Student attempts to pay for things with swag in campaign against unpaid internships

(Photo credit: Zulu Alpha Kilo, used with permission)
(Photo credit: Zulu Alpha Kilo, used with permission)

The campaign created by students at Humber College was part of an early career program at Zulu Alpha Kilo.

When you go to the store, you don’t pay in bagels, and your landlord probably doesn’t accept office mugs in exchange for rent. 

Interns shouldn’t be paid with anything other than money, either. 

That’s the argument posed by students at Toronto-based Humber College who created a campaign against unpaid internships in partnership with Zulu Alpha Kilo. 

In December 2019, a class of advertising students at Humber were invited by the agency and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) to gain real-world experience working on a campaign — and get paid for it. 

Their brief was to create a campaign encouraging companies to pay their student interns. However, the project was put on hold once the pandemic hit. 

On Tuesday, the final campaign assets finally launched across North America. 

In a series of videos, an unpaid intern attempts to use non-monetary items she "earned,” such as agency swag, leftover bagels, a reference letter and “valuable job experience,” in place of money at different establishments, from a clothing store to a grocery store. 

Each time, the intern very seriously offers her earned items as compensation, resulting in strange looks, disappointment and frustration from sellers. 

The videos are meant to highlight the absurdity of not paying student interns, who also need to afford life’s necessities like groceries and rent. 

“Many industries, not just advertising, have normalized unpaid internships and it’s not good for employers or future employees,” said Tim Gordon, CCO and partner of Zulu Alpha Kilo New York in a statement. “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.”

The campaign comes as earlier this year, NACE released a position statement calling for all internships to be paid. 

According to a recent study by the organization, paid interns averaged 1.4 job offers, while unpaid interns averaged less than one. Paid interns get higher starting salaries than unpaid interns in their initial jobs.

“We’ve found that paid internships provide college students with an important avenue to their first job,” explained Shawn VanDerziel, executive director at NACE. “Students who engage in unpaid internships must forgo an income—that’s a hardship for many students. All work deserves to be paid.”

According to NACE, approximately 41% of internships are unpaid.

In addition to the campaign videos, which will run on social media, students who participated in the program created a contest to win all the objects featured in the videos. Only those who have ever been an unpaid intern can enter. Each piece of swag includes a QR code that can convert the item into a real payday of $250.

One of the students who participated in the campaign in 2019, Laura Biggar, became a full-time writer at Zulu Alpha Kilo 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 in a statement.

Since 2017, Zulu Alpha Kilo has held an “Employeeship” program that gives graduates the chance to forgo an internship to participate in a paid full-day creative boot camp, where they are taught, mentored and interviewed by a panel from the agency. The top candidates are hired on the spot with a starting salary of $50,000 — no internship required.

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