PR Interns Part III: You get what you pay for

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.

Or is it? Why don’t most employers actually “employ” their interns? Is it a budget issue? Or don’t they see value in the interns’ contributions?

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?

In favor of paid internships

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.

Against paid interns

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.

My take

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 πŸ™‚

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)

23 Responses to PR Interns Part III: You get what you pay for

  1. By paying interns, you also open chances to careers to those whose families cannot afford to subsidize their kids’ summers in the big city. In other words, you increase the size of the talent pool from which you choose.

  2. Jackie Lloyd says:

    I’m a little upset I never got to meet this Zoe character. Sounds like she would have been right up my ally. Funny, my mother used to tell me the same thing (β€œDon’t give it away,”) but I don’t think she was talking about unpaid internships. I digress…

    As a current (post-grad) intern, I can say that I never considered any unpaid internships–not that I thought I was above them, just that I’ve got rent to pay and groceries to buy. I can worry more about my clients when I’m not worrying about my electricity being shut off. Financial stability works wonders for concentration. Oh and that whole “it’s illegal” thing.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: Why unpaid internships are for losers. Part III of my series on PR internships. Hoping to light a fire!…

  4. 40deuce says:

    This is a great post Bill.

    As a recent graduate of 2 PR programs (I did a post-grad and then went on to turn it into a masters) I’m still having trouble finding myself a job. I’m not against the idea of interning as it’s an in into a lot of companies, but because I’m a bit older and have been living on my own for years I just can’t afford to work for free or wait for a small honorarium at the end of 4-or-so months.

    If more companies offered to pay me as an intern I would have no problem with accepting a lower pay-grade for a few months if I thought it meant it would help me get somewhere in the future. However, because I live in a big city and have rent and bills to pay I can’t afford to just give my services away for free. While they may not be worth as much as a seasoned professional, I still think they are worth something. Especially because I would want to (and hope that I would be) contributing something of value to whomever I am employed by. I really don’t think that that is asking too much.

  5. Ruth Seeley says:

    The challenge I’ve often seen with internships is not to pay or not to pay, but to actually provide interns with work that’s challenging and yet still meets the organization’s needs. Creating media lists and doing media analyses is important. But for young people who don’t have a lot of business experience, they also need some exposure to client meetings and media briefings so they’ll know how to behave in an agency setting.

  6. I like the post — interesting info on the legality of “free-terns” — thanks for doing the research.

    As you know, I worked two corporate comm. internships while completeing my graduate coursework in PR. Both paid generously as far as internships go, but only because my employers recognized that I had a 4-year degree and was capable of good work. Many juniors and seniors are just as capable and need to realize this when they’re looking at how to spend their summers.

    But the experience is also a major factor. I turned down a couple of internship offers w/ agencies only because $10/hr wasn’t enough to cover my bills. It was a tough decision because I knew agency internships are often the most rewarding for students. Being immersed in a fast-paced agency environment surrounded by accomplished professionals is a selling point for these companies, and one they need to embrace. Not to mention that these are the internships that more commonly turn into full-time spots.

    Great series. I hope employers take note!

  7. Bey-Ling Sha says:

    Great piece, Bill. I totally support paying interns, and — frankly — I’m getting really sick of companies (especially PR firms) that do not:

  8. Rosy Rickett says:

    Right on Bill! And a nice non-hysterical style, so refreshing compared to some blogs.

  9. Greg Brooks says:

    Bill, great post – a former student of yours pimped it to the nearly-4,000-member YoungPRPros listserv.

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus — thanks for trying to educate readers about the legality of free internships. The fact of the matter is that an internship must be *very* narrowly and precisely constructed in order to be both wage-free and legal. In fact, a proper free internship looks a lot more like a voc-ed extension class than a student’s first gig.

    What’s particularly infuriating are the crowds of people who respond with, “Well, I went to {$FANCY_SCHOOL} and they placed us in free internships — are you saying they didn’t know what they were doing?” Yes, yes I am.

  10. Chuck Hemann says:

    Took me a little while, but I finally made it over to comment on this post.

    I have to say that my gut reaction was to come here and lambaste those that do not pay interns. As you’ve pointed out in the post, quite often they are put on the front lines to serve clients just like those account execs who are being paid. They deserve to be paid a decent wage, especially if they are doing something more then running to get coffee (that does happen still from what I’ve heard).

    However, being in the biz for a little while now I have come to realize how important experience is for students. People applying for entry-level account positions within agencies now are coming to the table with more experience than ever before. Sometimes, especially in this market, the only way to land that experience is by doing an unpaid internship.

