One very pleasing trend in recent years has been a significant shift away from unpaid
internships towards actually rewarding interns for their time. The benefits of this are varied, one of the main ones being that paid internships stop career-starts being the preserve of those who can afford to work for nothing. It’s breaking down privilege and putting jobs within reach of those with passion and interest, not just a rich Uncle.
With the global economy in trouble, vacancies in the UK jobs market peaking earlier this year, and one in five employees expecting to change jobs this year too, it’s a real period of change for the UK workforce. The last economic downturn brought about a skills shortage in PR, partly caused by a lack of entry level hiring and paid internships being made available by many agencies. When times are tough, it’s an easy thing to sacrifice.
In the US for example, there are already 1 million unpaid internships according to recent
research, and that figure could rise through tough times. We mustn’t allow our cultural and
professional ‘democratising’ to disappear. At their best, internships can be the way in for long- term, loyal employees. Those who are well looked after and trained with care won’t want to leave a good thing. So the benefits are clear.
Yet, there are hurdles ahead. Internships are nearly always handled by internal teams, it’s
incredibly rare for a recruiter to get involved in the process. Some agencies still don’t really
know how to go about the process of running successful internship programmes, and even
though as a recruiter there’s no benefit in me saying this(!), it’s a huge waste.
Think back just a few years and the average internship - certainly for people of my generation - was mostly about getting the coffee and being a ‘body’ in case anything needed doing or getting. For consumer PRs, it was doing product drops to journalists, literally often galloping around a city with the company credit card in taxis to make sure journalists had whatever it was the client was selling. Even in B2B the amount of time interns used to waste on fools errands and wild goose chases would make some other sectors wince.
It was a symptom of the unpaid internship age. Wasted time isn’t really an issue when it costs you nothing. It’s something Gen Z and even younger millennials simply won’t tolerate. And what older generations may view as a sense of entitlement is actually more just people valuing their own time and ability to learn. They will simply walk away these days from environments and roles that waste their time. So HR be warned!
The good news is that the rise and rise of the gig economy and apps like Uber and Deliveroo
are making delivering things and getting coffee cheaper to do, so less likely to be farmed out to an intern, paid or otherwise. I mean, even the rise of the Nespresso machine has likely meant interns are spending less time being sent to Pret.
It’s a great victory for enabling internships to become meaningful learning experiences, cutting out the bullshit. Yet there’s still a risk that internships will be mostly spent staring over someone’s shoulder. That sort of lazy intern programme planning doesn’t give interns a sense of the career, or a push in the right direction. It doesn’t empower their CV or next interview properly with PR tasks they’ve done and key lessons they’ve learned.
Employers need to approach it that while internship programmes can absorb a tonne of time, with the right planning, you can whitelabel it as a rinse and repeat experience that fast tracks talent to real accomplishments for your business. Assign learning and useful beginner tasks, explain how to do things properly, set proper deadlines and timeframes and see what comes out.
Of course there’s the chance that some interns will sink, but there’s also the real possibility that the average intern who comes through the business will swim. Ultimately, internships are a brilliant possibility to practice what you preach in teams of your employer brand. Those who don’t move onto full time roles at your business will nonetheless sing your praises to the wider industry. And who knows where they may end up. They become PR champions for your firm when all you had to do was treat them with respect, and teach them with care.
The external value is huge. These people might come back as experienced professionals in
future years. They may move into future clients. They may build a career with you and grow
your business. Of course, as with many things there are many selfish reasons to do a thing (in this case run effective intern programmes). But the main reason to do it, is that it’s the right thing to do. Not
just for your business, but for the entire industry. And beyond.