Interns are a Bargain: Pay Them Fairly


Gone are the days when internships for recent graduates were viewed mostly as extended educational opportunities in the real world. Today, agency interns are expected to bring already honed skills that make them immediately billable.

So why haven’t intern salaries kept up with higher expectations and performance?

Unfortunately, there has been snail-like movement in the hourly pay for PR interns over the past decade. While interns at some firms still earn only $10 an hour, the average intern salary in the U.S. has slowly moved to around $12, according to Glassdoor. Meanwhile, intern billing rates at small-to-large-size agencies range from $40 to $95+ per hour, according to a random check of several firms. The salary-to-billing ratio makes interns the most profitable workers in many agencies.

In the past year, some agencies have raised intern salaries to $15+ (average hourly increases normally come in $2 and $3 increments—$10 to $12 and $12 to $14-15). Pressed to find capable talent, an increasing number of nonprofit organizations also have begun paying interns. Most nonprofit internship salaries range between minimum wage and $10 an hour. Faced with the inability to recruit an intern, one nonprofit reached out for help recently. Despite the worthy cause, I encouraged making it a paid internship since recent graduates face considerable debt and most cannot afford to work for free. The organization found a benefactor to support a paid summer internship which was filled promptly.

Bottom Line: If an organization expects interns to perform functions that would otherwise be done by paid employees, those interns should be paid. And it is even more important to compensate interns if the work they are doing is being billed to clients.

As competition for top talent intensifies, some enlightened corporations are upping the ante considerably. A suburban Chicago company hired two interns recently at $35 an hour, and a newly minted PR grad student just began an internship with a West Coast startup at $38 an hour (that firm has a two-tier intern salary level that pays a premium for interns with graduate degrees–another hopeful trend). For the most part, an increasing number of agencies and corporations are moving intern wages to $15 and $18 an hour. “You get what you pay for,” said a hiring manager who recently increased intern salaries.

Eventually, intern salaries will fluctuate like other pay levels within agencies and corporations, based on experience and performance. In the meantime, I hope to see an increasing number of positive Glassdoor ratings for firms that recognize and reward hardworking interns.

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