I was lucky enough to get two paid internships while in college. Even then (I won’t tell you how long ago that was), in PR, landing a paid internship was almost like catching a unicorn — a mythical experience. I looked for many months, nearly giving up. I was told by many students, professors, and professionals that I should settle for an unpaid internship. Then I found one making $5 an hour for 15 hours a week (my first), followed the next year by one making $10 an hour for 32 hours a week (my second).
I was very very lucky.
The truth is that if I hadn’t found paid internships I wouldn’t have been able to take an internship at all. I worked my way through college. I earned money for bills, tuition, and living expenses. Even that semester when I had the 15-hour a week internship, I also had two other part-time jobs. Working for free, even with the possibility of long-term benefits to my future career, just wasn’t an option.
And my internships were exceptional learning opportunities. I learned more about public relations in those two internships than I had in my classes. I made connections with people in my industry that helped me a lot. And both my “bosses” from those internships later paved the way for me to get in the door for after-college jobs.
I was very very lucky.
I don’t approve of hiring interns without paying them. I know that at some point in my future I am going to have to do that. I admit that I have had unpaid interns in the past. But I am honest that I don’t like it. It feels wrong. Many interns are doing associate-level work and should be compensated. Many interns simply need the paycheck. I believe that interns should be paid, and held up to the standards of a paid employee.
I don’t approve of hiring interns and then not teaching them anything. I was ready for a job in public relations when I graduated college in large part because of the internships I took. My bosses forced me to step outside my comfort zone, gave me assignments and feedback to improve my skills or use them in new ways, and often took the time to explain to me why I needed to make changes and how the changes made the assignment better. I did plenty of grunt work. I didn’t always enjoy the markups on my writing, having to redesign flyers and other items, or simply being told that I was wrong. But I learned… a lot. And I produced a lot of good work while there (at least I think so).
I’ve been having conversations with college students, undergraduate and graduate, about the challenges with internships these days. I am told that there aren’t any paid internships. I am told that internships aren’t really a learning opportunity. I am told that there isn’t a clear path from an internship to a career. I am told that “bosses” aren’t doing more than spending the internship assigning them low-level grunt work, not things that they can use in a portfolio later, then just cutting all ties when the internship is over.
I hope things aren’t so bleak out there. I hope these conversations aren’t representative of the industry as a whole.
And I think, just maybe, I need to revive my internship position… even if I can’t pay them… even if it feels wrong.