The ad industry should be clever enough to make all internships paid

Unpaid internships have been around forever. It's time we got rid of them with a little creativity.

In the last few weeks I’ve received more than a few emails from students asking if they should take unpaid internships for the summer. It’s a tough question. I’m inclined to suggest they refuse on principle — the practice is certainly unethical and may even be illegal – but if the only other option is to take an unrelated minimum wage position and the internship in question does, in fact, offer useful experience or the possibility of turning into a paying job, then perhaps it makes sense to accept it.

There are internships for credit, but in some cases those are worse. Not only does a student work for free, she has to pay tuition for the privilege of doing so. The real solution is for any company offering internships to pay and then figure out how to recover the costs.

At Mullen, we pay 28 interns every summer. We figure it’s a great way to identify future employees. But equally important we believe that the good will, positive word-of-mouth, and public relations that result from the program make the investment worthwhile even if we don’t hire anyone immediately.

It strikes me that most service companies – especially ad agencies, PR firms, and social media agencies – can even find a way to recover the costs if they need to. Figure that the average blended billing rate for a full time employee falls somewhere between $125 and $200 and hour and the average intern is getting $10 or $15 an hour and it becomes pretty obvious that simply billing an intern’s hours plus a little bit of overhead could be positioned as a bargain to most clients. It’s not that an intern can be expected to make anywhere near the contribution of an experienced employee (thought that’s not out of the question) but certainly there is billable work to which he or she can contribute.

If the average summer intern works 10 40-hour weeks and makes $10.00 an hour, the total compensation comes to a mere $4000.  If any company in the creative industry isn’t clever enough to generate $5000 or $6,000 in revenues for each intern it hires, covering the costs by convincing clients that it’s an advantage to them — note that CP&B did something similar a few years ago — then they’re probably not a creative enough company to deserve the interest of interns — paid or unpaid — in the first place.

What are your thoughts.  Would you work for free? Would you ask someone to?

The Atlantic: An argument against

The Atlantic: An argument in favor

14 comments
mskeyre
mskeyre

I was almost past my probationary period at a non-profit when they decided to get rid of my position and restructure the program.  I found out that they hired interns to replace me.  They said that they had to do it because of budget cuts, and not because of my job performance.  I'd like to know if this has happened to anyone else?

KelvinOh
KelvinOh

If the intern's absence would either a loss in revenue or the company having to hire someone for the position then they should definietly be paid. Even if its voluntary or educational students shouldn't have to worry about whether they can afford to work. At the very least a student';s expenses such as food and transportation should be compensated at the absolute least.

 

If someone is working for you in a capacity that requires a particular level of skill (which given the hellish cutthroat nature of the internship application process the applicant better well be) it is only fair that you compensate them accordingly.

 

I mean how do you even "rate" your experience at an internship? There no real way to measure the value of an internship so it'd be nearly impossible to regulate. And I doubt interns would speak up to any negative experience they may have had for fear of jeopardizing possible career aspects so their opinion can't really be measured accurately either.

 

And change cannot be expected at the student level. Students are perpetually terrified of being left behind in the race for a career that they'll desperately scramble for anything that requires showing up with a tie. Change has to be made at the industrial level and that means agencies taking responsibility for their promises and following through with them. Telling a student to jump through hoops while they pay through the nose for the entire experience only to discard them when their obligations have been filled is not a system that we should be encouraging.

LindaRogers
LindaRogers

Unpaid work = volunteer work. Volunteerism is a wonderful thing when both parties understand it is voluntary.  When it is coercive and dishonest then the spirit of true volunteerism is undermined. An internship that is unpaid should be contractually regulated so that if there is to be an educational component that actually needs to happen in hours of instruction in certain skill sets.  If there is a promise of a certain number of jobs available, those jobs have to be filled.  Companies offering internships as educational that don't train people or suggesting the internships will result in job offers but offer no jobs to internships are simply commiting acts of fraud and should be charged with fraud.  They have stolen work hours from individuals on the promise of certain rewards (training or future work).  I would think that individuals should be able to sue.

