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National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE): Paid in References

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In December 2019, Humber College sent a class of advertising students to Zulu Alpha Kilo to gain real-world experience working on an important campaign. And get paid for it.

The brief given to the students? Create a campaign encouraging businesses to pay student interns. However, the project was put on hold once the pandemic hit. Today, with the backing and support of the U.S. based National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the campaign is ready to launch across North America.

“It was amazing to see the students inside an agency environment,” says Robin Heisey, who was an Advertising & Marketing Communications Professor at Humber College at the time. Heisey had reached out to Zulu Alpha Kilo’s founder Zak Mroueh about the students coming into the agency to work on a real brief.

The ZAK team was really impressed by the determination and initiative of the students. “They came up with dozens of ideas, but one idea from Brooke Charlinski and Joel Gerrity was a clear winner,” said Mroueh.

In the videos, the unpaid intern attempts to use non-monetary items she "earned"— swag like an agency mug, leftover bagels from the boardroom, a reference letter, and “valuable job experience”— in place of money at different establishments from a clothing store to a grocery store. The videos highlight the absurdity of unpaid, hard-working student interns trying to afford life’s necessities like groceries and rent. Mroueh got behind the camera directing all six videos through the agency’s in-house production arm, Zulubot.

Earlier this year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released a position statement that calls for all internships to be paid. Now, the association is broadening that message to the general public through the “Unpaid Is Unfair” campaign. The impetus to call for an end to unpaid internships grew out of NACE’s research findings, according to Shawn VanDerziel, NACE executive director.

“We’ve found that paid internships provide college students with an important avenue to their first job. In our most recent study, we found that paid interns averaged 1.4 job offers while unpaid interns averaged less than one,” he explained. “We’ve also found that paid interns get higher starting salaries than unpaid interns in their initial jobs.”

“Many industries, not just advertising, have normalized unpaid internships and it’s not good for employers or future employees,” says Tim Gordon, CCO & Partner of Zulu Alpha Kilo NY, which alongside the Toronto office brought the campaign to life in the US market. “We hope this helps spread the word that if you are running a business or in a hiring position, you should advocate for and help ensure all internship positions are paid.”

In addition, VanDerziel noted that “students who engage in unpaid internships must forgo an income—that’s a hardship for many students. All work deserves to be paid.” NACE’s current research shows that approximately 41% of internships are unpaid.

At the same time, says VanDerziel, paid internships benefit employers, too: “Paid internship programs serve as an effective pipeline for entry-level talent for full-time positions. The data also show that employees who have been paid interns have higher retention rates than unpaid interns or those who have never participated in an internship.”

Zulu Alpha Kilo has been a champion of NACE’s values that all work deserves to be paid for quite some time. Since 2017, ZAK’s Employeeship program has given graduates the chance to forgo an internship all together. Selected applicants are invited to participate in a paid full-day creative bootcamp where they are taught, mentored, and interviewed by a panel from the agency. The top performers are hired on the spot with a starting salary of $50,000. No internship required.

From the half-eaten bagel to the reference letter, anyone who has ever been an unpaid intern will also be given the chance to enter a contest to win all the objects featured in the videos—and each piece of swag includes a QR code that can convert the item into a real payday ($250 USD).

One of the students who participated in the campaign in 2019, Laura Biggar, became a full-time writer at ZAK and worked on bringing the final campaign to life.

“I can’t believe this idea started as a scribble on a page nearly four-years ago. It’s been so rewarding to see it finally executed and shared with the world,” said Biggar.

VanDerziel is excited for the campaign to finally launch because it will encourage employers to think twice about the funding of their positions.

“It’s the beginning of a new school year when companies and students are in the early stages of planning for internships in the months ahead—it’s time we retire the idea of unpaid internships once and for all,” added Mroueh.
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Second Camera: Kyle Chappell

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