Ross Perlin. Intern Nation; How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Verso, 2011.
Internships have a favorable aura about them. Ross Perlin intends to dissuade us from our unexamined acceptance. You hear various rhetorics in defense of internships. Kids with college educations need to pay back to society some of the costs of their privileged lives. Internships allow young people to decide whether or not a field of employment is for them. The work experience gives some reality to academic learning, which may or may not be relevant to the work place. Jobs are hard to come by for college graduates these days, and internships provide one more bullet-point on a resume.
Ross Perlin is not necessarily denying any of these arguments. He even adds a few, pointing out that many companies save recruiting costs by hiring from within their intern pool. Internships provide opportunities for minorities and women to enter work situations that had previously been filled mostly with white males. There is, however, a darker side to this internship business.
Some colleges give credits to internships that if they are part of a sponsored program. Theoretically there is faculty supervision of this on-the-job training. Originally there may have been some legitimate reason for giving college credit for internships– and charging the students tuition, but less so these days.
Internships began in the medical profession. The practice then spread to government work, first federal agencies and then state and local governments. Perlin admits that government internships were a legitimate effort to recruit top college graduates into the federal civil service. They were also a means of paying off supporters, who had kids wanting summer employment. Both medical and government inters were generally paid, though a cheap labor source.
Many private companies joined the ranks; Walt Disney World has one of the largest internship programs in the country. It saves the company a lot of labor costs.
The author makes a distinction between apprenticeships and internships. The apprenticeship program has a history of abuse: think young Ben Franklin. It fell into disuse in nineteenth-century America but was revised by the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937 (the Fitzgerald Act). This New Deal legislation encouraged companies and governments to set up and register legitimate apprenticeship programs. Perlin estimates that there are now 29,000 of them. Paychecks are small at the beginning but are supposed to increase as the apprentice acquires skills. They mostly involve blue-collar jobs.
There is the likelihood that many of the present-day unpaid internships violate the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The Act has been many times amended, raising the minimum wage, but also exempting various workers from the Act – farm laborers originally, but also various administrative or white collar jobs, and “volunteers.”
Theoretically the Act should protect interns from abuse. Perlin contends that just because you agree to the terms of an internship does not mean that you have signed away your rights under FLSA. Nor are you excluded from its benefits because some college has given you academic credits. The trouble is that the enforcement of the Act is slack. The Department of Labor hasn’t been provided with the resources to do so, and students and their families don’t press the issue.
Internships look a lot like older, well-established practices in professional schools. Schools of education, for example, have long required student teaching in order to get certified. Student teachers are not paid and have to bear the living expenses of getting some “situated learning.” What about the undergraduate and graduate students who work in research facilities? Most are paid usually with assistantships, though not always at anywhere near the rate that would be paid to non-student employees.
Two of my progeny have had prestigious White House internships. And one of them had an internship with a popular television show. Perlin’s Intern Nation is a provocative look at an institution that I hadn’t thought much about.