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A Price Worth Paying

Posted At: September 25, 2013 2:24 p.m.
by Lexi Holdbrooks

The job seeking process becomes more complex each year. Upcoming college graduates are jumping through hoops to stand out from the massive crowd of young professionals entering the job market. According to, in 2000, more than 1.2 million people received a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. This number increased in 2009 to around 1.6 million people. A student’s résumé is the key to getting in the door of a company’s recruiting process. It must be unique, resourceful and intriguing enough to stand out from the hundreds of other résumés a human resource employee has piled on his desk.

intern3One key aspect of a résumé is displaying the quantity and quality of internships completed by the applicant. Internships give graduating students a visible edge. They are key to landing a job. In the public relations realm, GPAs and school involvement are worthless without previous work experience.

For example, FKM Agency, a full service communications agency in Houston, Texas, gives precedence to applicants with previous internship experience. Susan Hagler, vice president and director of human resources at FKM Agency, believes internships are critical to being hired as a full-time employee no matter the company.

“When considering graduates for entry-level positions, we always give priority to those with internship experience,” Hagler stated. “Internships give us the opportunity to check references and gain an understanding of the candidate’s work ethic, learning ability and prior business contributions.”

The experience is so valuable that most students enthusiastically accept unpaid internships, because they can be more beneficial in the long run than a summer’s salary. Therefore, a student is willing to accept an internship for college credit or simply the experience, because it is a necessary means to an end — a job. An excellent internship is the competitive edge every college grad seeks to achieve, with good reason. If you do a great job in your internship, it serves as a meaningful way to get ahead of fellow peers.

“The star interns are remembered when positions become available,” Hagler remarked. “Our current and former interns are always a valuable talent pool for when we are hiring.”

Unpaid vs. paid
The question seems simple: why pay a student if they can legally provide free help?

PRSA follows the U.S. Department of Labor’s six guidelines for administering an unpaid internship in a PR setting.
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operations of the employer’s facilities, is similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.
2. The internship is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The intern does not displace a regular employee, but works under the close supervision of existing staff.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and, on occasion, its operations may be impeded.
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all six of these requirements are met, an internship may be justifiably unpaid. Before taking on an unpaid intern, the company should ensure the internship meets each of these requirements.

Number three is crucial for companies with unpaid internships. If an intern is executing work that a paid employee would do and the client is being billed for this work, the intern must be paid. PRSA believes that “it is ethically wrong to employ anyone who adds real value to an agency or employer without compensating them for their work.”

FKM Agency passionately supports compensation for its interns. With an internship program more than 15 years old, this Houston-based agency has offered payment since the program’s inception and has triggered impressive results.

“Having a strong paid internship program has generated word of mouth among students that has increased the quality of our intern candidate pool tremendously,” Hagler explained. “We sift through hundreds of résumés to fill 12 to 14 positions, so we’re able to select the very best and have seen the work output of these hires really increase in the past few years.”

College credit

Another option for companies to offer internships without compensation is through college credit, which allows for an educational experience and acts as a class. While a college-credit internship seems like a fantastic opportunity for most college students, in reality it incurs a financial burden. Does it not seem strange to require a student to pay for employment in order to have an eye-catching internship?

Betty Shaw, a senior at The University of Alabama majoring in public relations interned at Shadow PR, an agency in New York City, last summer. Like most other PR internship programs, Shadow PR offered college credit instead of payment. Since Shaw is an out-of-state student for whom tuition costs can be high, she opted out of working for college credit and instead worked without compensation.

“I was determined to take the internship with Shadow PR,” Shaw stated. “It wasn’t worth the cost of the class to pay for college credit. So instead I worked for the experience!”

Not only is the college class itself an expense, but unpaid internships also offer an unfair advantage to students who have the monetary means to work for free. Many college students cannot afford to move to a new city for an unpaid internship to work for a nationally recognized firm. They must instead stay close to home like Shaw, who decided to pursue a more economically reasonable path the next summer.

