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Internships and Money — What’s the Answer?

Posted At: May 10, 2010 1:06 PM
by Rachel Davis

In an industry like public relations, only so much can be learned inside a classroom. A lot of training comes from hands-on experience, and employers expect those seeking public relations jobs to have experience in their field. Internships are the easiest way for students to gain on-the-job training.

There are plenty of opportunities for student internships if the students are willing to research and put in the time. Paid internships have become less prominent, especially in the wake of the slowed economy.

Many high profile internships are offered in bigger cities and usually mean a temporary relocation for students. Relocation means an added cost of moving and living expenses in a new city. The problem for financially strapped students obtaining experience is a growing number of companies are no longer paying their interns.

Internships, paid and unpaid, remain a regular part of conversations for students. Deciding which one to take, balancing financial situations and gaining valuable work experience are all things students must take into consideration.

Recently, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recharged the unpaid internships conversation nationally. A recent article in The New York Times highlights several students from different backgrounds who were able to accept and not accept internships due to financial situations.

The Department of Labor has even argued against unpaid internships. In recent statements, the department issued the terms of legality of for-profit employers not paying interns to do the same job as full-time employees. The Web site,, lists the following as the guidelines from the Fair Labor Standards Act for determining the legality of an unpaid internship:

1. If the training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in a vocational school;
2. If the training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. If the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded;
5. If the trainees are not necessarily entitled to employment at the completion of the training period;
6. If the employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

An entry on features a question and answer session about the legality of internships with Marcia L. McCormick, an associate professor of the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. McCormick said the problem with legality of internships is the lack of a clear definition of what an intern is; it varies from the national government to the states.

“Mostly, an intern gets defined in the negative by statutes that protect people in other working relationships—usually employees,” said McCormick. “Most people who provide services or labor for others are considered employees, and those tend to be people who are paid an hourly or yearly wage.”

Paying Interns
Not all companies have removed their paid internships; many still consider it valuable and important to pay their interns. Liz Swenton, communications and human resources manager at March PR, said her company pays their interns.

“Our interns are paid, and we have been fortunate to hire hard-working individuals,” Swenton said. “This way, they feel like they are actually part of the team and their work is valued. If the intern is serious enough about his/her career in PR, the hourly wage won’t matter so much. The fact that you are recognizing their efforts will go a long way, especially if they are a struggling student!”

Andrew Graham, an independent writer and media strategist, said he doesn’t understand why this is a conversation since the PR industry is a profitable one.

“If the labor has value, it needs to be compensated accordingly,” Graham said. “If it doesn’t have value, then it shouldn’t be done in the first place.”

Graham said he hopes new trade regulations will cause PR societies like PRSA to start taking greater stances against unpaid internships. He suggested the organization add an amendment to the Code of Ethics stating unpaid internships are unethical.

Unpaid Internships
In reality, most students take unpaid internships. Not all unpaid internships are bad, and many people gain valuable job experience through them. Unpaid internships can open the same doors as paid internships and can help the student obtain full-time employment after graduation.

Andy Garlikov, a marketing project manager at Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems–Marine Systems, said the unpaid internships he took in college helped his career.

“A couple of different unpaid internships in college changed (for the better) the entire course of my career,” said Garlikov. “I’m all for them. If the places I worked had to pay me, they would have taken on fewer interns and been less flexible with my hours (around my coursework). That would severely restrict the availability of internships.”

Internships must be considered like a job. Before accepting a job, advantages and disadvantages must be weighed. If an internship is paid, but does not offer the same experience as an unpaid one, a student must consider if the compensation without the experience will pay off.

The conversation on the ethics of unpaid interns will continue, and it could get messy if the U.S. Department of Labor starts getting involved. The important thing to remember when taking an internship is to weigh the benefits with the cost. Internships are important for students, and they can be beneficial and rewarding to employers. The issue of compensation should be resolved, and by re-energizing the conversation, maybe a solution is closer than ever.

What is your experience with internships? Do you think they should be paid or unpaid?

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