    I suppose the question is this – If you have an opportunity to work for an Edelman or a big brand on the corporate side, would you do it for free? If you’ve answered no without really considering the folks you’d be working with I think you might be selling your career a little short.

    I’m on both sides of the fence here, Bill. I think your students would tell me that you tell them to pick a side and make an argument. In this case, I’m having difficulty with that. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick paid or unpaid I would probably said paid, but mostly for ethical reasons.

    Always enjoy the posts!

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks to all who commented this week. I’ve been preoccupied with some personal matters and not paying my usual attention to the conversation. I was hoping someone would push back and tell me why unpaid internships are a great idea. I know you’re out there!

    And Chuck, I do see your point about the dilemma. If push comes to shove, you MUST get the experience. That’s the priority. But if the intern contributes to the effort — making or saving the company money — that intern should be paid. Nearly all of the big shops in our region pay their interns. And if some don’t, they haven’t been calling on me asking for candidates.

  12. April says:

    Chuck, I think the part of the unpaid internship experience you are talking about is oversold to today’s students and new grads.

    I had two unpaid internships, one non-profit, one for a large multi-national company. When I originally went job hunting I had the assumption that these would count as experience. Both during the summer after I graduated and a year after this did not turn out to be true. On almost every interview, the HR rep, who acts as a gatekeeper to decide if you get to the hiring manager, asked if my internships were paid or unpaid and then would only ask about the paid internship. They would cut me off if I tried to talk about the unpaid ones. One HR manager even said, “Oh, you weren’t paid? So that was just something you put on your resume then.” I think they assumed I was only “getting coffee.”

    At the same time, when I go to PRSA Young Professionals Network events, which are targeted at recent grads and current students, they have speaker after speaker touting how these unpaid internships are going to give them that foot in the door. I’ve met so many people since I’ve moved back to the Chicago area who take on these unpaid positions while working two other part-time jobs so they can make rent. It’s a bad situation and you meet very very few for whom it pays off.

  13. Pay. Your. Interns. End of story.

    I was lucky to know Zoe, and boy oh boy did she ever pound paid internships into our heads. My company pays interns, and if we ever lost budget in our department, I’d rule against an unpaid internship. That is my belief.

    I am also sick to death of non-profits, especially larger ones, claiming their non-profit status as an excuse not to pay interns. This is certainly not true in every case, and I know plenty of NPGs that do pay interns. That said, if your executive director has a six- or seven-digit salary, then pony up already.

    Unpaid internships are not only a disservice to the candidate but an insult to the industry. “This isn’t slave labor, pal,” I tell to pretty much any peer in the biz that talks up the virtues of “oh, but you can’t find this experience anywhere else!” and la-di-da. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth collecting a paycheck.

    Go ahead. Give up your salary for six months. And put yourself in the shoes of a recent college grad with loans and eight roommates and a rusty jalopy with maybe one decent suit to their name and no parents to fall back on. Do you really, really think your unpaid spot means anything? Even if the candidate isn’t a charity case, which admittedly should never be your concern, what makes you think your internship is so golden? Sorry, but the recession is almost over and no longer an excuse. I follow the market and our interns coming and going have plenty of opportunities ahead.

    And my advice to you wannabe interns? Wait it out, even if it means waiting tables. Trust me, I was you once. Get paid or get a move on.

  14. […] while offering unpaid internships may be the norm, it may also be illegal, according to Bill Sledzik, the author of ToughSledding, a blog about PR and how it affects our […]

  15. Allan Schoenberg says:

    Bill — Great post and I’m a big fan of paying interns for two reasons.

    First from the employer side, if I’m paying someone that means I’m investing in them (quite literally). I think most people would admit that you will take more time to hire the best intern and make more time for someone you’re paying vs someone there for a grade. I also agree with Dino that not paying someone to work is borderline unethical.

    Second from the intern side, if I’m getting paid I had better make sure I’m working hard. I know from my experiences as an intern I worked harder when I knew every two weeks I was going to have a paycheck to deposit (yes, I know some students may be shocked to know that people once had to physically deposit a check).

    Finally, I can tell you that the best interns I’ve worked with and/or hired over the years have been the ones I’ve paid.

  16. Sophia says:

    This is a very interesting post, and in my view, a very realistic problems confronted by lots of college students.

    To deal with this problem,firstly we should figure out why people need this this intern. Generally there are four categories. 1. They are doing it to gain working experience.2. They are doing it with the hope of building resume.3. They are doing it for making money. 4. They are doing it for personal interest.

