal evidence, such as job-board listings for unpaid internships, also supports the notion that the number of unpaid internships is growing.
When PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) developed a set of guidelines, recommendations and best practices regarding the ethical use of paid and unpaid interns in February 2011, we had no idea we’d be on the vanguard of what has become a full-fledged, global call to action to abolish the use of unpaid interns.
PRSA believes it’s ethically improper to employ anyone who adds real value to a public relations agency or department without compensating them for their work – whether that compensation is monetary or in the form of educational credits. If billable work is being performed by an intern, he or she deserves some form of legal compensation.
We’re of course pleased to know that PRSA is not alone in taking this position. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), for example, has produced an Internship and Work Placement Toolkit, a factsheet on employment issues with starting an internship and updates for members on internships and work placements.
While momentum to terminate the use of unpaid interns seems to be gaining on both sides of the Atlantic, we must not allow this to become a witch hunt. PRSA’s guidelines do not call for an outright ban on the use of unpaid interns; rather, we advise public relations professionals to seek formal payment of interns, or to develop creative means for compensation and reciprocation, rather than rely on the status quo.
Of greater focus should be the quality of the professional experience, for example, the critical job training and skills these arrangements provide, and the direct role that such experience plays in an intern’s ability to obtain fulfilling, post-graduate work.
The public relations profession must continue to build upon its success so far in changing attitudes and behaviours with regard to the use of paid and unpaid interns. Unpaid internships that do not offer at least a minimum of educational credits undercut our profession’s value and our responsibility to ensure the success of the generations that follow.
I invite you to review PRSA’s guidelines on the ethical use of interns for further insight and best practices. And please join us in meaningful action to “do the right thing.” We owe it to our profession and to those who follow. Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.
Gerard F Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is 2012 chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America