In the summer of 1996, without really trying, I secured an internship at Condé Nast. It was an unlikely turn of events for someone who had no publishing connections and who, just weeks earlier, had entered the building as a temp on a yearlong break from college. The temp placement agency had installed me at Vogue, as the assistant to the executive fashion editor. (I’ll spare you the Devil Wears Prada details, because there weren’t any.)
After my stint was up at that magazine, I continued roving around the building, warming vacant seats until permanent replacements could be found. Somewhere along the way, I got a lead on an internship–something I hadn’t known existed, because such opportunities, as the HR person confessed, were usually reserved for the relatives of mucky-mucks. Still, on the basis of an editor’s recommendation, I received a marketing internship at Condé Nast Traveller, where I spent two months largely ignored, ghostwriting the publisher’s letters for promotional mailings.
I was lucky: That internship gave a lost summer the patina of respectability and paid more than my $9-an-hour temping gig. Similar jobs are few and far between these days, even while internships are now essential for nabbing good jobs after college. Ross Perlin, in Intern Nation (Verso, 288 pages, $22.95), documents the relatively new, and almost entirely despicable, rise of the unpaid internship, which scores of college students and recent grads feel they must accept–whether or not they can afford to. Even Condé Nast now offers only “for credit” (read: unpaid) summer positions.
Intern Nation is billed as the “first exposé” of the culture of internships, but actually it revisits much of the same territory Jim Frederick covered in his 1997 Baffler magazine essay “Internment Camp.” Mr. Frederick writes, “With all the books, magazine articles, and pundits barraging us with an alarmingly unified rhetoric of, ‘Internships give you the edge in a competitive job market,’ ‘It’s a win-win situation for both employer and intern,’ and ‘It’s not a job, it’s an education,’ it’s easy to forget that internships are practically free money for big business. It’s easy to forget that the kids are getting royally screwed.”
They’re still getting screwed, only now there are more of them, Mr. Perlin writes. A recent study by Phil Gardner of the College Employment Research Institute found that between 70 and 75 percent of students at four-year colleges had done at least one internship; in 1993, only 26 percent of college grads hired that year had been interns, according to a Northwestern University study. Interns are everywhere–fetching coffee on movie sets, helping draft legislation in congressional offices, and flipping burgers at Disney World–often working for little or no pay. Even Brad Pitt, an architecture enthusiast, couldn’t resist taking an “informal apprenticeship” at Frank Gehry’s office. Just as the right schools can determine one’s future, the thinking goes, so can the right internship.
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.
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.