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Unpaid Internships: Where Do We Draw The Line?

Portrait of a female executiveMost people in college looking for an internship know that these positions are hard to secure and even harder when seeking a payment. I think that having the experience of an internship is something that cannot be overshadowed by a small stipend, though, and also think that interns should be rewarded for their work in others ways if not receiving pay. Personally, I would accept an unpaid internship, but it remains a fact that some companies may still abuse their ability to take for granted the free help that they are receiving. If an intern is performing tasks on the job that have no educational value, and are also not receiving pay, then something is not right.

A recent article on businessweek.com caught my attention. The headline read “Unpaid Intern Is Ruled Not an ‘Employee,’ Not Protected From Sexual Harassment.” Apparently, in some cases, if an intern is unpaid and does not receive remuneration, he or she is not always entitled to the same protection as company employees. This alarmed me and I got to thinking about many other experiences that I had heard about from my friends that fulfilled unpaid internships. Many unpaid interns are forced to run tedious errands and to do work that is of absolutely no value to the company or the intern’s experience. I started to think about what the boundaries between educational value and menial tasks are and if having an unpaid internship is worth crossing them.

If, in the future, I am offered an unpaid internship at a company that I think would give me a fabulous experience, I will take it. However, how will I know who would give me valuable work and who would treat me as nothing more than an assistant? Because unpaid internships are a lot easier to come by than paid ones, and a student must take advantage of any opportunity, sometimes accepting an internship that is not paid is the best route to take. If you learn lessons from an internship that hold valuable information that can be used in your job search, then that weighs out the fact that the position is unpaid. However, when an intern is only working for a company to run errands for his or her boss, or is not considered an employee, that is when I think lines have been crossed.

Although paid internships may be difficult to find, interns must realize their worth when applying to different companies. In order to get an internship in the first place, applicants must be able to stand out in the hiring process and therefore must be exceptional in many ways. If somebody is an impressive student and possesses qualities that set them apart from the rest of the pool, then he or she needs to realize that being somebody’s assistant for absolutely no money at all is not worth the hassle of fighting for such a job. I do not think that companies should be able to take advantage of interns, and although I would absolutely take an unpaid internship, I do think that a student should at least earn college credit or some kind of stipend—rules that are being enforced by many companies as a result of complaints. Just because you are working for an important brand or big company doesn’t mean you should be taken advantage of. So make sure to keep this and all other points mentioned in mind when hunting down your next internship.

Breaking The Vicious Cycle

1837111006_1378758850There are few things public relations companies value more than experience. In a field so heavily based on hands-on practice, and previous job and internship experiences, you might find yourself struggling to land that first position without prior industry involvement. This vicious cycle can be broken, though, much more simply than you think.

As a college student, you’re likely exposed to various unconventional public relations opportunities that you might not even be aware of. In addition to joining nationally renowned PR-specific clubs – such as PRSSA – become involved with on-campus clubs pertaining to extracurricular activities that interest you – if they have a public relations team, even better!  They don’t have a PR team? Start one by creating something as simple as a Twitter or Facebook account for the club, where you can post meeting times and upcoming activities, or other relevant content. Engage with and gain followers with interactive posts.

Perhaps you have a hobby that doesn’t have a club; take advantage of that. Start a WordPress or Tumblr, and post content consistently. Link it to your other social media, and have your friends share your insight. Creating a unique blog does not necessarily secure you a job, but it could distinguish you from a competitor. Additionally, having a respectable online presence would be beneficial.

Another way to become involved is reaching out to companies to see if they have campus brand ambassadors. Oftentimes, larger companies will have tools and materials they use for promotional purposes. Simply passing these things out on campus and representing the brand can prove helpful; the company gains a presence on campus while you gain PR experience.

You can stray from campus to get involved, as well. Interested in entertainment or music PR? Various companies, media conglomerates, and record labels offer street team opportunities where you can promote artists, album releases, and concerts in the area. This type of involvement is much more hands-on than other traditional practices, as you’ll be consistently interacting with consumers. Hanging posters, passing out fliers, attending shows with promo materials, and other “missions” are common with street team work. Similar to being a brand ambassador, this involvement is mutually beneficial as well.

These are just a few simple, unique ways to gain experience that will set you apart from other applicants, and hopefully help you break into the field with that first internship.

This Week’s Internships

This Week’s Internships

The New York Intern Project (Content to win full-time position & $1,500 to move to NYC!)

This Week’s Internships