The intern debate: a self-perpetuating vicious circle of elitism

Andy Burnham MP In the last couple of weeks the debate about interns and work experience has continued to gain momentum.

It’s something that I’ve always felt strongly about and it’s one reason why I worked for Andy Burnham during the Labour Party leadership election. Like me Andy came from a background that meant he was one of those ‘kids without connections’ and that made it far, far harder to get a break. It’s especially true in professions like public relations, law, accountancy, journalism and dare I say it the increasingly professionalised world of politics, where getting that crucial work experience place so often depends on who is ‘chums with Mummy and Daddy’. That’s why there are so many people of a certain background or class working in these professions. It becomes a self-perpetuating vicious circle of elitism.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Wolfstar Consultancy’s draft intern policy and had some really positive feedback from PR students, former students, PR lecturers, journalists, politicians and even the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I won’t reproduce it all here, but go read it as it well help you understand the rest of this post.

But despite the positive feedback the policy still isn’t good enough for me. In a perfect world I’d want to pay everyone who did work experience for us a ‘living wage’ (for the uninitiated that’s more than the minimum wage). But the brutal commercial reality is that if we did that then we couldn’t offer work experience to as many people as we do. For us providing work experience opportunities isn’t about getting the job done on the cheap. It’s about contributing something back to the profession and giving ‘kids without connections’ a break. It could actually be far more cost effective simply to employ someone as then you wouldn’t have the constant learning curve and need for close supervision and support which takes up a huge amount of time. But that would deny dozens of people the opportunity to get the experience they so desperately need. Even our policy of considering every CV and doing proper interviews is a significant cost as it takes up a lot of time. But it’s the only fair way to do it.

PRCA I welcome the news that Francis Ingham at the PRCA (Disclosure: Wolfstar Consultancy is a member) has set-up an Access Commission to look into this issue. In John Lehal, Danny Rogers and Robert Minton-Taylor he’s pulled together some really good people (I’ve singled them out as I ‘know’ them, see what I was saying about connections).

I’m not convinced that saying placements should always be paid is the right approach as that would certainly prevent me from offering as many opportunities. But I’m also equally concerned about the number of companies that just exploit people as cheap labour. The other issue that I want considered is what can be done to avoid excluding older people, mature students and those that might want to change careers. It’s not right that we should just focus on the traditional ‘image’ of a 18-21 year-old undergraduate student. We won’t challenge equal access and diversity unless we set our sights higher.

If you want to read about how this isn’t just an issue for the PR industry then read Kerry McCarthy’s brilliant post about the challenges she faces as an MP who wants to do the right thing for interns.

UPDATE: It’s probably also worth saying that as well as providing work experience opportunities we also have an undergraduate placement scheme and currently have Clare Callery, a student from the PR degree course at Leeds Metropolitan University, doing her paid placement year with Wolfstar Consultancy.


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.