At their frequent best, internships benefit both students and their sponsors. They provide students with invaluable experience bridging the gap between academia and the real world. Students apply what they’ve learned to the public relations business and are exposed to workplace demands, deadlines, expectations and culture. They learn how to adapt to the workplace and its politics. Best of all, successful interns often are hired upon graduation.
For sponsoring organizations, internships help identify new talent and provide additional support for tasks often delegated to entry-level professionals. Interns also bring fresh perspectives and unique talents — and not just in social media.
With the job market tougher than ever, internships are a must: For students, to show they are serious; and for businesses, to get help when everyone is under the gun to do more — much more — with less.
But there’s a catch: Most organizations don’t pay interns. In fact, most sponsors require students to receive academic credit for the internship, and they ask for the documentation to prove it, especially during Fall and Spring semesters. The exception is the agency-run, full-time paid Summer programs, which are few and highly competitive.
The bottom line: Students likely will pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free. This is an even greater burden for those who must work to pay for all or part of their education and cut back their regular work hours to gain relevant career experience.
Now federal and state labor departments are watching organizations closely and drawing strict guidelines on intern use, to ensure that labor abuses are not occurring.
A timely New York Times article from Apr. 3, 2010, “Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say,” exposes the widespread abuse of student interns by a number of businesses, which are under investigation by the federal Department of Labor.
The Times quotes Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, who says, “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid, and still be in compliance with the law.”
The article lays out the six criteria under which employers do not have to pay interns, among them:
- The internship must be similar to the training in an academic institution;
- The intern may not displace regular paid workers, and
- The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.
In my ten years’ experience supervising advertising and public relations internships, I’ve known almost all academic year (Fall and Spring semester) placements to have been unpaid. Fortunately, most appeared to have met the criteria; the possible exception being those in apparel companies, where students often spend their time packing samples for shipment to fashion editors and photo shoots and doing little else.
Public relations agencies and departments must do their part to make internships beneficial for the students, while making them advantageous and legal for the company. Here are my top five ways to manage an internship program successfully:
- At the time of application, provide a written description of the internship, including the skills required and nature of the work.
- Assign a supervisor (not in human resources) to oversee the intern on a regular basis.
- Once interns have fulfilled their assigned responsibilities, allow them to interview staff (within reason), to either expand on the knowledge gained in their assigned area or to learn about new areas.
- Definitely don’t wait until the end of an internship to offer feedback. Give constructive comments after the first month (preferably in person) and discuss with the intern what he or she would like to do to benefit from the experience. Note to interns: Have your list ready!
- If you can’t pay a salary, consider covering commuting costs or picking up lunch in appreciation for the work the interns do.
Most students genuinely want to learn and contribute during their internships. Given the stressful reality of today’s workplace, it’s all too easy to treat an intern as another pair of hands to get things done. But your expertise, attention and support go a long way toward making an internship a win-win for everyone — especially if you’re not paying.
Lynn Appelbaum, APR, Fellow, PRSA, is a PRSA National Board Member and the Advertising & Public Relations Program Director at The City College of New York.