Playing fair with interns

Colm Carey on why agencies should act responsibly when hiring interns

Two major issues often concern people starting out on their chosen careers. One is getting a permanent job that takes them out of the gig economy, the other is getting a permanent roof over their head. The two needs are strongly connected. It cannot be easy going to a lender to look for a mortgage when your income is “flexible”. But even before clicking on the mortgage application button you need some kind of a job that looks acceptable on paper.

Having worked hard to get a primary degree in college, followed by a master’s in another school of learning, you would imagine people might be prepared to hire you with some degree of commitment. Instead commitment, like customer loyalty, tends to be a one-way street. It is like playing cards with someone who holds all the aces on their side of the table.

At some point, the word internship entered the vernacular and soon became accepted not just in linguistic terms but also as a concept and an accepted part of our work culture. Big and small companies have since adopted the process. Some see it as a form of apprenticeship or probationary period during which both parties can check each other out.

Ideas for charities: Some of this year’s students from the DIT AdGrad 17 masters in advertising studies signed up as interns. Divided into two agency teams, AdGrad 17 present ad campaigns based on briefs from two clients. This year it’s the turn of charities Focus Ireland and the Children’s Medical & Research Foundation (CMRF) at Crumlin Hospital.

They can then decide if they want to commit to round two. It is a bit like dating but with one side holding the power, while the other waits to see if the “it’s not you, it’s us” conversation will happen. Parents who have worked hard and worried long to put their offspring through college understandably feel anxious as to when their investment will yield a dividend.

“Out the door at 24” has been replaced by the boomerang generation who have not got the security to go it alone. We hear a lot of anecdotes about interns so it was good to see some hard data coming from a survey commissioned by ad agency Chemistry and carried out by iReach. The survey worked to a sample of 140 people who have taken part in an internship.

Most of them are not happy. Over half were not paid at all, or just had expenses covered – despite doing the same job as a paid employee. Chemistry boss Ray Sheerin says the problem is particularly rife within the creative industries of advertising, media, design and digital.

But Sheerin also knows of leading accountants who are guilty of ‘internment’ practices.

Most internships do not result in a paid job at the end of the period, suggesting that employers are using the process as a way of getting a steady supply of well qualified, unpaid labour.

You might argue that at least people are getting a foot on the ladder and that the experience they gain will eventually win them a proper job. In theory, that might be the case.

Most of those taking part in the Chemistry survey feel they have to complete one or more internships as a career launch. Problems with process seem to be more about expectations created and undelivered. As a concept, internship is not a bad idea but there is a natural justice and fairness involved in paying people for work done regardless of their job title.

Better defined and fairer policies would help both parties. In Chemistry’s survey 61 per cent of participants were not hired, 44 per cent took a part-time job to keep things going and eight per cent had to take out a loan. Given that many major corporates have strict rules about the ethics involved in running a business, agencies should take a look at how they treat interns.

A lot of procurement pitches require standards that might not tolerate the regular use of unpaid interns as part of a company ethos. Sheerin believes the internship process results in a lack of diversity. He believes the current system constitutes “a significant barrier” for entry into these creative roles for people from a rural or less fortunate background.

None of this is good news for agencies which thrive on creativity and diversity. Sheerin advises graduates about to take on an internship role to ask if there is any real potential for employment at the end of their stay. Then ask if there is payment for your time – if not, what experience will you gain as part of the internship, and who will you learn from?

Will there be opportunities to shadow people in different parts of the business, especially the area in which you have most interest? And, finally, be sure that the internship has a clear start and end date and do not extend out the internship if it is not really valuable for your own experience. An agency that wants you to stay but refuses to pay warrants a polite adieu.

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