They Do It for Free! The Inner Lives of Interns

Mr. Perlin’s major contribution is in revealing how colleges have become complicit in the intern racket. To meet employers’ academic credit demands, some students not only work for free but, adding insult to injury, must then shell out money to their universities for credits. A few schools, such as Menlo College, in northern California, even sell credits to businesses like Dream Careers, which charges students for placing them in Menlo-accredited programs. Menlo made $50,000 off the partnership in 2008. In recessionary times, a host of predators, like Dream Careers, have sprung up to feast on the unemployment anxieties of college students and their parents.

The upshot is this: When interns work for nothing, as Frederick first pointed out, they lower the value of everyone else’s work. In publishing, for instance, it’s not uncommon for editorial assistants to earn less than $30,000 a year, for aspiring writers to blog for the mere satisfaction of seeing their bylines, and for more seasoned journalists to write long book reviews for a few hundred dollars.

Where will it end? It probably won’t. The Department of Labor doesn’t have the manpower to crack down on illegal internships, and the issue of unpaid intern labor doesn’t engender much outrage among those who have already paid their dues (i.e., the ones doing the hiring). At least, some might say, they’re not making Kindles on an assembly line in China, where, Mr. Perlin notes, interns make up more than 15 percent of the workforce.

Mr. Perlin seems heartened by the emergence of an “anti-precarity” movement, which takes aim against the unprotected, contingent employment arrangements like internships in such European countries as France and Italy. But it’s certainly unlikely to catch on in the U.S. if it goes “little-noticed by the mainstream labor movement” in social democracies with a regard for the welfare state. Small hope exists beyond getting interns to opt out of what Mr. Perlin calls the “internship arms race,” and he encourages young people to do just that: “Figure out how to turn a job at the mall into something with a future,” he advises. If nothing else, it could inspire you to write an exposé.

editorial@observer.com