In my opinion interns and work experience students should and must be paid. I started out as student on the PR degree in Leeds many years ago and I got work experience from year one with several agencies. The first couple of internships I wasn’t paid anything but on my third placement the agency in question decided to offer me a small fee for getting off my backside and turning up to work each week, which if I am honest really helped as I was pretty skint.

There is a huge worry in the PR industry at the moment that undergraduates are regularly being exploited and not being paid for helping out while on work experience. I have no doubt that there are some unscrupulous organisations that will ask people to do internships for weeks on end, but surely they must be in the minority in 2018? Although that said I have to admit I have had students apply for jobs at our place that have done a three-month unpaid internship and that really makes me sad. They have tended to be journalism students though taking placements in the mainstream media. Students shouldn’t have to work for prolonged periods for free – it’s just not fair.

Working in public relations is all about creativity, professionalism but most of all it’s about real experience and that is what we need to give them. They need to be given the opportunity to gain that experience and they should be paid if they put the extra time in.

The CIPR produced a CIPR and Internship Toolkit back in 2014 that explains how to handle internships and the current CIPR’s policy is that students need to be paid the minimum wage after 20 days of employment irrespective of what year of study they are in.

For me this is far too long, nobody wants students to be working weeks on end for nothing – that simply isn’t right, they have bills to pay as well. Students need to be rewarded for putting the extra time in. Also what kind of commitment, or view of the industry, do they get if their first experience they have is to work for weeks on end for nothing – it’s just wrong. They will just end up being forced to work at Starbucks and getting their wages there and that’s not really helping their careers in PR.

So to combat this my former University Leeds Beckett University has done something very amicable. A team has got together and launched the Fair Deal For Interns scheme to ask agencies and in-house teams in Leeds to sign up and offer to pay interns sooner than the 20 days. The team have come up with three clear levels: bronze, silver and gold.

  • Bronze confirms that an employer is happy to pay interns after 21 days of continued working
  • Silver is on the first day of working at minimum wage
  • Gold is the first day with the national living wage.

The PRCA has also published its own guidelines which can be downloaded here – it has a strict policy of payment from day one of employment.

I completely agree, we need a structure in place and this is a great start from the team at Leeds Beckett. Good students should be paid if they work a suitable amount of time, especially if they have been adding real value and helping. However, although this scheme is a great starting point, I still feel we need a middle ground and I will explain why.

Most students are professional and committed and will undertake work experience off their own backs because they want to work in this exciting and competitive industry. However, some are a little lazier and do it to simply tick a box and stick it on their CV. I have been running Prohibition almost seven years and we have seen some great students and sadly some pretty terrible ones. We have had some students that have worked one day and never come back but then put two weeks on their work history. We have had students that have simply not turned up, some that have sat on their phones and others that have simply not been good enough to do a simple task despite having an amazing CV and good qualifications.

Now, all this said, I am a big believer in investing in the future of the industry and students are our lifeblood, and the pool of students from the local PR degree is sadly getting smaller. This is one of the reasons I lectured on the PR degree myself – I wanted to keep working with them and helping them see what we (people in the business world) need as employers. We want to see a commitment, an intelligence, and most of all a good attitude and strong work ethic.

So my feelings are this, let’s reduce the 20 days the CIPR has as that is too long. But don’t make it mandatory to pay every single student from day one just yet. If we do this we are forcing the smaller employers to interview much better and be far more selective. This is going to cost time and of course money. If you are a larger agency then sure you will have time to do this as you may have a full-time recruitment person. However, if a business has a much smaller team then this could start causing a number of resource problems. Also if employers become much more selective, it is more than likely they will choose the candidates with better experience, or alternatives from other universities, and we certainly don’t want that. We want them to get the opportunities in the workplace.

We have been using this model for the last five years at Prohibition – we invite someone in after a successful interview. If they perform in the initial two weeks, we usually (work permitting) offer to extend their two-week trial by paying them a day rate. Beyond that we have hired more than 12 students which have gone on to become either part-time, full-time or freelancers for us. I have a few in my team today.

So in other words if the student proves keen, useful, shows initiative and adds real value then pay them beyond ten working days or just a week – pay them what you want. Even hire them on a part-time basis if that’s what you wish. Students do need paying (or at the very least their expenses) but they also really need the experience – let’s not price them out of getting what they need the most – an edge in getting that very first job in public relations.

So well done to Leeds Beckett for this scheme and let’s all commit to paying our students what they deserve.

About Chris Norton

Chris Norton is the founder of Prohibition and an award winning communications consultant with more than twenty years’ experience. He was a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and has had a varied PR career having worked both in-house and in a number of large consultancies. He is an Integrated PR and social media blogger and writes on a wide variety of blogs across a huge amount of topics from digital marketing, social media marketing right through to technology and crisis management.