An unpaid internship, what is it? What does it serve to achieve? Ostensibly one would assume it is to help people with no experience gain experience. As it is practiced here in Ireland in our constantly evolving and developing PR industry I think what an internship actually is is a chance to exploit cheap labour and exploit the naïveté and hunger of young graduates.
Recently, having finished the taught part of my post graduate course I am now in that limbo between the taught section and the thesis submission deadline of my Masters. I was “lucky” enough to secure an “internship”. I was asked to do it for three months with the possibility of a job at the end of it. The remuneration would not even cover the cost of the LUAS back and forth from the job. I would learn “invaluable skills” and get “hands on” experience. This was not the crux of the internship offer though. I was assured that this three month trial period was not just to see if I was suited to the organisation but more importantly if the organisation was suited to me. What type of industry are we in that a company will offer someone the opportunity to work pro gratis to see if the organisation is suited to the individual? Can you imagine if McDonalds applied this formula? “Well done! You are now a member of the McDonalds team but first we would like you to work for free for three months just to make sure that the organisation is suited to you?”
How has this situation come to pass? All year we have had people of power from the industry come talk to us and telling us how we would have to cut our teeth by working for free. I always wanted to ask the question, “How long did you work for free yourself?” I never asked the question because I knew the answer. “Never”. Those in the positions of power assume that we, the Celtic Cubs, don’t know what real work is. We have lived the good life through the boom and, “sure a bit of hard work will do them good!” The fact of the matter remains that during the last recession no one was working for free. Those not getting paid were gone.
Those of a different viewpoint and ilk to me will point to a few carefully chosen examples of how they did this here, worked for peanuts there et cetera et cetera. What remains is that at no time have so many been asked to work for so little. Many of those in my Masters class are working for free. The consensus is the same. In an industry so concerned and reliant on image, one buzzword has emerged in recent times, that buzzword? Ethics.
Where does ethics fit in when certain people I know are being asked to work for up to six months with the false hope of a job at the end of it. We’d rather not listen to the condescending self righteous Obama-ism that there is nothing false about hope. Obama can get away with it, but a self important PR exec eschewing this does not work. You would think working for free would lead to a well paid position. In fact it does lead to a well paid position, that is if you think €20,000 a year is well paid for 50 hour weeks. Who do those offering these “internships” think will pay the rent? Sadly, they know who. Mommy and Daddy. Is it ethical to expect the Bank of Mommy and Daddy to support our “internship” after having paid for four five maybe six years of higher education. How ethical is that?
Those in industry often whine and lecture about how PR is not taken seriously, but how can they expect others to tale our industry seriously when we don’t take our own industry seriously. At this stage the practice is forcing candidates to seek employment in other areas and losing candidates of calibre to other industries and emigration. This will have a knock on effect for the future that will not be reliant on quality but a future reliant on exploitation for PR here in Ireland. Out of a combination of principle and necessity I have turned down the internships I was offered and continue to be offered. I am not alone in this case. Many I know are returning to summer jobs, returning to live with their families and even returning to their homelands across Europe. If the old adage states, “pay peanuts, get monkeys” is true what do you get if you don’t even pay?
We are free to work we should not work for free.