ANALYSIS: IPR/Pathfinders shake up PR work experience - The IPR and recruitment firm Pathfinders have reignited the debate over work experience in the PR sector with an innovative deal struck last week

July signals the annual flood of under-graduates and graduates looking for work experience. This exchange of unpaid labour in return for experience remains the traditional right of passage in the PR industry, as in others.

Despite the efforts of PR firms, recruiters and colleges to eliminate the problems of work experience - how to make it useful for both parties, to ensure both derive some proper value from the affair - it remains at best hit-and-miss, and at worst exploitative.

A partnership struck last week between the IPR and recruitment firm Pathfinders hopes to clear up some of the problems traditionally associated with such programmes.

The two organisations have launched a scheme they claim tailors the placement to the needs of both student and employer, resulting - in theory - in work experience harmony.

The programme follows three years of research and consultation with agencies and communications operations from the private and public sectors.

The Pathfinders team claim to dig out the most talented, ambitious and focused graduates through an all-year graduate milk-round of 150 colleges. More than 2,000 young people meet consultants for career advice, interview training and industry research - and then compete for a work experience placement hosted by an IPR member.

If chosen, they undertake a two-week unpaid work agreement, during which a structured time-table covering various facets of PR work is drawn up by the employer, and stuck to.

'After two weeks, employers can choose to employ the graduate on a temporary basis, and Pathfinders then adopts the role of a temp agency. This ensures the student is not exploited and employers are getting the best there is,' says Pathfinders MD Amanda Fone.

'Each student is equipped with knowledge of its chosen agency, has a good understanding of the PR industry, and will boast MS Office computer skills. He or she will show ability and ambition to succeed,' adds Fone.

Fone dismissed arguments that many students still find it difficult to find paid work in a shrinking sector, and that some employers still exploit the undergraduate's enthusiasm for unpaid or lowly-paid labour - more so in leaner times.

'The scheme will work in a bull and bear market because employers will have a bank of skilled, informed graduates on its books whom it can call on when necessary,' she sys

'The IPR backs this scheme because it provides a structured programme that should benefit students and our members,' says head of membership Paul Roberts.

Few would deny graduate traineeships have been on the wane in recent years as agencies tighten their belts. Meanwhile PR degree courses have increased, leading to a fractured training programme across the industry.

While this is the latest attempt to boost student PR skills through work experience, it is not the first. Consumer shop Shine Communications last year linked up with the PRCA and Luton University in a deal by which part of the work for PR students at Luton will be pitching to Shine staff acting as clients. Student groups are given a brief and advice from Shine staff and the PRCA. The scheme is part of the Luton degree curriculum and experience gained counts for coursework points.

'Students stuck in front of photocopiers aren't helping any one. We have our eye on a couple of students that we may take on after graduation because we've seen them in action,' says Shine MD Michael Frohlich.

Other agency heads welcome the link-up, but find fault in the unpaid stint. Metropublic MD John Gerrie says unpaid work experience is not done at big corporations, and PR firms should be no different: 'I believe students should be paid at least the minimum wage. We take one on a year and pay them a decent wage.'

Brian Beech, MD of Manchester-based Leedex Euro RSCG, is an ex-teacher and says he's committed to offering placements to students throughout the year: 'We take a lot of students from PR degrees, but if a well-written, sparky letter hits my desk at the right time, I'll see its author, whatever their qualifications. It's important to manage expectations from the outset so they are not disappointed at the end if a full-time position is not offered.'

Some recruitment specialists cast doubt on whether the scheme will have quite the benefits the IPR and Pathfinders expect. VMA founder Vicky Mann says it takes time to screen graduates and the margin on minimum-wage work is slim.

'I fear many organisations will rely on those graduates and students who pick up the phone and organise their own experience. These go on and do well,' she says.

Fone rejects this, but ends by calling on students themselves to gen up on the industry they say they want to work in: 'Graduates need a better understanding of the different specialities within the PR mix.'

CASE STUDY

Irfan Ahmed, a 23-year-old politics graduate from Sussex University, is a Pathfinders/IPR find, 'temping' as a TIME magazine public affairs assistant

'I had already completed two weeks experience in the PR team at the National Farmers' Union. This provided a great insight into how a successful PR operation is run, and gave me the opportunity to contribute to their work,' he says.

Pathfinders then placed him at TIME magazine. His stint there was initially for two weeks but he was asked by communications head Emma Gilpin to stay on for a further two months.

'I simply would not have had this opportunity, had I not initially worked as an intern. I would suggest to any graduate keen on a career in PR, to throw away negative perceptions they may have about work experience, go out and seek a placement. It can help to make would-be employers sit up and it can open doors that would otherwise be firmly shut,' he adds.

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