Unpaid internships: a subject that is guaranteed to cause debate in any profession and particularly in the creative industries.
The debate has been raging in the trade press and on social media site, Twitter, with divided opinions.
It’s tough at the bottom
With 70 applicants for every graduate job, students making the transition to the professional world face a tough challenge, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that work experience is one of the only ways to stand out in a crowded market.
It is standard on most PR job descriptions to ask for experience and students without this will see their applications at the bottom of the pile. Unfortunately a varied, full portfolio and extensive CV is coming at a price – and it’s the students who are out of pocket.
Many students will complete placements whilst at university, giving up essential hours of study to work, usually for free. Whilst it could be argued that they’re not doing the job of a salaried employee, an intern will often be a valuable resource, bringing in new ideas and fresh creativity from a new perspective.
The young people taking the internships are individuals with such drive for their career that they’ll do anything from making the tea and photocopying, just to get their little toe – let alone their foot – in the door.
The legal situation
Although internships benefit the student as well the employer, there are certain grey areas that could mean these internships are breaking employment law. An internship isn’t strictly voluntary work and it is extremely rare that students undertaking unpaid work experience sign a contract outlining their role, working hours and length of employment.
The CIPR’s work placement charter (available to members only) sets out recommendations for employer best practice, and members should adhere to these guidelines, but there is still no concrete law governing the rights of interns.
An issue raised in the TV documentary is the question of the social backgrounds of interns, in particular those on long-term internships after graduation.
Many are young people from wealthy families who have the luxury of financial support whilst they complete unpaid jobs to expand their CV’s and make vital industry contacts.
A spotlight was thrown onto the Conservative party this week, with a fundraising event auctioning a two week placement at Tatler magazine for the princely sum of £4,000, and that’s just one example.
So does this mean that the Average Joe is disadvantaged without handouts from affluent parents? Or do they have to sacrifice their career to work in an unrelated job just so they can afford to live?
Many comments around the subject on Twitter addressed the issue of the costs that interns faced for travel to their place of work. Speaking to PR students, it seems that most wanted to go out and obtain placements but sometimes struggled to commit to more than a day a week because they needed to undertake paid part-time work to support their studies:
@gargiu: Good experience but was out of pocket due to costly train travel into London, about £20 daily peak
@themadancer: unpaid internships are unfair, especially in London where even basic transport is so expensive sadly internships are necessary in PR
It’s a catch-22 situation. Work part-time at a bar or restaurant and get an income but no industry experience. Or work unpaid at an organisation that will give you great experience and networking opportunities but leave you with precarious finances.
Weighing up the pros and cons, interns do have some fantastic opportunities. They have the chance to build up important relationships with employers and clients, exposure to real-life projects and the building blocks to forge a successful career. Successful placements can often lead to full time employment if the intern impresses the employer and if nothing else they will leave with a good reference and extensive portfolio.
Finally, some advice for fellow PR students: although placements are valuable and will open up new doors it’s important not to jeopardise your studies and/or financial situation.
If you have concerns, speak to your university or employer – there may be financial support available to help you continue your placement or internship. If travel is a problem, look for opportunities that you can do from your home. Write to publications, websites and agencies to ask about freelance work, start a blog, increase your online presence with sites like Twitter and LinkedIn. There are many opportunities if you look carefully enough.
Perseverance is key. Always show enthusiasm in whatever you do, ask questions and aim to talk to as many people as possible, but most importantly find something you enjoy.
For more information on CIPR recommendations regarding unpaid internships visit the CIPR website at www.cipr.co.uk