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The Dilemma of Unpaid Internships

Posted on February 10, 2016, at 4:15 p.m.
by Lindsey Young.

In 2015 the unemployment rate for college graduates was 7.2 percent, while the underemployment rate was 14.9 percent. With threats of unemployment and student loans constantly haunting new graduates, many are trying to find new ways to stand out in the job application process.

Because the public relations field is so competitive today, public relations students seek internships during their collegiate careers, so their résumés stand out post-graduation. Unfortunately, many of the PR internships are unpaid. According to a 2010 study done by Lee Becker, a professor of journalism at The University of Georgia, only 34 percent of internships were paid. Unpaid internships offer up an often-debated ethical and legal issue. Is it ethical or legal to not pay students who provide client-ready work?

Unpaid internshipsAccording to federal law, every employee in America is entitled to minimum wage. While this may be true, many companies still offer unpaid internships under the pretense of gaining experience or earning class credit.

After the court case, Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., the Supreme Court decided that employees can be unpaid if they work for their personal advantage rather than that of their employers. Such a person would be considered a trainee instead of an employee. Therefore, the employer should gain no immediate advantage from the work of the intern.

The legal issue is only half of the problem. In 2011, the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) board of ethics and professional standards updated its professional standards advisory to include the ethical use of unpaid interns by public relations firms, businesses and other organizations. While the PRSA board of ethics does not necessarily agree with unpaid internships, it has added guidelines describing when an unpaid internship may be ethical.

Many companies may see these guidelines as impossible standards. One guideline states that all internships must be paid if billable work is accomplished. This insinuates that if a student is producing any work that is not for the sole purpose of education, then the intern must be paid.

As a public relations student, it can sometimes be difficult to acknowledge unethical practices, especially when future employers are the ones committing the acts. Many students feel that the educational benefits of an internship outweigh the need for monetary compensation, but some of them forget to think about whether it is wrong or right. Students need to consider whether the experience mirrors an educational one. So, next time you think about taking an unpaid internship, determine whether the internship is benefiting you as much as your work will benefit the company.

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