They Do It for Free! The Inner Lives of Interns

Certainly, internships can provide the relevant job experience employers look for when making hires, and they give career hopefuls the chance to make industry contacts. (My second paid internship, at the leftist political weekly The Nation–I, like Mr. Perlin, was a serial intern–led to my first full-time editorial job at a national magazine.) The problem, of course, is that only the privileged tend to have the means (i.e., parental support) to pursue them without going into debt, putting those who can get by on nothing in the short run at a long-term advantage.

Nowhere is this more true than in the so-called glamour industries (publishing, fashion and architecture), where competition is fierce and uncompensated internships are quickly edging out those who get paid. It may be no surprise that employers can convince young people to work for free, but how, you might wonder, do they sidestep that pesky minimum wage law? As Mr. Perlin (like Mr. Frederick before him) details, by exploiting an exemption in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that allows for-profit institutions to pay short-term employees less than minimum wage provided they are “trainees” and receive educational benefits on the job.

To consider someone a trainee, a company must meet six criteria: the training should be similar to that which would be received at school; the work benefits the trainee, not the employer; the trainee does not take the place of regular workers; she is not entitled to a position at the end of the training period; and she understands that she is not entitled to wages.

But many companies, wise to the financial advantages of free, flexible labor, hire interns to perform the jobs of low-level employees, saving money in salaries and benefits and offering only the thinnest veneer of an educational experience in return. Moreover, interns do not enjoy standard workplace protections, as one former intern discovered when she sued for sexual harassment and lost because she was not technically an employee.

These revelations are nothing new; Frederick covered them, albeit less expansively, 15 years ago. Mr. Perlin is deft at aggregating information but offers little original research. He owes much of his premise to Mr. Frederick and borrows choice bits from other raconteurs. Here’s Andrew Sullivan, for instance, on the lurid D.C. circuit, which runs on intern labor power: “I know one long-time Washingtonian who even referred to each influx of interns, jokingly, as ‘the flesh.’ And yet however predatory this impulse, it was often sadly reciprocated. The ‘flesh’ were grown-ups, not innocent children, but they still seemed like victims to me.” (Who can forget the eternal intern, Monica Lewinsky?) Likewise, Mr. Perlin’s chapter on Disney’s intern program draws heavily on Wesley Jones’ Mousecatraz and the work of scholars such as Jane Kuenz.

I’m not faulting Perlin for reading up on the subject, but I also like authors of self-marketed exposés to get their hands dirty–and that means more than conducting a few interviews with former interns.