I’ve been placing interns for 18 years and mentoring them for 30. And I’m still surprised when I learn so many of them work for free. That’s nuts.
My predecessor at Kent State, the late E. Zoe McCathrin, set the tone for paid internships long before I arrived here. She cajoled every employer in the area to pony up at least minimum wage, and in some cases she outright bullied them into it. If you knew Zoe, this won’t surprise you.
“Don’t give it away,” Zoe admonished students, and most listened.
Today, PRKent interns earn between $8 and $18 per hour. Few take unpaid positions, unless they want nonprofit experience.
Zoe’s magic apparently doesn’t work outside our comfy corner of the rustbelt. When students take internships in New York, Washington or LA, they most often work for free. Maybe that’s why a majority of our kids do their internships within 50 miles of campus — not necessarily a good thing.
Do interns deserve a paycheck? Or should they be happy for the chance to learn from seasoned coaches in the real world?
It’s the law. I was skeptical when I read this story by Mary Fletcher Jones, so I checked it out with two attorneys who know a lot about labor law. Both said the post is accurate, and agreed that many companies who don’t pay interns may be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Why does the Department of Labor let this go on?
“I suspect there’s a very practical answer,” said Michael Aldana, a partner with Quarles & Brady. “The unpaid interns do not want to sue these companies. They want the experience and the resume’ building. They go into it knowing they’re not going to be paid. Although that’s not a defense if an unpaid intern is doing actual work, these people don’t have the expectation that they’re going to be paid.”
Aldana adds that the Jones article “tends toward overstatement. Looking at the DOL criteria, and looking at it from a practical perspective, there’s a lot of gray area with these internship programs.”
Lewis Clark, partner with Squires, Sanders & Dempsey, agrees that many internship employers may be violating the FLSA. It’s a good reason to review your internship guidelines and how they square with the regulations, he said. You never know when a new administration in Washington and a new Labor Secretary might pursue aggressive enforcement.
For more on the legal issues surrounding unpaid internships, start here. This is NOT a new topic!
It’s the right thing to do — provided your interns make tangible contributions to your operations. Some employers tell me their interns require lot of coaching and guidance, but so do all new employees. If the interns make you money or save you money, they deserve compensation.
Several employers tell me they wouldn’t offer internships if they had to pay. That could limit opportunities for budding PR pros, but it won’t hurt those who are truly prepared for the job. They earn their keep and then some.
The internship is an educational experience that employers invest a lot of time in it. Isn’t that enough? If the experience is primarily educational, maybe so. But you won’t attract the best and the brightest. They’re getting paid.
It offers flexibility to the student. Unpaid internships give students a chance to negotiate schedules. Want to work just 20 hours a week? No problem. Need time off for a family vacation? You got it.
Nonprofit experience. Only about half the nonprofits in our area pay their interns, and that number is shrinking. Nonprofits tend to give students a broad experience because the PR staffs are small and the assignments varied. Nonprofits also do important work, and that can be its own reward.
Supply and demand. In most cities you have more interns than internship positions. Competition for those spots makes students willing to do just about anything to get a position — including working for free.
If you invest time recruiting the best interns, those interns will deliver ROI. So pay them. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the legal thing to do. But since the Dept. of Labor hasn’t rushed to sanction the lawbreakers, I doubt the legal arguments will sway anyone. Nevertheless, I still think you’re a cheapskate
If you want the very best interns — those who may someday join your staff or hire your agency, pony up! On the other hand, if your interns don’t have the skills and savvy to warrant a paycheck, maybe you should shift your recruiting strategy.
Update 4/3/10: Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal (New York Times)