The Intern Debate: Invest for a greater return

The Intern Debate: Invest for a greater return


I will try to avoid sounding holier than thou in this little dissertation, but after the horror stories I’ve heard – and the comments and stats coming from B&T’s internship survey – forgive me if my halo starts to choke me halfway through.

Currently I have three interns each with at least one terrible story to tell. One spent the vast majority of a two-month internship at another Sydney PR agency ensuring the stock room kept in order and handling couriers. Two months.

This is a highly intelligent girl completing a double degree; a girl with a great work ethic (clearly!); and a girl who can write and, as it turns out, work effectively with the media.

And just as I was picking up my jaw, her colleague – another intelligent hard working student – recounted how she spent a week sorting cupboards, getting coffees and literally arranging coat hangers.

The third story was at the other end of the spectrum – an agency that employs more than a dozen interns and has just three full-time staff. The interns are doing work that consultants with years of experience would be doing, making basic errors and struggling massively without adequate supervision to teach them anything valuable.

All of these were unpaid gigs. (I can’t bring myself to call them internships.)

These stories clearly illustrate why some agencies don’t believe in paying interns – they simply don’t believe they are valuable contributors.

The agencies think that they are offering more than they are receiving. Or at least can go to sleep at night pretending this is the case.

I understand that agencies have to constantly consider profit against every expense, including interns. But surely if someone performs something valuable to your business, you can grow your business, and that deserves payment.

Our interns are on a two-tier structure.

Tier one is to first have the interns for up to a month. Pay them enough for transport and food. It shouldn’t cost them to help you make money. And teach them how to work in the agency, not tidy the agency.

Then, if they are great, step it up to tier two and pay them more for a longer-term gig. Pay enough that will be at the very least equal to what they would be earning working as wait staff or in retail while they finish uni.

If people feel genuinely valued, it is human nature to for them to rise to an occasion. And in a world where studies have shown that ‘yoof’ live in a shallow, information-overloaded existence and are looking for a passion and purpose, surely giving them some depth makes sense?

Make them valuable to you by teaching them.

Now, a warning…this is the bit where the halo starts to show…

I also think it’s about a person’s own value system. For me, loyalty and fairness are personal values that sit at the top of the pile.

What do you value in your friends, your family and yourself? Would you treat your friends the way your business treats interns?

Loyalty is never old-fashioned and the clich√©d ‘Gen Y are loyal only to themselves’ simply isn’t true across the board.

Without loyalty (and it cuts both ways) and a sense of responsibility, a business can be soulless. It’s impossible and just plain weird to completely segregate your personal values and beliefs, whatever they are, from what you do every day at work.

Shouldn’t the workplace be a reflection of personal human value systems?

 Anyway, off my pedestal and back to business – loyalty helps the bottom line.

Staff, including interns, who are truly loyal work harder, look for more opportunities and keep clients happier.

Happy clients and happy staff keep the business humming.

So the investment has a far greater return.

Maybe it’s different as an owner-operated business and I take things too personally (according to my various coaches, mentors and husband this might be true!). But the contribution these interns make to me and their loyalty is personally valuable as well as professionally. I think that is worth paying for.

And even if you care for no one of my point of views, just remember…the intern you had a couple of years ago, who now has a bunch of amazing media contacts, great social media experience and can write the bejesus out of a strategy or media release should come to you first, not last, when looking for their next move.  

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