Did you know that it's against the law to "employ" people and not pay them? In other words, most of the unpaid internships in New York City (some of which went into the production of this very magazine) are illegal. So, as it turns out, are most of the unpaid internships in this country, which, as Ross Perlin discovered in researching his new book, Intern Nation, runs almost entirely on intern power. So, with the summer intern season fast approaching, we asked Mr. Perlin how it came to this, and what's to be done about the vast and nefarious intern black market.
So, not to be too self-obsessed, but here in New York the intern economy is largely synonymous with the media industry (I'm looking at three of them right now). But you're telling us that virtually every sector of American industry has come to rely on an intern underclass—how deep does this go?
Very, very deep. At this point, interns are embedded in pretty much every white-collar field, in organizations of all shapes and sizes, for-profit and non-profit and public sector alike. And it's going global too. There's huge variation in how different industries handle internships and to what extent they rely on interns for actual work, but the media world is definitely one place that's seriously caught up in the internship fever. When you reach the point in an industry where interns are displacing regular workers, and where working unpaid has become a crucial prerequisite for getting any kind of entry-level job, it's definitely a sign that things are out of control.
You mention that outside the "glamor" industries (finance, entertainment, and the arts) most unpaid internships are held by low- and middle-income people. So what sectors are the worst offenders?
That's right, the interning masses, perhaps surprisingly to some people, are not all wealthy kids, although those at the bottom of the social scale and those not at four-year colleges are pretty rare. Most interns are struggling to get through what they hope will be a very temporary period. The glamor industries see so much demand to break in, and are so confident that people will do whatever it takes, that they're really pushing the envelope and demanding more and more of young people. Many of the worst stories of intern abuse tend to come from film and fashion. Publishing, the arts, and some parts of the non-profit world are pretty bad in terms of hiring interns on the basis of connections, keeping out people from lower-income backgrounds. Sometimes niche fields are among the worst: game-design internships, for example, are among the least likely to pay, just 11 percent according to one study.
I was shocked by the degree to which Washington is run by interns. How much power do these kids have, and what would happen to the country if they all just left?
Interns in D.C. run the gamut from completely powerless, idle kids spending a few weeks in some senator's office to people doing very substantial and important work on energy policy, pending legislation, foreign affairs and the like, literally drafting official documents and shaping policies. It was during the federal government shutdown of 1995 that White House interns began to fill vital roles during a brief, intense period, when regular staff members had to go home—in some sense, that's what led to the whole Lewinsky-Clinton affair, because ordinarily an intern and a president would not have been working in such close quarters. If all interns disappeared tomorrow, things would definitely grow quite a bit quieter in Washington and in various state and city governments across the country. Lots of politicians, agencies, committees, think tanks, lobbyists, etc. would have to consider either making some actual hires or scaling back what they do. A whole patronage mill would grind to a halt. Starting a career in politics and public administration would depend more on principles of merit and fairness and less on someone's ability to work unpaid.
Why are internships overwhelmingly taken by women?
It's unpaid internships in particular, 77 percent according to one recent study, that skew heavily towards women. This is a huge and troubling question, which I was only able to scratch the surface of in Intern Nation. The simplest explanation is that women are more heavily represented in the white-collar world generally, and particularly in the fields where unpaid internships flourish. There's a correlation to subjects studied in school, with humanities and social sciences majors, more of whom are women, much less likely to be paid, even by the same intern employer. A more insidious reason might be the creepy gender dynamic that's all too often present in internship situations, with women less likely to demand pay for their efforts or quickly leave exploitative situations.
What has been the strangest example of an internship you've come across in your research?
I've been impressed and astounded to find interns working in the Vatican, in the Army, at Los Alamos and in all sorts of other crazy places. I think it's pretty wild to see Pizza Hut hiring an intern specifically to manage their Twitter feed. Likewise, guys in home offices who bring on interns ostensibly to help them develop a business, but really just to help them promote themselves and run all sorts of random errands, since the business is really non-existent. I talked to someone who interned for a Chinese businessman where all she did was do Google searches for him.