“I had the opportunity to intern this summer in Nashville,” Shaw remarked. “I ended up deciding to pursue a different internship in my hometown to save money.”

In addition to being costly in terms of tuition and living expenses, unpaid internships can also be time consuming and exhausting.

Anna Gilbert, a retail consumer science student at The University of Tennessee, worked as a fashion editorial intern at Marie Claire, a Hearst publication in New York City, this past summer. Gilbert received college credit for her internship and worked 45 hours a week.

“I worked overtime almost every week,” Gilbert explained. “We would begin at 9 a.m. and usually get off around 8 or 9 p.m. Lunch breaks were very short and often given to us very late in the afternoon.”

While this amount of work for a college-credit internship seems excessive, Gilbert believes it to be a part of the process.

“It was worth it,” Gilbert stated simply. “New York City gets so many students with big dreams who come each summer. Some make it and some do not. It’s all a part of the process in my opinion.”

A priceless opportunity

Shaw and Gilbert agreed on two things about unpaid internships: Living unpaid in a city with such a high cost of living is damaging to a college student’s bank account, but it is worth it.

“It was hard living in such an expensive city and not having an income,” Shaw revealed. “However, it was an unbelievable experience. I had very fair workloads and normal work hours.”

Gilbert also noted, “Living in New York as an unpaid intern can be summed up into one word: expensive. I worked with girls who had been interning for Marie Claire for almost a year, and I was baffled that they spent so much time and hard work for almost a year’s worth of work unpaid.”

The experience and connections made in internships are precious to a job seeker. Many students, like Gilbert and Shaw, make unbelievable connections that they would otherwise not have.

“I worked with some of the most talented editors and creative directors in the fashion industry,” Gilbert said. “I met many designers and PR professionals. Those connections and contacts will be extremely helpful in the future.”

However great the experience, is it really fair to work that hard without monetary compensation . . . especially when the students contribute significantly as workers?

A price worth paying

A paid internship is a win-win for both parties. Not only do interns receive compensation and respect as regular employees, but they also bring excitement and energy to the office.

“The passion and drive we see in these students and recent graduates really inspire us,” Hagler revealed. “It reminds us why we got into the business in the first place. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun.”

Hagler describes the internship programs at FKM Agency to be equivalent to an entry-level employee’s work. The company expects each intern to contribute just as a full-time employee would, and offering compensation encourages professionalism.

“We’re making a commitment to offer our interns great experiences,” Hagler affirmed. “They’re making a commitment to show up on time and give their best.”


  1. Post comment

    Good piece, Lexi! This article caught my attention because I am in the same position as these future graduates striving to give themselves a visible edge with internship experience. I completely agree that for many of these internships, the benefits exceed most costs put into it. I agree that most out-of-state and unpaid internships end up being “a price worth paying.” Although it may be worth it in the long run, I think it is completely unfair. Kids are taught since they first start school that school and grades are a main priority. This is drilled into students’ heads for so long. Then they are told that overall grades do not matter and work experience is the deciding factor on whether or not one gets hired. School still remains my main priority and continues to take up the majority of my time in college. I financially cannot afford to take an unpaid internship in a big city. My parents simply will not allow it. It is worth it for those students who can afford to work these internships because they get the competitive edge over students like me. I feel that I am just as credible as anyone else for a future career in public relations. I hope to not experience bias when applying for jobs as a result of this.

  2. Post comment

    Good article, Lexi. I agree with your opinion of internships and how they help graduating students. A quality internship completed by a student can make a resume stand out to a company when hiring new employees. Students these days must go above and beyond what was once expected as the norm. Now, if students are offered an internship, they willingly give up their summers to work in their choice of industry. I believe students should always be compensated for their internships. The work that is required of interns is as hard as that required of entry-level employees, so interns should be paid. While some people accept internships for class credit, I do not believe that should be an option for students. Students should get the experience of working full time while interning, including the rewarding feeling of receiving a paycheck for all the hard work put in. Internships are not only a great way for students to improve their resumes, but also a great experience overall in learning how the real world works.


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