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 USnews.com, 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.
One 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.”
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.”