I had an interesting chat with the head of an agency the other day that took me by surprise.
I was retelling the story of how I got on the employment ladder all those years ago, a ladder I recently hopped off to take gardening leave.
When I graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University in 1998 with my 2:1 BA Hons degree in public relations, my first foray into the workplace was an unpaid summer internship with Saatchi and Saatchi in London.
I presumed such unpaid gigs had disappeared long ago, but I was staggered to hear 18 years on they are still common practice across the UK public relations, advertising and marketing sector.
In spite of being bad for business, and as I understand it, in breach of HMRC rules, many so-called employers still take advantage of grads looking for their first proper job.
He made the point that in his view, recruiting staff to work for free stifles diversity because it favours job seekers with the resources or family background to live without an income for several months.
But the practice continues because employers can simply get away with it and competition is incredibly fierce amongst graduates seeking to climb onto the career ladder.
I couldn't agree more.
The chance to place Saatchi and Saatchi's name on my fledgling CV was too big an opportunity at the time to quibble over being paid.
But unlike many students I could afford to travel to London each day from my parents' house in Reading, without the need to pay them rent or subsistence.
As it turns out my boss at Saatchi coughed up for my train fare out of her own purse, but all my 'employer' gave me was a voucher for lunch in the staff canteen.
Crucial first step on career ladder
My experience is not unique.
Steph Harland spent almost 12 months working in a variety of unpaid roles before landing a paid role at MTV.
“Unpaid internships are slave labour. They rule out any candidates without relatively wealthy parents that can cough up rent money.”
But Steph says you’ve got to start somewhere and her work experience was key to getting a leg up the career ladder.
“Having two unpaid internships at well-respected companies on my CV helped me secure a job. Although they are rightly deemed as unfair, it does demonstrate your commitment.”
Offering unpaid work is illegal
HMRC cracked down on unpaid internships and work placements after updating its guidance in 2014. Employers can now be fined and forced to pay interns.
My friendly agency boss makes no bones about it:
"An intern is classed as either a worker or an employee, and should therefore be paid the minimum wage. Travel and expenses aren’t sufficient.
"Attempts to dodge paying a wage by offering short term employment or asking an intern to sign away their rights, or work on a voluntary basis are also illegal.
"Charities are the only exception. Legally they can recruit interns as volunteers and not pay them at all, or only pay travel expenses."
Issue of diversity and representation
Another agency boss, Farzana Baduel, tells a candid story that convinced her of the need to pay entry level roles.
“When I first set up Curzon PR in 2009, I hired unpaid interns. I welcomed an extra pair of hands and reduced staff salary overheads.”
Farzana justified it by thinking the interns were willing to work for free, believing that the unpaid role was of mutual benefit.
“It was only after a few years that I realised the extent of the damage that unpaid internships have on our industry. Those who did not have the financial backing simply could not afford to work for free.”
“It’s our professional duty to communicate to society on behalf of our clients, and we cannot do so if as an industry we are not representative.”
Unpaid roles remain commonplace in public relations
I thought it best to seek out the advice of former recruiter turned career coach and diversity champion Sarah Stimson, founder of the PR Careers community.
“Three agencies in the PR Week top 150 offered unpaid roles when I researched the market in January 2016. But a quick internet search will turn up numerous ads for unpaid roles.”
Stimson pointed to four that she was able to find immediately.
“It’s disappointing that hiring unpaid workers is still accepted. It’s damaging to the industry’s reputation and does a disservice to employers who have ethical, legal and inclusive recruitment practices in place."
Industry hardening attitude against slave internships
The UK’s industry associations have both hardened their attitudes to unpaid roles in recent years, and taken steps to celebrate best practice.
“We advise all our members to pay interns, and through the CIPR Code of Conduct hold members to account if we’re made aware of them advertising or offering an unpaid position,” said Rob Brown, CIPR president.
“Diversity of background contributes towards diversity of thinking, and that is essential to good public relations,” said Francis Ingham, PRCA director general.
Ingham continued: “That is why we have launched our PR Internships For All scheme, aimed at bringing more young people from diverse backgrounds into the PR profession at entry level.
“It’s also why we have launched our second annual PR Internships Awards, to give excellent providers of internships the recognition they deserve.”
For kids coming out of uni this summer, being paid a fair wage for a decent day's work experience, is little more than they deserve.
It's frankly time everyone in the industry recognised that and banished unpaid internships once and for all.
Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch