Image via DeptfordJohn (Flickr)

Image via DeptfordJohn (Flickr)

This post has been a long time coming. As someone not from a traditional media/communications/marketing/PR background, one of the things that has puzzled me for years is the way that the industry is built on interns. And I don’t mean junior staff paid minimum wage — I mean unpaid interns, or those paid a measly ‘per diem’ of $20 per day (far below minimum wage of ~$20 per hour for a casual).

Why does it happen? There seems to be an attitude that to learn and to get ‘industry experience’, you have to be unpaid. And that without a string of unpaid short-term “internships”, you won’t get a grad job.

But the sad thing is that the real losers here are the clients. I’ve quite honestly heard stories of clients being billed for a ‘junior staff member’ ($65 per hour), who is actually an unpaid intern ($0 per hour – an impressive margin of $65 per hour). Client-facing work is a really important part of how a junior staff member learns the ropes — understanding interactions between the client and agency/consultant, how to manage a client meeting (both good and bad) and being able to learn to put on that ‘professional face’ that can’t be taught in a tutorial.

And sadly working in digital, it’s epidemic. A quick look at a job board will find you tons of unpaid internships – particularly for marketing and “social media internships”. ¬†And yes, it’s both agencies and clients themselves. Having unpaid interns has backfired rather majestically on some organisations as well — sometimes it’s not a great idea to have an unpaid observer be around for a week or so.

So the other day I saw a social media post from a social media agency/consultancy advertising they were looking for PR/marketing interns, and that while they won’t be paid “we’ll teach you everything we know about digital”. And it made me really disappointed.

One of the frustrating things about working in social media is the prevalent mindset that one can be an ‘expert’ with little to no knowledge, or that a young person with 800 Facebook friends is therefore able to competently manage a brand’s Facebook Page (…of any size). Because it’s not the case. There are nuances to this sector, there is extensive existing knowledge and research that should be applied, and ultimately agencies encouraging the idea that they can use interns to do their work undermines the ability for that agency to demand a premium price for its expertise.

I’m not saying that there is no role for young, junior staff members at a company or agency. Not at all – we all have to start somewhere. And universities can’t teach you much of what you really need to know to succeed in this industry. But we need to be honest and open about them — to ourselves, and to our clients. If they are providing value to you (whether admin work, actual implementation work, research — you name it), you should be paying them. Technology startups often use the concept of ‘sweat equity’, which I have no issue with. Is your agency / consultancy / company too small to be able to pay someone? Pay them in equity.

If you don’t pay them, you’re suggesting they have nothing to offer you, and that your act of taking them on is some kind of charity. And if they have nothing to offer you, why are you bringing them in anyway?

Note that there is a range of industry placement programs associated with universities where students have to complete a placement (internship / work experience) as part of a subject or unit, which often require the firms not to pay the students placed there. This is quite a different scenario, because you are helping them complete their coursework, and it is a subject that they have selected to complete. ¬†However often these programs are one to two weeks of work, or one day per week of observation for 1-2 months. They are rarely “full time for minimum 3 months” (how someone can afford to do this unpaid I’m uncertain..), or even more. Having someone shadow your staff is very different to having an intern “manage social media for our amazing clients” or similar. There’s some great guidance from the Public Relations Institute of Australia about this, as well as noting that it’s actually not legal (under Fair Work Act requirements) to use unpaid interns who are not doing it as part of an academic subject.

Perhaps a significant caveat here is for not-for-profits. There are many NFPs who don’t have the budgets to pay someone to do this kind of work, and I’m unsure about whether I think it’s acceptable for them to have unpaid staff doing ‘professional work’. Perhaps there is a role for a facilitated university placement program that places students into NFPs and lets them learn ‘real world’ experience, rather than doing the same in a commercial/corporate company. I’ll have to consider that one further.

When we started this company, we decided we wouldn’t do it. We weren’t going to become a sweatshop of interns. While that would’ve probably given us higher revenues and profits — it seemed (and still does) totally unethical, both to us and our clients. When we bring on junior staff (for a short time, or a long time) we pay them, because they provide value to us or our clients. That means I’m constrained to a small number of junior staff that we don’t absolutely require — which I’m fine with. Means I have to get my own coffee, but I’ll survive.

For example, as part of our upcoming UPVOTE magazine, we’ve brought on a junior staff member/journalist (mentored by the wonderful Elmo Keep) to manage content and some editorial. It’s a fantastic opportunity for someone wanting to move into journalism. And they are of course paid. To manage content and editorial for a free publication — their salary isn’t offset by any subscriptions or advertising. But they’re providing a huge benefit to us, and to get the quality that we want the magazine to have, we need to pay for those running it — to get the best out of them.

I really hope that more consultancies, agencies and clients can see the benefit of paying someone to do junior work, rather than leeching off the industry attitude that it’s the “done thing” to do unpaid internships. Not only does it mean you recruit the better, more motivated, dedicated staff for your team — but you can be confident that they will work hard, dedicate themselves to the job, and (hopefully) learn in the process.

Let’s start being more ethical and demonstrate how much we actually value our staff — both senior and junior.