In the past year, the issue of unpaid internships has been a hot topic, particularly in the PR industry.
The question essentially boils down to whether or not it’s acceptable to ask someone to work for free for a sustained period of time, in order for them to gain the experience they need to secure a full-time, paid position.
In 2011, PR Week and the PRCA launched a campaign to end unpaid internships in the PR industry, and in March this year the CIPR launched a toolkit for both employers and interns to help explain the issue – but still it rumbles on.
Having experienced the struggle of getting a foot in the door after graduating (in 2009, the worst possible year) and also working for free to get the experience I needed, I have quite strong views on the issue.
First of all, it should be clear than an unpaid internship is not the same as work experience or volunteering. As far as I’m concerned, work experience is expected to be unpaid, but should last for no longer than a month, and volunteering should be for charities, not-for-profits or community groups, and is something you do in your spare time rather than instead of a full-time job.
Age comes into it as well – a 15/16 year old living with their parents who wants to get some work experience in the summer holidays is not the same as someone who has just graduated from university and needs to start earning their keep.
When I graduated, I saw A LOT of internships advertised in the media industry that were either three or six months long and completely unpaid – not even any travel expenses.
For the business, of course I can see why they would want to do this – why hire a paid employee when you can have a stream of unpaid interns coming in to do the same job?
But for the majority of graduates, and for the industry, it’s not good at all, as it breeds a culture where only the wealthiest and best connected young people are able to find the experience they need to get ahead in their chosen career.
I certainly don’t know many people who can afford to move to London and work for six months unpaid – even if you already live there with your family you’ll need a lot of financial support to get by for that long with no income.
I believe that long-term, unpaid internships are simply exploitation – but exploitation that businesses have been able to get away with thanks to the incredibly tough competition for jobs.
So what do you do if you can’t afford to do an unpaid internship?
Well for me, I got lucky – I was able to work part time as a shop assistant to fund working part time as a PR assistant for a not-for-profit organisation, which gave the experience I needed to land the job I’m in now.
I would also strongly advice anyone still at university to get as much experience in now as you can – at least you’ve got your student loans to support it!
If you’re lucky enough to be doing a degree with an industry placement year, you should definitely try and make the most of it. Although they don’t legally have to be paid as they form part of your degree, a lot will at least give you minimum wage or cover expenses, and the experience you get can be invaluable – I also know quite a few people who have finished their placement to be told that when they graduate a year later a job will be waiting for them.
For any current PR students in Cornwall or Devon, there’s more good news – DCA is recruiting! We’re looking for someone to spend the sandwich year of their degree with us, starting this summer – so if you’re interested get in touch!
Posted by @natblachford