TUESDAY 6 NOV 2012 3:12 AM


Unpaid internships have become an endemic problem for the comms industry and beyond. Molly Pierce asks if apprenticeships are a solution

"Non-payment of the national minimum wage is not an option”: Michelle Wyer, president of the Association of Revenue and Customs, representing senior managers and professionals in HMRC – rebuking industries which don’t pay their interns.

“I think that’s perfectly reasonable”: David Gauke, MP, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury with ministerial oversight of HMRC – on advertising a six-month unpaid internship.

Internships have become, simultaneously, a minefield and a flagpole for British industries. It’s an endemic issue, without being wholly negative: paid internships offer young people a chance to experience an industry and do work of value. However, not all internships are created equal.

In 2008, Gawker received a leaked copy of the New York Sun’s Guidelines for Interns. At the head of a three-page document, the Guidelines state “All aspects of the official Employee Handbook also apply to interns at the Sun, excepting areas relating to compensation. Internships [are] educational in nature and are not compensated.”

“Internships will be terminated for any intern who, between 6pm and the end of the press run, fails to answer a call to his or her mobile phone for more than 30 minutes. It is therefore recommended that subway journeys of more than 30 minutes be avoided”

The document went on to state that “Internships will be terminated for any intern who, between 6pm and the end of the press run, fails to answer a call to his or her mobile phone for more than 30 minutes. It is therefore recommended that subway journeys of more than 30 minutes be avoided.” It also warned that any intern who had the temerity to ask about a byline would find be “terminated”. Hardly designed to make interns feel valued.

The CIPR’s Internship Toolkit provides guidance to PR professionals for taking on interns, and also functions as a handy way for interns to check that they’re not being taken advantage of by their employers. As well as providing a glossary of suggested definitions, the Toolkit advocates that interns should be managed in the same way as full-time members of staff; that they should have full and equal access to learning and development opportunities; and that employers should ensure their work placements are open to the widest pool of talent available.

This last issue is particularly pertinent, as internships can contribute to reducing accessibility to paid working positions in the PR industry. A survey carried out in June this year by the PRCA and Intern Aware (a campaign for fair, paid internships) revealed that over 70% of PR internships are unpaid. Over half the respondents had needed to do more than one internship, and the survey also reflected a worrying lack of diversity: 75% of the respondents were female, and 75% were White British. 61% of internships took place in the capital. Most internships (77%) had not led to full time employment in the same organisation, though 80% had remained in the industry.

The homogeneity of the demographic undertaking PR internships, still an excellent route into work, has worrying implications for the future of the industry. Another PRCA survey found that of 61,000 PR professionals, just 8% (4,880) were from minority backgrounds. The Taylor Bennett Foundation was set up to counter this problem: it continues the work Taylor Bennett has been doing since 2008 on delivering a 10 week communications and training programme for BME graduates, providing them with industry relevant work experience.

Graduates of the programme have gone on to work in a multitude of organisations, both in-house and agency, and the foundation has been recognised in the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Awards and the Race For Opportunity Awards. It also provides graduates with the opportunity to focus on a particular area of comms, by teaming up with different agencies for each intake and dividing the courses between corporate, consumer, digital and financial.

Attracting a more diverse range of interns can be tricky without the help of a specific programme. The social change comms agency Forster has found this recently as its attempts to attract an older intern proved fruitless. “We thought that someone looking for a change of career might be interested in interning,” said Jo Foy, head of HR. Forster works on several campaigns with multiple clients that focus on reframing the value of older people in society and looking at issues that affect them. "It’s not just the extreme issues, e.g. around care, but also the smaller things: people might be approaching retirement but with a massive breadth of skills that shouldn’t go to waste.”

However, those who responded to the call didn’t fit the bill. “There wasn’t really a strong response, which I suppose is expected because it’s quite a narrow audience,” says Foy. “Those who responded seemed to have a lot of experience and we felt it would be unfair to take it on. We’re definitely still open to it though.”

The question of pay for internships is also divisive. There is no legal definition of an intern, and therefore no stipulation to pay them. However, if an intern can be classified as a ‘worker’, i.e. if they undertake work that other employees are paid to do, they are entitled to be paid for their services at national minimum wage (at least). Yet not only do tens of thousands of interns across Europe and the USA receive no compensation for their work, functioning as “a permanent low-cost workforce” in Ross Perlin’s phrase (his 2011 book Intern Nation exposed global practices of not paying workers and a network based on connections), but also a culture of paying for top-level internships has emerged. A fundraiser for the Conservative party in 2011 auctioned off internships with City firms to attendees (or rather, presumably, for the offspring of attendees), while a company called Etsio charges candidates between £50 and £140 a day to intern with ‘the country’s top small businesses’.

Is there an alternative to internships? Following an October 2011 campaign by the PRCA to get agencies to pledge to pay interns at NMW, the association has collaborated with Pearson in Practice (education and training providers) to launch the first ever national PR Higher Apprenticeship qualification. The scheme is aimed at non-graduates and will result in a qualification equivalent to a foundation degree; it provides hands-on experience as well as training, and could come to be a viable alternative to the rounds of interning.

In part prompted by the introduction of tuition fees, increasing the bar to higher education, the scheme won government funding to the tune of £1.2 million over two years. Over 40 agencies had signed up by June 2012, and following the launch in September the first intake of apprentices organised an event at Pearson in Practice’s headquarters in London.

Speaking to the students and the employers, the enthusiasm on both sides about embarking on a year’s worth of training, teaching and experience was palpable: the apprentices seemed to relish the responsibility of being the scheme’s trailblazers. Pearson anticipates that over 600 PR Apprenticeships will be created over the next three years – here’s hoping that that excitement will be sustained.