Interns are a Bargain: Pay Them Fairly


As the summer internship season moves into full swing, I decided to conduct another informal review of internship salaries. Fortunately, significant improvement has been made at many of the surveyed agencies, corporations and nonprofits. But others still hold onto minimum wage levels or slightly above. Therefore, I decided to reprise the same headline plea from five years ago.

The average PR intern salary in the U.S. is $14.25, according to online job search service Zippia. Other job boards, including, cite average salaries between $14 and $20, with most agencies settling on between $15 and $17. Still, some unenlightened organizations pay just $12.

My informal check of the Chicago market confirmed major agencies have increased their salaries “slightly to significantly” over the past five years. Most still hover between $15 and $17, while others range up to $25 an hour. One suburban corporation with no access to public transportation (i.e. requiring car) pays interns $38 an hour. Even nonprofits that start their searches in the hopes of landing unpaid, cause-focused talent are realizing they need pay their interns and scrape together salaries between $10 and $12 an hour. Most nonprofits seeking unpaid interns realize they must focus on undergraduate students in search of resume-building experience.

Rule of Thumb: Interns — especially recent college graduates — should be paid. Unpaid internships should only be considered for high school seniors, college freshman or sophomores who are eager to gain experience and enhance their resumes. In addition, any intern whose work is being billed to a client should be paid regardless of education status.

Interns are among the most highly profitable staffers in agencies since they are billed out at rages ranging from $50 to $110 an hour. Ideally, the minimum internship salary for college graduates in most markets should be at least $20 an hour. Most college graduates today are entering the job market with far greater relevant training and experience than ever before. They also likely have much more college debt than students from just five years ago.

During the current competitive war for talent, many top PR students are holding out for full-time jobs if they have already completed one or two internships. When I passed along a great internship opportunity to a soon-to-graduate DePaul grad student, she replied: “I feel three very relevant internships during my college career should qualify me for an entry-level position so that’s what I’ll be focusing on upon graduation.” I have no doubt she’ll land such an opportunity.

Happily, encouragement came last week from a boutique agency head seeking an unpaid intern. When I indicated it was doubtful she would be able to recruit the level of talent she needs, she asked what range should be considered. Upon hearing the range for Chicago PR interns, she rewrote the position description with a $20 an hour salary. I predict she’ll recruit a great intern.

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