The Growing Culture of Unpaid Internships

Intern Nation author Ross Perlin says free labor is problematic for society.

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If it seems like an increasing number of internship opportunities are unpaid, that's because they are. And while college students, recent graduates, and even mid-life career-changers are often willing to go without a paycheck to gain experience, not everyone supports this work-for-free phenomenon.

In what could be called an exposé of internships, Ross Perlin's new Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy examines the history of the practice, what's really legal, and how students, employers, and colleges can change the tide so more interns are paid. Perlin, a 28-year-old researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in China and first-time author, talked recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

Can you explain the arguments you make in the book?

One is that the internship system, if you can call it that, is chaotic and sprawling, and in many ways has gone off the rails; it's not working as it should. That's something which goes back to what's been happening with the recession ... People are becoming serial interns, doing four or five or six internships, none of which are leading to a job. Companies are not using internships in the way they used to in many cases, as a recruiting pipeline, as a way to bring talent into the firm. They're using them as a cheap labor force that they're cycling through without any prospect of bringing [interns] on as regular workers … Internships are displacing full-time workers in significant numbers.

[See The Ethics of Unpaid Internships.]

The second argument is a little more subtle, but it relates to the first. Those who can't access internships, those who can't pay to play, who can't afford to work unpaid for significant amounts of time … those people are being left behind, and they're unable to enter a lot of key professions in the white-collar workforce. Professions like politics, media, film, and entertainment. There is a social justice issue here. If you have the gateway into the workforce being something where you have to come from a well-off-enough background ... people who are from [big cities] where internships are concentrated and have a place to live or are from families that have the money to enable somebody to work unpaid for a summer or six months or even a year, those people are at a serious advantage. So the overall impact on our society is just beginning to show.

Where did you find the data to support these points?

For the most part, it's based on self-reported surveys of college students who have done internships. Some of the best [surveys] have been done by a research firm called Intern Bridge, some have been done by The National Association of Colleges and Employers [but] those have often been surveys on the employers' side … The data is indicative, but the gold standard would be if the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor tried to track and define internships in a clear way.

How'd this book come about?

What dawned on me in London when I was doing a master's degree there was I hadn't done an internship. I'd spent my summers traveling [and] I was beginning to feel that everything I'd done was pretty impractical. I needed to make some step toward a career. So I did this internship [with a non-profit that follows environmental news related to China] that lasted about four months. It wasn't a horror experience, but it sort of got me down.

I was thinking about this state of being an intern and realizing that I was the last of my friends to go through it ... As I began doing research, I realized how many other issues internships connected with. How they were tied to changes in academia, to changes in the labor market, to certain generational issues, even to digital culture and the internet.

When I started researching the book, the recession hadn't even begun and I started looking at the internship boom during the last 20 or 30 years. But the recession has really exacerbated things. It has especially led to many more students who just graduated from college or even are a year or two out taking on unpaid internships, and even people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are trying to change careers or are looking to get a foothold in the labor market. I think people have come to recognize it as a broader issue than just what are students doing with their summer.