While cleaning out an old file cabinet recently, I surprisingly came across a long-forgotten pay stub from my first internship. I was paid a whopping $4.50 an hour, but that was 40 years ago when my college tuition was less than $1,000 a semester. Back then, internship duties consisted primarily of errands, clipping newspapers and an occasional low-risk assignment. That’s not the case today.
Now, most interns are expected to hit the ground running and immediately become billable. Most agencies quickly assign billable work to interns and charge clients for their services. Granted, intern billing rates are lower than full-time staff, but rates charged clients sometimes range as high as $50 to $90 an hour. In such cases, a $10-an-hour salary-to-billing ratio is too low. Even when they’re not working on billable assignments, interns generally perform tasks that otherwise would be done by full-time staff. Meanwhile, tuition outpaces inflation, and the time frame for paying off college debts is being extended several years beyond what previous generations faced. Unfortunately, intern salaries have remained relatively flat for the past decade. In addition, increasing numbers of organizations are pursuing unpaid interns in exchange for the all-important resume credential.
So why do intern salaries remain so low? With 53,000 PR undergraduates in college currently, the simple answer is the glut of great young talent. The going rate for most PR internships in the U.S. is $10 to $12 an hour, while a few generous firms have bumped up intern pay to $15 or more.
Unfortunately, too many internships remain unpaid. While a closely monitored unpaid internship tied to academic curricula can be an important component of the educational experience, for-profit organizations hiring unpaid interns to do work that would otherwise be performed by paid staff is both unethical and illegal. In the UK, a group called Intern Aware has asked the government to investigate 10 unnamed small- to mid-size agencies for exploitation of unpaid interns.
In response to the Intern Aware report, PRSA Chair and CEO Mickey G. Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA, weighed in on behalf of the industry with the following statement: “The public relations profession, especially those firms that use interns, must continue to advocate on behalf of proper compensation for interns, and build upon its successes thus far in changing attitudes and behaviors in this regard. At a time of soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and dimming job prospects for college graduations, it’s the right and ethical thing to do.”
Aware of the ethical and legal issues involving interns, most agencies adhere to the intern standards described in the PRSA guidelines. Organizations should review these guidelines before launching or expanding internship programs. PRSA’s Nall said, “The guidelines reflect our belief that it’s ethically improper to employ anyone who adds real value to a public relations agency or department without compensating them for their work – whether that compensation is monetary or in the form of educational credits.”
Top students graduating from college today are smarter and better trained than ever, and most immediately start contributing to a firm’s bottom line. It’s entirely appropriate for the PR profession to take the lead in reassessing appropriate compensation levels for this talent.