Free Labor or Priceless Experience

businesswoman stands with a copieerapparaatInternships are a vital part to any student’s college experience, especially a communications student. What we can learn in college classes is limited.  Don’t get me wrong my professors had successful careers in the PR world ranging from an FBI Public Information Officer to a senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard. They blended their classes with information from the books and anecdotes from real life experiences. But in my opinion, to really learn the most about PR, students need to really experience it through internships.

We’ve seen a lot of talk recently about paid vs. unpaid regarding internships. Jenna Oltersdorf started a conversation asking if unpaid internships are fair. In addition to being fair I think they’re more beneficial to the intern. The company doesn’t feel like they need to have you working every minute to get their money’s worth. Sure there will be down times and clerical work to be done but it’s less. I had two unpaid internships. My first internship was with Dockers. I was 18, completed my first year of school and had no idea what to expect. Honestly there were times where I was so bored I had to find anything to keep me busy. Even if it that meant re-folding items in the show closet that I just organized the day before.

My job was to make the PR team’s job easier. My responsibilities ranged from packing up samples for magazine editors to organizing the showroom. I didn’t care. Because I was so eager to learn about the profession the team would let me sit in on C-level meetings or a walk through with magazine editors showcasing a new line. That’s where I learned the most. This internship reinforced my love for PR and expanded my network.

My second internship was for Planned TV Arts, a division of Ruder Finn, (PTA) where I am also currently employed. I was an assistant to the publicity team. I wrote pitches, press releases, fact sheets, suggested questions, etc. After about a week I pitched radio producers and booked over a hundred radio interviews for their signature service: Morning Drive Radio Tours. I sat in on manager meetings and was treated like an employee. I considered it a job and the company noticed. I still had to run errands, put together mailings but overall I learned a lot more than any classroom ever taught me. This internship started my portfolio, expanded my network further, and gave me real experience at what media professionals want to know.

IMO an unpaid internship is fair because if you put in 100% the experience you will get from it is priceless. Internships should do two things: 1. teach you more about the career you’d like to pursue and 2. Increase your network. I received my current position because I always kept in touch with my mentor. When I was laid off I reached out to my network and they were the first ones to help.

After thinking about this some more I turned to PRBC to garner their thoughts and Keith’s answer made me think (as usual). He believes, “Unpaid internships, in my opinion, are not always as great as the opportunity seems. The reason being is that working unpaid does not guarantee you anything in the job market, whereas an unpaid apprenticeship, say in the milliner business (that’s hat making, my friends) would guarantee you some type of life-long job because that’s exactly what an apprenticeship is: a way to train someone for an entire career. But internships don’t aim to train you for a career, at least most don’t. They aim to do one thing: Get work done for free and/or relatively cheap for a company. Yes, you get some great experience out of an unpaid internship, but at the end of the day, the company that offers you that internship is not trying to train you for a successful career; they are trying to get you to do the work no one else wants to and/or has the time to do for extremely cheap. That’s not a good value, IMO.”

I understand Keith’s point but I respectfully disagree. Are internships free labor? Yes. But in my experience these internships prepared me for the real world. Because I considered my internship with PTA like a job they were more than eager to interview me when a spot opened within the company. An internship is what you make it whether paid or unpaid.

What do you think? Do you think unpaid internships are fair? I would love to hear about your experiences too.

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