An interview with Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation

If you follow higher education, you know that the number of students and recent graduates who are interning is higher than ever before. Whether they’re part- or full-time, during school or after graduation, paid or unpaid, internships are becoming a ubiquitous part of early professional experience. By one estimate, as many as three-quarters of college students have taken on at least one internship by the time they graduate. These positions are increasingly unpaid (or pay below the minimum wage) and offer no workplace protections for interns. Young professionals are now often expected to take unpaid work before they can be qualified for a full time, paid position. Equally troubling is that many of these internships are probably illegal, since they do not meet the Department of Labor’s six guidelines for unpaid internship work.

Intern Nation, a new book by Ross Perlin, is the first exhaustive look at the causes of the internship boom, the effects of it on students, colleges, and industries, and possible ways out of the troubling mess many young people now find themselves in. We reviewed the book in the latest issue of Academe.

I spoke by e-mail with Mr. Perlin about internships, colleges, professors, and labor law. Our interview is below.

Academe Blog: Is it legal to hire an intern for no pay?

Ross Perlin: Under US law—and this is true of most other countries as well—there are very few, quite limited situations where an intern can be hired without pay. Essentially, the internship has to be tantamount to a training program where the employer is deriving no “immediate advantage” from the intern’s labors. The internship must be an educational experience for the benefit of the intern, who must not displace existing employees. Unfortunately, few existing unpaid internship situations fit these criteria, which ultimately derive from the Supreme Court and are interpreted and enforced by the Department of Labor. Far too often, employers are using interns as cheap, temporary labor or, at best, a “free look” at a potential employee, while assuming the intern will learn what they need to on the fly. Most interns deserve minimum wage and all the standard workplace protections that regular workers get.

AB: What if the intern is getting college credit, or what if the intern is working for a non-profit?

RP: Contrary to popular myth, academic credit does not make an unpaid internship legal. As stated unambiguously by a Department of Labor spokeswoman, academic credit only speaks to one of the six criteria that employers must meet to offer legal unpaid internships. On the other hand, unpaid internships at non-profits are more of a gray area, since those interns could possibly be construed as volunteers, and such organizations can legally have volunteers. Still, many unpaid non-profit internships may be illegal as well, if it’s clear that those interns are not really operating as volunteers.

AB: What are some of the costs that students or graduates face when taking on internships?

RP: College students and, increasingly, recent graduates face a serious financial burden when they take unpaid internships. First, these experiences tend to be concentrated in expensive cities like New York and Washington DC, where rent and the cost of the living are substantial: based on my research, summer interns very typically spend at least $3,000-4,000 on those expenses alone. The cost of college credits, often required by companies seeking to indemnify themselves (misguidedly) against any potential legal trouble, can add hundreds or often thousands more to the cost. For interns who are already saddled with college debt, unpaid internships can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, forcing young people to go still deeper into debt. On top of this, it’s increasingly expected for young people to do multiple internships, so the situation may very well have to be repeated—not to mention the opportunity costs of not being able to earn money at a paying job. Of course, some interns get support from family or (much more rarely) their schools, but this only magnifies the injustice of having a pay-to-play system where those who can’t afford to work unpaid are effectively shut out.

AB: What role have colleges played in promoting internships, and why do they encourage (or require) students to take them?

RP: Colleges and universities played a significant role in the early growth of internships, starting especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when internships seemed a promising way to get students more engaged off-campus, especially for disciplines looking to get their students experience as “participant observers” in workplaces. Later, schools embraced internships as a quick-fix alternative to a rigorous, structured system of cooperative education when government support for those programs dried up: internships allowed costs to be shifted onto students and their families. Nowadays, colleges encourage (and even require) internships mainly without even questioning the system, because they see everyone else doing it and want to get in on the act and be seen as helping their students in a difficult job market. More cynically, it’s also become a subtle way of outsourcing students’ education off campus, developing an academic credit revenue stream without having to offer much in return.

AB: What can students (or other prospective interns) do to change the current system of exploitative, unpaid internships?

RP: More than anything, students and prospective interns need to know their rights—caveat intern. By refusing to take illegal internships, or by blowing the whistle on employers who offer them (as an increasing number of interns are doing it), it’s possible to begin rolling back what’s become a massive culture of unpaid work. Interns also need to find ways to organize and communicate to bring transparency and justice to the murky world of internships.

AB: What can professors do to change the current system of internships?

RP: Professors can talk to their students about both the positives and the pitfalls surrounding internships, but they should do more than just parrot the line that students need to do whatever it takes to get a foot in the door—that’s part of what’s leading to a glut of desperate interns, the displacement of regular workers, the evaporation of entry-level jobs, and overall an abysmal youth labor market. Young people have very little consciousness about work and about their rights as workers—professors can help build that up. Professors can also take a hard look at what’s happening on their own campus and in their own department. Are there internship requirements? If so, are students getting a fair deal—is it affordable and educational, or are students paying the school to go work unpaid somewhere off-campus? If a campus career center is uncritically promoting the internship boom and allowing the advertising of illegal internships on campus, that’s something a professor should be concerned about—for the sake of their students.

One thought on “An interview with Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation

  1. In the engineering fields, interns are paid positions—they are usually paid at a somewhat lower wage than someone with a BS and are temporary positions without many benefits, but they generally pay better than other forms of student employment. It is disappointing to hear that other fields have decided to institute unpaid labor and call it an internship.

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