Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Ross Perlin. London: Verso, 2011.
"See employment, pseudo,” wrote the Canadian journalist and public intellectual Naomi Klein under her index entry on “internship work.” The year was 1999, and Klein’s exposé of the contemporary global sweatshop, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, offered the public and the academy a prelude to Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation. Perlin’s subtitle underscores Klein’s “pseudo”: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. A former intern, he elaborates on Klein’s critique of industry’s exploitation of college-age interns, most of whom are unpaid and who collectively provide an estimated $2 billion in annual free labor for a range of companies, from publishers to media giants. Klein signaled another troubling aspect of the era of burgeoning internships, one that Perlin maps extensively: that socioeconomic class plays a major role in determining the eligibility of interns and thereby of those excluded from what Klein sardonically called the “glory and glamour that awaits if you donate your labor as a gift to a major . . . company.” Amplifying Klein, Perlin excoriates a system that US academics have aided and abetted as professors and administrators (and as parents, too).
Intern Nation provides a wide-angle overview of an international system of labor subsidization masked as career opportunity— indeed, as a de rigueur component of baccalaureate and even postgraduate degree work, without which a young person cannot hope to secure a gratifying and adequately remunerative professional career in the twenty-first century. Perlin also indicts colleges and universities as perpetrators of fraud. They turn a blind eye, he says, on a pandemic of exploitation in order to reap the tuition revenue generated by the requirement that interns register for academic credit for their stints in service to businesses and nonprofit organizations. (The cost of an intern’s single credit hour at an elite private college or university in 2011 approaches $2,000, and internships away from home require families to bear the cost of living expenses, typically several thousand additional dollars.) As interns, young people and their families are thus doubly enthralled—by the corporations and nonprofits as well as the colleges and universities. Those of us who have endorsed our students’ summer internship applications and cheered their acceptances must take warning from this book. “The word intern,” Perlin writes, “is a kind of smokescreen, more brand than job description, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious roles we might otherwise call volunteer, temp, summer job, and so on.” Intern Nation is replete with supportive data, historical background, and troubling case studies.
Internships, as Perlin’s readers are reminded, have devolved from the centuries-long apprentice and journeyman crafts practices extending from the early modern guilds to colonial America and Victorian England (the apprentice model continues to the present in certain unionized trades). The progenitor of the current collegiate internship system is the medical intern of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (supplanted by residency programs in recent decades). The medical model was adopted in the 1930s for political internships in municipal and state governments and thought to promote public service; the “social and political ferment” of the 1960s sparked additional “public-spirited internships.”
The adoption of internships in other industries accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, Perlin finds, and his dystopian emphasis on the “brave new economy” is a reminder that the internship system ballooned in concert with the era of deregulation, the weakening of organized labor, and massive layoffs of paid employees in the private sector. The disparities of wealth that have come to public attention in recent years are also mirrored in the stark contrast between unpaid interns and the annual incomes of high-ranking executives. Lest one think that nonprofit organizations behave differently from corporate business, Perlin points out that while the American Cancer Society “offers scores of unpaid internships, plus some with below-minimum- wage stipends,” it pays its chief executive “a salary of $1.2 million.”
The “genealogies of influence” of the internship system “are almost impossible to trace,” Perlin admits, but evidently a wide range of industries simultaneously adopted “models from medicine and public service.” The paid management training programs at large firms, he writes, “gave way to summer internship programs.” Intern Nation reports that in addition to two decades of prestigious internships in banking and finance, the system has become prevalent in such companies as Pizza Hut, Target, and Gap, Inc. The precise number of interns in the US labor force at this time is difficult to assess, Perlin concedes, since “the half-century rise of internships has left barely a trace in official records,” but, citing 2005 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and a 2000 report of the Government Accounting Office, he calculates that “nearly 30 percent of the American workforce, comprising almost 40 million individuals, is involved in contingent, nonstandard employment arrangements,” a substantial number of them, perhaps as much as 40 percent, as unpaid interns.
