One of the most dreaded requirements of my college career was finding an internship. I won’t get into why or where I interned (and why I now regret it), but there was one commonality among all of my classmates, whether we loved our internships or loathed them: we all “worked” for free.
The trend of not paying interns has become so common, it has raised questions about the legality of stockpiling college students to get your work done without paying them. Last year, the New York Times discussed whether employers were violating labor laws by not paying interns. There are six federal legal criteria that must be met for a student to not be paid. According to the New York Times, among these criteria include that “the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer ‘derives no immediate advantage’ from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”
For PR and marketing departments looking to hire social media interns this fall, the requirements boil down to the requirement that if you’re going to “hire” free labor, it can’t benefit your business and another staff member can’t be ready and willing to do the same work. As interns are commonly staffed to create and execute social media messages, the business will have to critically answer whether these social media campaigns created and executed by interns benefit the company. With so much buzz about the purpose of social media to drive an ROI (return on investment), companies hiring free interns can’t have it both ways.
And if you’re an agency considering evading the rules altogether and hiring several interns to work the equivalent of full-time for free, consider what benefit you’ll get out of this arrangement. How motivated will a a college sophomore be — who is broke and living on ramen noodles in a house with six other people — when he does not receive any benefit from working with you? Even providing something like a daily mocha or gym membership is often enough to keep the content produced of high quality and prevent interns from quitting halfway through to work at a job that actually pays.
Social media interns can be extremely beneficial to a business — if they actually do their job. But if you really believe in the benefit of using social media, you’d better pay those interns accordingly.