What was your worst internship experience? Did any of the internships you've done provide you with lasting skills/advantages?
I only did one (unpaid) internship, over four months long and pretty routine, not too exciting and not really getting any training. I learned about the organization's work and had something to put on my CV afterwards, but I can't say it led anywhere or left me with lasting skills. It did, however, spark the idea behind this book.
Outside of the question of remuneration, do you think the essential value of an internship—as on-the-job apprenticeship—has lost much of its original value?
I think the basic concept still has a lot of merits, but it's going to take a lot of work to restore the good name of internships. Apprenticeships, usually in the blue-collar trades, tend to do a much better job on so many levels: they're well paid, there are benefits and workplace protections, and the training is structured and intensive. Of course, there are still plenty of great internships out there, and it can be risky not to do one if you want to enter a particular profession, but the reality currently falls far short of the ideal.
Moving closer to home, what do you suggest for a small business (like The L Magazine) that relies heavily on intern support?
If you actually rely on interns, you should be paying them. Is minimum wage really too much to ask for real work? If the work of interns isn't leading to real results, the business should ask why it's bringing on interns at all. Is it an act of charity? In that case, run a training or even a shadowing program, selflessly imparting all that you know to the next generation. Also, it can be better for everyone in the long run to have fewer, more committed, paid interns rather than a slew of unpaid interns constantly cycling through.
What would you say to the seven full-time staff members at The L (out of a total of 12 on the editorial and operations side of things), who actually started as interns? (Including, yes,
Internships are a way to break in—no one denies that. The decision to work unpaid for a while, to make that sacrifice if you can, can certainly be a rational one on the part of an individual. But what are the broader effects of a system that requires you to work unpaid to break in? What are the chances that a young person from a lower-income backgound, someone who absolutely needs to work for pay, could become a full-time staff member at The L? And then what effect does that have on the editorial decisions and overall tone of the magazine—and what about on the media more generally since this is common practice?
Yeah, but why should I feel guilty about working with unpaid interns if they're banging down the door to work with us?
One reason some people don't feel guilty is because their interns can apparently afford to do it—they have money or support networks behind them. And the kids who can't afford to become unpaid interns don't even apply, don't even show up, and you'll never really see them or think of them, if you're mostly hiring from your intern pool. Still, I think everyone deserves pay for real work, regardless of their background, and it's dangerous for all of us when that principle starts eroding. The fact that interns are banging down the door reflects how much schools, parents, employers, and others are pushing them, how completely natural they've come to seem—it doesn't mean that young people want to work for free, they just see no other choice to get where they want to go.
Is this all just an inevitable and blameless Hegelian master/slave dynamic? Who is to blame? Colleges? Parents? Industry? Me?
You, Jonny, and nobody but you are to blame for the whole global internship racket. But seriously, it's something of a headless monster: no one group is completely responsible for pushing the new norm of unpaid work. Employers trying to save money, colleges promoting these positions, parents pushing their kids ahead, and young people devaluing their own labor and underbidding each other are all partially responsible.
What do I tell my interns after they've read this and learned they're
Maybe you're providing fantastic training and helping them land paying work—in which case it might not be exploitation at all, and you might be justified in asking them to waive their wages. Otherwise, tell them you value their work and you've ransacked the company coffers to find $7.25 an hour for them. Ask them if they'd like direct deposit or a check on their desk. I promise they'll be cheering, and will be more motivated in their work. You'll get a lot more applications from a broader range of talented people.
What's the most important thing they should know about their rights as interns? (After they've left The L Magazine.)
They should remember that interns are essentially workers in the vast majority of cases. As such, they are entitled to the same rights as workers—wages, overtime, workplace protections, and so on—and their work has value and dignity. They should be wary about unpaid situations and try to move quickly into paid ones. If they've spent time in an internship that doesn't meet the six-point test laid out by the Department of Labor, they should make it known and press for backpay.
What Free Labor Looks Like
Illustrations By Amy Devoogd