Industry needs to change entry-level hiring practices to boost diversity

With just a few weeks left to graduation, my office hours are booked with graduating students pondering their future.

With just a few weeks left to graduation, my office hours are booked with graduating students pondering their future. Some are headed to graduate school, but the vast majority of these students are hoping to land their first PR job at an agency, government office, nonprofit, or corporation.

Most have held not just one internship but three to four internships that have given them the chance to figure out what type of PR they want to practice and where they want to practice it. Despite significant experience in the field, students, especially those interested in working for PR agencies, are contemplating a choice that has become almost inevitable in the past few years – whether to take on another internship they hope will lead to a full-time job. 

According to a recent report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, recent college graduates seeking employment in communications can expect a 7.3% rate of unemployment. That's only 1% below the national average, which includes all education levels. So doing another internship is not the least desirable choice. They often do lead to full-time positions, and if a student has his heart set on a particular opportunity and this is the only opening, then it seems to be a valid option. But what if there are entry-level positions open? What if the internship is unpaid? That is when hiring practices can get murky. 

First, if there are entry-level positions open, then why force students to do yet another internship? Although culture is an aspect unique to each agency, no one can argue that the work, structure, and practices differ so significantly from agency to agency that graduates couldn't adapt based on their past experiences. Unfortunately, some employers still argue that interning is a right of passage for gaining employment at their firm. This is the wrong mindset to attract qualified students. 

The second question is a bit more troubling, especially as it relates to the issue of both ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. For years now, the drumbeat of the lack of ethnic diversity in PR has reverberated from panel discussions, whitepapers, and industry reports. However, one measure of how little progress has been made is the fact that 87% of PRSA members are Caucasian. The Council of PR Firms' latest initiative is focusing exclusively on the diversity issue and ways to improve it. But none of these efforts will amount to much if the PR industry does not truly change its entry-level hiring practices. 

After four years in college and with the looming prospect of paying off massive student loans, many students, especially minority students, simply can't afford to do yet another internship with the hope it will become a job. Instead, these students feel compelled to accept a position that despite not being their “dream job” provides a paycheck. Though some may end up eventually working for an agency, many PR students simply choose another area to practice and sometimes another career path. The result? Only the students whose families can support them while they do an internship that is either unpaid or provides a small stipend end up pursuing the agency path. And though not absolute, these students are quite often of the same socioeconomic status with similar backgrounds, education, and ethnicity. This self-perpetuating cycle upholds an industry that is largely homogeneous in make up at a time when the US is more diverse. Clients are constantly critiquing the industry as well by asking the valid question: How can you effectively communicate with diverse audiences when your agency is not diverse?   

The situation is not entirely bleak though. Many agencies are taking some concrete steps in the right direction. Fleishman-Hillard's Alfred Fleishman Fellowship program allows ethnic minority students six-to-12-month paid fellowships, including professional development opportunities and a mentorship program. And many agencies such as Ketchum, Ogilvy PR Worldwide, Ruder Finn, and Widmeyer Communications have initiated fellowship programs or executive trainee programs that allow graduates the opportunity to gain hands-on experience at an agency while still earning enough money to support themselves. This is a trend that needs to continue and not just among the bigger agencies but also for the boutique specialty agencies as well. Sure, some practitioners will bemoan that they can't afford to do that. But when agencies bill interns' hourly rate as high as $50 an hour, that argument is not valid.

Instead, PR hiring managers should realize requiring experienced students to do internships after graduation essentially makes the PR industry a country club whose doors are only open to an elite few.

Pallavi Damani Kumar is an assistant professor and associate director of the public communication division in the School of Communication at American University. 

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