The internship “explosion,” Perlin finds, has not occurred in isolation. “Changing attitudes among lawmakers, educators, parents, and young people” have played a critical role. At present, “parents are often the ones indulgently but misguidedly underwriting illegal internships, in effect subsidizing the companies that reap free labor” in an effort to boost the career prospects of their daughters and sons. As for the role of the academy, Perlin quotes one expert’s observation that “people within the academy don’t really think about their role in an economy of internships,” even as professors require students to complete internships in such disciplines as journalism, social work, nutrition, public policy, criminal justice, and management and also promote unpaid internships in congressional offices, in the White House, and in such chic industries as fashion, film, and entertainment.
Intern Nation challenges the legality of the system it dissects. Arguing that a high proportion of interns receive no real career training or educational benefit from their internships, Perlin concludes that the system is largely illegal under US labor law. “Unless substantial training is involved, an intern is considered to be an employee . . . and entitled to minimum wage and other protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” says Perlin. “By law, there are very few situations where you can ask someone to do real work for free.” Yet “illegal internships are spreading openly and inexorably” and have become “a social norm propagated by employers, schools, parents, and interns themselves.” Indeed, the interns have internalized the system even as businesses in the bundling and placement of internships flourish. Perlin quotes one employment attorney, who remarks that ignorance of the law favors the system. “Our youngest workers,” concludes Perlin, those “least likely to be wise in the ways of the workplace, effectively have no legal voice. . . . Those subject to sexual harassment or racial discrimination have no legal recourse. No fair hiring practices pertain.”
Remedial action is nowhere on the horizon, though a few colleges provide scholarship-like funds to support internships for students whose families can’t afford to foot the internship bill. An obvious major first step, Perlin insists, would be payment to interns at the level of the federal minimum wage. Such action is not imminent, and Intern Nation is itself an effort to school the public— and the academy—in the facts that are prerequisite to reform.
As of 2011, a movement of sorts might be stirring. Reuters, the news organization, published Perlin’s finding that American companies save $2 billion annually by failing to pay their interns a minimum wage, a figure repeated in a lengthy article in the Financial Times headlined “Hard Work Doesn’t Always Pay,” along with a sidebar on “Do’s and Don’ts for Interns.” In addition, the popular network TV program CBS Sunday Morning broadcast a segment on interns, “A Foot in the Door?,” produced in part by the network’s own summer college interns. Along with enthusiastic testimony from present and former interns, it included a critique by Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. On camera, Eisenbrey voiced economists’ concerns that unpaid internships degrade the value of work, encourage businesses to suppress labor (while discouraging hiring), and favor young people from the upper middle class, freezing out their counterparts from working-class families.
In 2011, one interns’ revolt made national news when hundreds of international college and university students on the State Department’s international J-1 visa program walked off their jobs in Pennsylvania and staged a rally to protest their scant wages, high living costs, and brutal working conditions. Students from China, Romania, Nigeria, Ukraine, and several other countries were promised a work-related experience of American life and found themselves packing fifty-pound cases of candy in fast-paced, round-the-clock shifts for the Hershey Company. The students, it was revealed, were exploited as subcontracted labor, because four different companies had roles in their internship arrangements (each blaming the others as the scandal erupted and each able to profit from a subbed-out labor market). Unlike the rather quiescent Disney Company college interns whose dismal situation Perlin investigates and reports at length, the Hershey students defied bosses’ threats and went public, charging that they were “captive workers.” Like the Disney interns, they faced abysmal conditions of work and scant wages after rent and various fees were subtracted from their pay. In August 2011, the New York Times ran stories headlined “Foreign Students in Work Visa Program Stage Walkout at Plant” and “Companies Point Fingers as Students Protest Conditions at Chocolate Plant.” The Times editorialized in their favor and opined that their experience “should shame us all.”
Intern Nation shows that shame and blame abound. It holds the US professoriate and academic leaders responsible for correcting a system of social and economic abuse that distorts education.
Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and author of Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us). Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.