Interns – sadly yet again

University public relations and communication programs work hard to make their undergraduate intern programs valuable to both students and employers.

In contrast, after graduation some students find themselves embroiled in a deeply exploitative internship system. So it must be galling to them that the industry organisation, the Public Relations Institute of Australia, has recently run an ad saying: “Photographer call out! PRIA is currently seeking an aspiring, fun and awesome photographer to capture the essence of the impending NSW Golden Target Awards.”

“As a non-profit organisation, we are looking for an eager photographer who is willing to work pro-bono with dinner provided. Point to note: the lead generation from audience attending (all PR/comms agencies and staff) will be worth every picture taken, not to mention using the event to boost your own promotional portfolio,” the ad continued.

Apparently the PRIA saw nothing wrong with the ‘call out’ until the industry newsletter, Mumbrella, belled the cat in its newsletter saying: “Following questions from the industry and Mumbrella about the ethics of an industry body – advocating for best practice and professionalism – requesting somebody work for free, PRIA pulled the post and said it would revert to its “normal policy of engagement and full payment for all external support services”.

Intern exploitation is an international problem which has been around for a long time. Back in May 2014 the blog wrote that 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 (perhaps more accurately hypocritically) they are simultaneously taking PR undergraduates and graduates on as interns in large numbers.

Moreover, when consulting with industry people for a review of the RMIT PR course some years ago the list of things the employers specified as essential for the course would have lengthened it to at least a decade; obviated any need for on the job training for a fair while; and, qualified the graduates to run the organisations for which the complaining industry people worked.

Back then the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman highlighted the intern exploitation situation when it 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 concluded 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.

The 2014 post provoked widespread discussion about the problem from academics and industry practitioners.

Then, six months later, the blog came across more evidence of both the international nature of the problem and the PR industry’s complicity.

The Economist publishes a feature, the Daily Chart, which illustrates various trends or situations. On September 8 2014 it published one on interns around the world. The source was an analysis by LinkedIn of the profile of its members – sample size 313 million – to try to work out where it was easiest to get work experience and, most importantly, which industries were most likely to keep you on beyond the serious introductory coffee-fetching period.

A key finding was that PR firms ‘hire’ about three times as many interns (as a proportion of total number employed) “but only give 27% a job at the end of their placement” according to The Economist. It also said: “Software firms, for instance, have few openings but retain around two-fifths of their interns—more than most sectors..…. For those seeking the reassurance of a permanent job, accounting and management-consulting are good bets, with retention rates of 40% and 60% respectively. Charities and NGOs, on the other hand, are far less likely to retain their interns.”

Five years later it is not known whether the situation has improved or not – although anecdotally it is probably worse – but the FWO has published a number of fact sheets and guides to the problem.

For the PR industry – singled out in the FWO original report – the example set by its industry body is hardly encouraging and raises questions about how much progress had been made. Perhaps the PRIA should devote some time to reading and promulgating these FWO guides to unpaid work and internships.