Public Relations

Unpaid internships: Striking the balance

You’ve more than likely heard the debate in the news this week with the public supporting a ban on unpaid work experience that lasts more than four weeks.

It’s a controversial subject as, in some cases, it’s not necessarily black and white; it’s all about finding a balance.

Work experience has been essential in getting me into the world of PR and I’m lucky in that I’ve been treated fairly in each place I’ve been; whether that’s expenses being covered, being paid or working out some sort of agreement that suits both parties.

However, that’s not always the case. A survey by Prospects has revealed 48% of young people have undertaken unpaid internships in the UK; only 17% having been paid for their work experience.

To me, that’s hardly surprising. I felt it was part and parcel of gaining experience and helping secure future employment prospects to make sure I had some work experience in the bank, particularly while I was studying, whether that was paid or not. In fact, our degree programme required that we did a placement.

But I never felt exploited. And that was for a number of reasons…

  1. I had short-term placements – the longest unpaid placement I did was two weeks and I’d completely agree with the new law requiring people to be paid for work over four weeks. In that time, you become a real asset to the business. Rather than doing tasks for experience, you contribute to the overall business productivity and outputs – in PR agency terms, you’re likely to be producing billable work … so why not be paid?
  2. I was still learning – in my first year of university, I hardly felt that the skills I had learnt so far warranted being paid in a PR environment. Whether that was actually true or not, I felt they were doing me a favour, not the other way round.
  3. I was treated fairly – in short, I worked for nice people who showed me some respect, taught me what they knew and challenged me in my work. No expectations to just make tea, do the filing and check the post (I mean, there was some of that, but no more than anyone else had to do!)
  4. I took something from it – whether that was a folder full of work examples for my university placement or a glowing recommendation for a job I was about to apply for, my work experience has always had obvious benefits. Not to mention the actual experience of work…

Jayne Rowley, chief executive at Prospects, said: “While unpaid internships are a feature of the student jobs market in the UK, they are not legal and companies should not offer them. An intern is entitled to be paid if they are a worker and no exclusions to the national minimum wage apply. Graduates should not feel that working unpaid is a necessity for their career. If a job is worth doing, it is worth paying for.”

I’d 100% agree with her that interns need to be paid, particularly graduates with a credible skill set. I’m a big supporter of this law. Interns will bring some skill, knowledge and insight to the role – something someone on a week’s work experience, perhaps with no prior knowledge of the industry, may not.

Whether it’s over four weeks or not, employers should weigh up what benefits they’re getting from the intern and consider what value this brings to the business. And remember, if you’re not paying your intern as they’re with you for a shorter time, even the offer of covering travel or buying lunch can go a long way.

Potential interns, my advice would be to work out what you’re going to get out of the placement and if this warrants working for free (if it’s under four weeks, of course). It may well be worth it for the experience – but if not, say no! … ask to discuss payment … think of what you’d like in return. I think it’s the role of interns to start to challenge potential employers to start making a change.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Let me know in the comments.

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