For Some, Earning Experience Isn’t Enough

Bridge Global Strategies had the pleasure of working with summer intern Jennifer Mulligan for the past three months, and we’re very sorry to see her go – she starts her senior year at the University of Michigan in a few days. Today, her last day, she wrote a blog post about a topic that’s hotly debated in the PR industry: unpaid internships.  According to a May 5th article in the New York Times, unpaid internships have been standard for a long time in the film and non-profit worlds, but with high unemployment rates, they’re now are very common in public relations, marketing and advertising, fashion, publishing, at art galleries and talent agencies and even at some law firms. Here’s what our own intern thinks about the subject.

Former Fox Media Group interns Alex Footman and Eric Glatt filed a lawsuit against their former employer in October 2011 for violating employee compensation laws; they alleged their internships failed to meet The United States Department of Labor requirements for unpaid internships. While unpaid internships are a common practice, this lawsuit has opened up for debate whether or not this practice is ethical. What about the students who cannot afford to accept unpaid internships because they’re already struggling to pay tuition, or their parents cannot support them financially? Should companies only offer paid internships, or can unpaid internships be beneficial?

Any experience is better than no experience. That is what employers and career counselors have pushed at us college students for years. They tell us completing unpaid internships that give us relevant work experience will help us find full-time positions better than baby-sitting or bussing tables. They tell us this as we watch our student loans grow ominously (but that’s an issue for another time). Some tell us having a well-known company on our resume is better than a smaller one, but these recognizable companies tend neither to pay nor teach as well. We also don’t think we can negotiate a salary with these competitive positions. With the tough economy and more college graduates, we are willing to do anything to set ourselves up for success.

For the record, my internship here is paid; however, I have completed previous unpaid internships. I took previous positions for many of the reasons outlined above, and I am lucky to say that I learned a great deal and rarely did menial work. My paid internship, however, is the best of both worlds for me. Not only am I paid (not a lot, but it’s better than nothing); I am able to apply the concepts I learned from school into the workforce and receive training on PR procedures and programs that I can take with me elsewhere. I feel more a part of a team than a burden as a paid intern. Interning at this small firm has not given my resume name-recognition, but my portfolio has certainly benefitted. My hands are in everything at the firm including drafting press releases, participating in client meetings, pitching media, social media management, creating media lists and more. Plus, I work directly with the CEO daily. I would not have half of these experiences at a larger firm.

 With all this said, I do believe that some experience is better than none. If you can get a paid internship, great! But don’t turn down an unpaid internship if it will benefit you.

Here’s a checklist of things to consider before compensation when choosing an internship:

  • Is the position in your intended field?
  • What skills will you develop?
  • What will your responsibilities include?
  • How often will you have contact with your supervisor and more senior managers?
  • Will this lead to a job offer or career?
  • Will you gain connections or mentors from this opportunity?
  • How does the size of the firm impact your resume?
  • Is it practical for you to commute to this firm?

Jennifer Mulligan

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5 Responses to “For Some, Earning Experience Isn’t Enough”

  1. Stitch Mode Blogger Says:

    Reblogged this on Interns on Strike and commented:
    Wow! This is a great post. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Steven Spenser Says:

    Few organizations will offer paid internships when so many new grads or laid-off PR pros are willing to work for free just to get resume fodder, keep their skills current, and/or gather fresh recommendations.

    With so many people out of work, or looking for their first job, internships are a seller’s market: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

    Unfortunately, if the internship isn’t structured properly, that milk may prove very costly.

    If the intern’s employer derives an immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, the employer might be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning the intern was actually acting as an employee and should have been paid:

    “…[I]f the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.” (

    “If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek. If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA.” (

    And this is the Catch-22 of PR internships: The more an employer permits the intern to do, the greater the likelihood that the intern should receive compensation. IOW, the kind of unpaid internships that offer the best opportunities to learn by doing are the ones most likely to get employers into trouble. The safest internships for employers to offer are structured as job shadowing, but those benefit primarily the intern, not the employer.

    Internships are notorious for allowing little responsibility and permitting few actual duties. That’s why I always advise people new to the PR field to volunteer their services pro bono to nonprofits. The PR tyro will get to do far more in such situations, if only because she negotiates her level of involvement with the organization. Few nonprofits will turn down free help, and the neophyte PR pro will gain more actual experience with the same potential for earning recommendations.

  3. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Steven, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think it’s crucial for people in the PR industry to look at the government regulations and understand that they are violating the law by having unpaid interns doing real work that they’d have to pay someone else for.

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