Internships: No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

The topic of paid internships comes around each year like Labor Day.  Yet despite the frequency, companies still insist on internships that include no compensation or academic credit even though the Fair Labor Standards Act requires compensation.

I have often written about the internships on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America and have not changed my opinion one iota. Internships are legitimate work and should be compensated. PRSA is so adamant about the issue that it published an advisory nearly seven years ago for its 30,000 members about internships. As noted in a past post on internships, PRSA believes it is ethically improper to employ anyone who adds real value to a public relations agency or department without compensating them for their work – whether that compensation is monetary or in the form of educational credits. If billable work is being performed by an intern, he or she deserves some form of legal compensation.

There was a time many years ago when internships were employed by organizations to give back to society by offering summer employment to students in disciplines related to their academic studies. Later, the internship evolved to a way for organizations to solve interim staffing issues. On the candidate side, the internship was a way to get practical, real-world experience in the field that would supplement academic training. Somewhere along the way, internships started to be viewed as a volunteer function and organizations treated them as such.

Let’s be clear though what constitutes volunteerism. Helping a charitable organization tend to the needs of the underserved is volunteerism. Assisting an organization to sell books or some other product or service is not.

As young professionals, your goal is to secure a full-time professional position in public relations. Here are several metrics for evaluating the efficacy of internships after you have graduated.  I initially published this list four years ago. But it bears repetition.

  • Is the internship a paid position? And is it well above minimum wage? This is a critical question for which the answer is simple. If it is not paid, steer clear.
  • Is the compensation reasonable for the role? You should expect no less than $25 per hour, particularly if the job involves content creation, including writing releases, case studies, blogs, speeches, tweets, Facebook posts and yes, even questions for Quora or content for Pinterest.
  • Is the internship/job a 40-hours-a-week gig and/or are you expected to put in inordinate time that is not compensated? Most jobs are reasonably 40 hours a week or at max 50 hours. Investigate if there is the opportunity for paid overtime or compensatory time.
  • What is the probability that the internship will lead to a full-time position? Assuming you excel in the job, will the employer agree to put it in writing ahead of time? As Ronald Reagan once said, “trust but verify.” If a permanent position is not in the cards, make certain other conditions are sufficiently compelling to make the internship worth your time and labor.
  • Is the organization a leader in its category, whether a non-profit, corporation, institution or agency? Your credibility, integrity and personal brand are all built on your associations. Make certain that the organization is a thought leader or at least “reputation safe.”
  • Will the internship help to appreciably increase your skills, broaden your understanding of the field and augment your network and sphere of influence? These are all vital characteristics that should be inherent in your investment in the internship. If they don’t contribute, think hard and long before you accept.
  • Can you use the content you create as part of your portfolio? Will you be able to take credit publicly for your intellectual labor and resulting product? It is wise to have some evidence that you can use to validate your accomplishments.
  • Will your employer give you time for other pursuits, including volunteer work, professional affiliations and networking? Don’t be chained to your desk. Make sure there is adequate freedom to network, volunteer and attend to other professional endeavors.

If you decide to go the internship route before or after your job hunt, exercise caution in doing internships that do not help fulfill your career goals and strategy.

Gerard (Gerry) F. Corbett is Founder, Chair and CEO of Redphlag LLC , a strategic branding and communications services and counseling firm and instructor in the Entrepreneurship Program at UC Berkeley, Extension. Gerry has more than four decades of technology, PR and marketing experience in several Fortune 200 firms. He also is past chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America and an avid photographer, career coach and blogger.

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