Ad_Chickadee
Ad_Chickadee

Agree to disagree.  1) It's not illegal if the intern is learning valuable experience vs. picking up your dry-cleaning.  2) I recently left an ad agency that barely made it through the last few years of this tough economy - so much so there were massive lay-offs and a salary freeze - for the last 4 (or was it 5?) years.  So - no - while we needed interns - there was no money to pay them.  3) Not all agencies or companies that have interns are larger(er) corporations and have the resources.  I recently left my paying job at that agency to start my own business.  I am now a one person show.  And as a new small business owner, I've been blessed to acquire clients, but I just don't have the dollars to pay anyone - barely even me - although I do really need the help - and don't get me started on the cost of health insurance for new employees.  4) A few years back when I was laid-off (for 20 months) I jumped at an opportunity to do social media for the St. Augustine Amphitheatre for free.  I took that non-paid job as a blessing.  This old girl who while I worked at very reputable big agencies, didn't have a lot of online experience JUMPED at the chance to absorb everything I could.  It paid off.  I made amazing connections. I was asked to speak at a local social media event with 2 other well established social media peeps.  It landed me the job I recently left.  Allowed me to write a solid case study of the work I did.  And..it gave me the courage to quit my "real" job and start my own business focusing in my new found love.  It's allowed me to help other small business owners get their piece of the pie. Something I could have never done - had some one not give me a free job. 

katietdyer
katietdyer

As a college student who's experienced their fair share of unpaid internships, I can say with certainty that they have been a savior to me when it comes to gaining valuable work experience. From my viewpoint, they're taking the time, effort, and energy to train me in special programs and processes that I would otherwise not learn or experience. Often times, that's payment enough. Now, don't get me wrong: I think, in an ideal world, your proposition would work. But the truth is, especially in a wavering economy, many ad agencies just don't have the extra money to dole out to temporary, untrained employees. Unpaid internships are a good trial period for companies to teach special skills and see how well an intern picks up and performs them. I tend to think of it as merely a long-form interview. :)

ShellyKramer
ShellyKramer

I've written about this a lot, Edward, and agree with you one hundred percent. I've never expected anyone to work for nothing - not even for the 'great' experience they're getting working with us. That's just lame. And is a prime example of shitty corporate behavior. Agencies CAN afford to pay interns and, as you said, those costs could easily be passed on to the clients. I don't care what it is that anyone - interns or not - are doing, if they're working, they should be paid.

 

Amazing how many people - and companies (agencies included) feel differently. When I posted about this on Facebook I was surprised how many peers popped in and said they don't have a problem with it at all. We agreed to disagree on this one.

 

Shelly

 @shellykramer 

annedreshfield
annedreshfield

I agree with you, Edward. The problem is that most college students (or perhaps even high schoolers, if they're starting early), don't see anything wrong with unpaid internships. They've been conditioned to believe that the experience is worth enough to not expect pay. I was of that mindset myself, before I knew better. I was thankful for the opportunity to work at several companies when I was basically unproven and still a student. Now, I absolutely wouldn't accept an unpaid internship, but I know a lot of other students that would (and do!). The mindset not only needs to be changed in companies, but also in school settings where experience is valued so highly, and unpaid internships are subsequently very much encouraged.

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JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Back when I was first trying to get into advertising I was absolutely willing to work for free. The agencies I was talking to, though, would have none of it and ended up hiring me. I think my willingness to do whatever took appealed to agencies and then it was up to me to deliver. That said, I think agencies who want people to work for nothing probably have bad management, or they're called Victors and Spoils.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

 @katietdyer That's cool. My argument is more against the idea of overt exploitation. The fact that some take advantage of the fact they know that they can in this market, even if they don't need to or can afford to pay.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

 @annedreshfield In my opinion there's a bit too much exploitation.  If they came with a stipend, or a guarantee of a job at the end, that would be something.  But for $10 or $15 an hour if you hire really good, smart kids, you definitely get your money worth.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

 @JeffShattuck Jeff, that is an attitude that works every time. As for V&S, it's still different, I believe. In most cases they are tapping into a smaller group of professionals, already gainfully employed, who want to moonlight in that way in hopes of a pay out. Interns have a lot less choice. In their case it's a buyers market. In the case of those who choose to play with V&S, there's a greater choice and less of a need.

 

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