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Solving the intern conundrum

This is personal. 10 years ago, a group of students came to see me in my office to tell me about their struggle gaining valuable skills in the workplace while coping with debt.

They criticised me, a senior lecturer at Leeds Business School, for my blinkered white middle-class male perspective on the world of work. Had I not realised that many of the internships they were being offered were unpaid and that, given they were working to support their studies in bars, shops, restaurants, and even telephone call centres, they could not afford to work on zero pay? 

I was shocked, because when I turned freelance in 1995, after working as a managing director of a PR and communications agency, I was paying students £8 an hour plus travel expenses. That’s 23 years ago.

From that fateful meeting with students I resolved to try and change perceptions on unpaid internships on the campus and with employers.

The PRCA’s independent commission on which I served on broadening access to the PR profession in 2011 made me even more determined to campaign against zero pay internships. Led by John Lehal, Managing director of Insight Consulting Group, the commission’s report “Maximising Opportunities: Broadening Access to the PR Industry” made for uncomfortable reading. One of its findings highlighted the fact that young people were effectively barred from gaining the life skills they needed because of unpaid internships.

There is no escaping the fact that – every year – internships and short-term placements are a huge part of the lives of thousands of students. Around 80% of our students each year are required to complete one as part of their course and many more choose to seek further experience themselves to enhance their skills and prospects. Many universities like ours are in a similar position.

Unfortunately, there are many organisations who exploit students by expecting them to work for nothing or at rates below the national living wage – even when they are doing work that would normally be carried out by paid employees and, if they are agencies, being billed out to clients as employees. 

This approach not only fails to adequately recognise students’ work, but also perpetuates social inequalities when students from lower-income families cannot realistically access an unpaid internship. It impacts too on students from the BAME communities who already feel disadvantaged.

In pursuing this cause, I have suffered verbal and written abuse and even threatened with legal action from executives who continue to exploit students in a shameful way. The worst culprits are those that believe it’s a privilege for students to work for them while paying them nothing or as little as £20 a day in “expenses”. 

This is not acceptable. 

This is why I am proud that finally, after 10 - what seem like interminable - years campaigning on this issue, along with my colleagues from Leeds Beckett Students’ Union (LBSU) we have developed the first graded accreditation system for PR students taking short term work placements and internships in the UK. 

We have been joined in our quest by the PRCA and CIPR and by Ismail Mulla, an alumnus of ours, on The Yorkshire Post and by Mark Casci, business editor of this influential regional daily paper. Professional organisations like the PRCA and CIPR have done much to highlight the unfairness of unpaid work placements and encouraged organisations to show compassion to students by paying them for the work they do.

LBSU will be recognising those employers that do offer a fair deal to students who are undertaking internships and short-term placements, both in terms of fair pay and the provision of a valuable work-based learning experience. 

By signing up to this accreditation scheme, employers will be making a clear statement that they value the contributions of students, ensuring that they can apply for internships and short-term placements with peace of mind, and in turn encouraging other employers to follow suit.

The accreditation scheme – Fair Deal for Interns - includes a learning contract which commits both the student and the organisation to a minimum set of standards. It also provides a host of benefits to employers e.g. unique access to award-winning young talent for their businesses. When our PR students’ work is praised by socially responsible corporates like the iconic IKEA, then we know they are good.

LBSU is inviting employers to sign up now for the scheme here where you will find full details of the scheme along with details of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze levels of accreditation.

We look forward to organisations joining us to highlight the opportunities open to agencies and in-house comms teams of this accreditation scheme in investing in skills and innovation to help boost the PR economy.

As part of this campaign we will be reaching out to students and their parents now e.g. at Open Days and in the new 2018-2019 academic year in September 2018.

In time, the scheme will be rolled out to further disciplines across the Leeds Beckett University campus and other university campuses through the National Union of Students in the UK.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact either myself or John Goodwin, Head of Membership Engagement, LBSU.