Almost Everybody Does It, but to What Beneficial Effect? 'Intern Nation'

by Lara Killian

13 June 2011

Often legally ambiguous, the ubiquitous internship seems like the perfect way to get a foot in the door in this economy -- but is it worth it?
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Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

Ross Perlin

US: May 2011

Can’t get a job in this economy? Seems like everyone and their brother is getting an internship, whether it’s by casting your hat into an enormous ring of candidates, or by knowing the right investment broker who happens to have been your uncle’s best man. And working for free isn’t so bad, as long as you get your foot in the door and earn some valuable experience that will mean you’re first in line for the next job opening that comes up. Right?

Originally, the concept of interning came from the field of medicine, but it has since morphed out of control into the sprawling, ill-defined idea that in order to break into a field, one needs to work for free to gain the skills and connections needed to succeed in their chosen industry.

Not so fast, writes Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation. Perlin notes the inclination of many current university students and new graduates to devalue their own skills by working for nothing (or next to it), and then highlights other root causes of this phenomenon. From companies trying to retain basic administrative help in tough economic times to universities trying to balance shoe-string budgets by requiring students to pay for academic credit earned by working for free, this hydra definitely has multiple heads.

Those new to their field (or those who are trying to figure out which field they actually want to enter) are trampling over each other to participate in not just one, but sometimes multiple internships. And for what? Perlin methodically documents the legally ambiguous status of many internships, which must offer mentorship and supervised educational components if they do not offer financial compensation, or risk breaking the law.

As a starting point, Perlin introduces the reader to the notorious internship program at Disney, which has pumped over 50,000 participants through in its 30 year history. Interns act, eat, sleep, and breathe Disney fairy dust for wages barely above the national minimum, from which their mandatory housing costs are deducted. Those entering the program usually don’t know what job they’ll be performing (or what ‘role’ they’ll be playing) until they arrive, so those hoping to assist in some marketing capacity may be plunged into janitorial duties, while those looking to dress up and perform for the public may end up serving fries in one of the many eateries. Workers coming from overseas can’t complain for fear of losing their work visas, while those who can’t make ends meet on their meager salaries rely on parents to keep them afloat. Perlin reports several sources that state that it’s not uncommon for new Disney interns to receive negative paychecks, when their rent costs exceed their earnings.

Perlin repeatedly mentions the 1947 Supreme Court decision that attempted to define the hazy concept of an internship. The Fair Labor Standards Act entitles most interns to minimum wage and basic benefits, but it’s possible that an internship can be unpaid if it meets six stringent criteria laid out by the Supreme Court. For example, the training must be for the benefit of the trainee (not the company), and interns cannot legally replace regular staff. Furthermore, not only should the employer not expect to benefit in any way from the activities of the intern, in some cases the employer may actually be disadvantaged, for example if daily operations are slowed down while an intern is brought up to speed by a manager.

Of particular concern is the fuzzy legality of intern positions. Interns who are unpaid and therefore not actually employed by a company or organization have no legal recourse if they are harassed. Perlin documents disturbing cases where interns were repeatedly sexually harassed, and yet their cases were thrown out of court because they had no legal standing within the company and were therefore not recognized by the law. It would take very little effort to fix this loophole in the law, and despite burgeoning ranks of interns at all levels of business and industry, nothing has been done. Congress itself threw in a one line exemption in a piece of 1995 accountability legislation, making sure that congressional interns would continue to have no legally recognized rights. Some estimates put the number of interns per congressperson at over 100, so clearly some offices at the Capitol would stop running if their interns ever banded together and demanded better treatment.

Perlin has suggestions for fixing this situation: pay interns, require better supervision so that interns actually learn on the job, and be up front about what’s expected and what interns will gain in return. The original reason internships were established was to make sure that hands on, practical knowledge that couldn’t be gained in a classroom discussion of theory was accessible before an individual entered the workplace. There certainly are companies that use internships as a way to test-drive potential new hires, treating them well and offering them perks as a way to foster good opinion and lead in to a future working relationship. Unfortunately, there are far more examples of companies using interns to cut costs and do grunt work that regular employees don’t have time for.

It may look great on a resume to have worked briefly for an NGO or Fortune 500 company, but with not enough work or supervision to go around, the experience for many interns is less than stellar. Perlin’s exhaustive research provides a solid background, and he’s optimistic that the situation will improve as more potential interns and companies become better educated.

Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy


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