Ethics Debate: Unpaid Internships

Recently, there has been a lot of debate around the ethics of unpaid internships.  Back on February 10, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards issued a Professional Standards Advisory regarding the use of interns in the public relations and communications professions.  The advisory provided legal and ethical guidelines to the industry to “help them conduct their internship programs in ways that are ethical and that will provide meaningful career development opportunities for their interns.”

Most of the debate on the topic is in regards to interns who do not receive any sort of compensation at all, monetary or otherwise.  PRSA believes that it is unethical to not provide any compensation to interns, either monetary or college credit, especially if the interns are doing billable work.  PRSA wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times in response to an April 3 op-ed piece on unpaid internships, in which Ross Perlin states that “Colleges shouldn’t publicize unpaid internships at for-profit companies.  They should discourage internship requirements for graduation…They should stop charging students to work without pay.”

PRSA’s thoughts on the article were that internships are too valuable to be discouraged by universities.  While it really does suck that in order to receive credit for an internship, the student must pay tuition, it should not be looked at as “paying to work for free.” A good internship can be more valuable than an entire semester’s amount of classes.  Internships should continue to be encouraged by University career centers, while providing as much guidance as possible and promoting paid internships rather than unpaid.

If unpaid internship positions start becoming eliminated more, internships will be even harder to come by.  Sure, we can hope that there will be more paid internship opportunities, but in this economy it’s not something to hope for. As I am still trying to nail down my plans for the summer, I’ve noticed that compensation can be an issue for a lot of employers as well as applicants.  Some people just cannot accept a full-time, unpaid, internship or they would have no way to pay rent.  Holding out for a full-time paid internship may seem foolish because such a position may seem too good to be true.  But having to turn down an unpaid internship may leave you time for a part-time job, but what if no part-time internship comes along?  I know that there are many students in this same predicament right now.

What would you do?

Written by Brittany Berger.

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