    I think most of students will fall into the first two categories. Becasue in such competitive enployment market, you need to be special to stand out. On one hand, solid educational and working experience could make your resume more appealing; on the other hand, the real-world experience can equip you with practical skill in dealing with professional tasks.

    I think it is not important whether to be paid or not as an intern. It is whether you could really learn something from it that matters. If we do want to earn money, we won’t care what the job is. We could be waitor or waitress in the restaurant; we could be Parta drive around campus; we could also work part time at student center or starbucks. However, when we do the intern as a preparation for the future career, we only hope it to be highly profession related.

    There is no fault for the companies paying free for their interns. If the students can learn what they want, and the companies can achieve what they demand, it’ll be a win-win situation. Everyone is happy.

    However, I worried about the vulnerability in this mechanism. When the company get free intern, will it become a exploitation of these office freshmen because they are under no legal protection. Second, when you pay nothing to the intern, you have nothing to control. Payment could be an effective incentive. It can keep the interns working hard and humble as a leverage. Thirdly, since the poor students are voluntarily working for free, they have to endure the pickiness and acrimony of their employers. They still have to compete for the limited intern spot, will it be too cruel and inhumane?

    I am an international student here and I am very confused in finding an intern. Doing internship is a career shortcut by applying the knowledge learnt at college. You can grow up faster than in a purely acedemic environment. For the weakness of my language capability, I thought the only advantage for me to get an intern is to offer free workforce. But it still seems to be a mission impossible while I am in a free-paid-intern society.

  17. Bill Sledzik says:

    Maybe we’ve got something going here. The mainstream media — and some pretty powerful outlets — are paying attention to the “unpaid interns” issue. Was disappointed they didn’t link to this post πŸ™‚

    New York Times: The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not

    Time magazine: Working for Free: The Boom in Adult Interns

  18. Katie Young says:

    Prof. Sledzik–

    Excellent post, per usual!

    I’ve got more of a question than a comment, and I hope others will chime in here: If an internship is listed as unpaid, is it ever ok to ask about the possibility of jumping on the payroll?

    As a PR student with two unpaid internships under my belt, and another on the way, I’m often hesitant to ask for more than what I’ve been offered. My internships have been for small organizations so far, and the next is a non-profit, so I understand the troubles of paying an intern.

    What do you think?

  19. Katie,
    I’m in the same mindset as Jackie Lloyd above: “Don’t just give it away.”

    You’re obviously bringing some experience to the table and recognize that your work adds value to the organization. By agreeing to work unpaid (at least to start), you’re also demonstrating dedication to the organization and the work you’ll be doing. These two factors alone are deserving of a paycheck, IMO, but you’ve got one more card up your sleeve: demonstration of confidence.

    In the working world, confidence in your education, experience and ultimately the work you produce are paramount. You have a perfect opportunity to showcase this confidence by asking about the potential for a paid position. A tactful approach (and recognition of your “employers” constraints) are necessary, but remember: it never hurts to ask!

    To summarize: your experience, dedication and confidence are qualities employers (in general) will pay for. With that in mind, be prepared to explain how the work you do will ultimately help generate the money to write your checks — whether it’s corporate, non-profit or agency, you can’t ignore the bottom line.

    Hope this helps!

  20. Bill Sledzik says:

    Can’t disagree with the younger Sledzik’s advice. But if you go on an interview for an internship that you know is unpaid, don’t be surprised if you get a chilly reception when you ask for a paycheck.

    On the other hand, if they like you and want to hire you, then make your pitch for compensation. If they turn you down — and you’re not entirely desperate — walk away.

    Folks, there’s a reason the New York Times and Time magazine recently published stories about unpaid internships. Most of these jobs violate the Fair Labor Standards Act. So if you aren’t willing to file a complaint with the Labor Dept., at least you can say “no” to the offer.

  21. Bill Sledzik says:

    I should clarify a point here. If the intern comes to the job with a weak skill set, it’s tough to justify a paycheck. You gotta earn your way.

    At Kent State, we don’t award academic credit for an internship until the student has completed a set of skills courses designed to ensure job readiness. Of course, some are more ready that others πŸ™‚

    For freshmen and sophomores who may not bring a solid skills set to the job, we don’t quibble about the unpaid status. But we do encourage those who work free to do so on behalf of a nonprofit group.

  22. @collentine says:

    Just re-read this post again, been thinking about it a lot lately. Thanks for the motivation for aiming for a paid internship but my first criteria will still be location since I believe this will give me more out of the internship then being paid or not.

  23. Thanks so much for reading my article on this subject and for seeking the legal feedback. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion (and I stick by mine) but I’m so glad we agree on this important subject!

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