Interns, exploitation and ethics

Surveys of PR employer attitudes consistently show that a majority of them are unhappy with the skills and standards of PR course students. Yet, ironically they are simultaneously taking PR undergraduates on as interns in record numbers.

This may be a coincidence, a correlation or something else but it seems significant that the uptick in seeking PR interns started in the significant year of 2008 and has continued through the slow process of recovery from the great financial crisis.

The blog hadn’t thought much about interns beyond the blog’s old firm’s employment of them and the RMIT intern program as part of the PR degrees. But when question time came after a recent lecture on ethics the undergrads were predictably quiet until one student asked what the blog thought of “auctioning internships” a phenomenon in the US. This sparked a lively discussion about the way some interns were treated and what they could be expected to do. The blog offered to ask some questions about the situation and  raise it at the RMIT Program Advisory Committee

Later conversations revealed that one PR graduate had recently worked for more than a year for a large consultancy without pay but justified it on the grounds of ‘experience’ and that RMIT had seen a 2008 spike, to record levels, in employers seeking interns which has been maintained since.

Now the blog might be prejudiced but it believes the official RMIT program is well-run and appropriate. It has guidelines for internships which say: “A student’s role should comprise predominantly PR-focused work, rather than general duties. However, our students realise some general administrative duties or routine task are involved in every job – that is the nature of the workplace.” It also recommends payment.

The RMIT program organiser screens organisations seeking interns and works hard to advise students on what to expect and how to get the best out of it. However, it seems that the official internships which are part of the degree are just part of the raft of internships offered by employers and/or sought by students. It seems many of the problems may rest in the ones offered outside the degree system. PR students and job applicants outside the system may be getting embroiled in a problem which seems to be world-wide and the growing concerns about the nature of internships and the extent to which they represent exploitation of interns, invaluable work experience or a bit of both. In New York, for instance, many galleries use interns widely and while visiting last year the blog heard about one intern being ‘sacked’ from her unpaid gallery job because she wasn’t working hard enough for long enough hours.

In Australia the Fair Work Ombudsman recently found that “…it appears that a significant number of workers are asked or required to undertake unpaid job trials or unpaid training which goes beyond what is reasonably required.”

The FWO report said that: “Unpaid internships are particularly popular in industries that are considered attractive to job seekers or where there is an over-supply of qualified graduates. While unpaid internships are more prevalent in certain industries, the report concludes that the majority of professional industries are affected, including (but not limited to) print and broadcast media, legal services, advertising, marketing, PR and event management.”

The report concludes that “there is reason to suspect that a growing number of businesses are choosing to engage unpaid interns to perform work that might otherwise be done by paid employees” and recommends that the Fair Work Ombudsman focus on businesses systematically exploiting  workers and makes a number of specific recommendations to combat the problem.

What is to be done? as Lenin famously asked echoing the 19th century Russian Chernyshevsky. The blog’s not sure. The PR intern system is invaluable and it is probably impossible to regulate. But first, we probably need to know more about what happens outside the university organised internships even if the initial research is largely anecdotal. Is the problem large, growing and are there any patterns? How can transparency help – both about expectations and experiences? A trawl of student Facebook and Twitter accounts might also reveal quite a lot.

In the meantime the RMIT PAC decided to raise the issue with the PRIA and IABC. It also plans to convene a meeting of PR employers to discuss the issue and identify problems and opportunities. Later it also plans to organise some student panels to get student feedback on what they think and what their experiences have been.

For the blog it was interesting that questions about the system arose in the context of a discussion about ethics. This was not just about being asked to get the coffee but about fairness and the avoidance of exploitation. And if some PR employers are exploiting interns one wonders about what other ethical questions arise in their practice.