On yesterday's Minnesota Public Radio Midmorning segment, Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, squared off against David Lat, who declared internships a "win-win situation" in a New York Times Room for Debate piece earlier this week.
Both Perlin and listeners who called in to join the discussion pointed out that internships that offer college credit in exchange for core work are often illegal and exploitative ways for employers to avoid paying minimum wage, and create situations in which interns are essentially paying tuition to work. Perlin also reiterated that internships routinely displace and replace regular employees, and bar those who can't afford to work for free from entire industries where unpaid internships serve as the only entry.
"I think the law as it stands is adequate," Perlin concluded, in response to Midmorning host Kerri Miller's question of whether the Department of Labor's internship guidelines needed to be changed. "We just need to see enforcement of the law, and interns understanding their rights and standing up for themselves."
As the recent high-profile lawsuits against companies like Fox Searchlight and Hearst seem to indicate, more and more interns are doing just that.
Visit MPR Midmorning with Kerri Miller to hear the full podcast.
Ross Perlin will be participating in a panel co-sponsored by Dissent on internships and precarious work at Left Forum.
The stories about internships are well known by now: highly coveted positions auctioned off to the highest bidder; long hours and overtime work rewarded with little to no remuneration; barely anything in the way of training or education; and, to top it all off, no real guarantee of future employment or the proverbial foot in the door. While most of this has already become the object of common knowledge and is typically accepted with a blasé shrug by millions of students and recent grads, the normalization of exploitative and illegal labor practices in today's internships are finally beginning to receive serious challenge and wider coverage in the public eye.
In Sunday's New York Times Room for Debate discussion, Ross Perlin, whose acclaimed Intern Nation comes out in paperback this spring, clearly lays out for a wider audience the largely disavowed yet nonetheless brutal damage internships have been wreaking for years among younger generations. He writes:
Released in 2010 to widespread critical acclaim, Black Swan is a psychological thriller that follows ballerinas Nina and Lily as they compete—in increasingly fierce and surreal ways—for a lead part in a production of Swan Lake. The film has received numerous awards and has gone on to gross over $300 million worldwide.
Yet, behind the scenes and on the set of Fox Searchlight Pictures, another surreal scene was taking place. According to a lawsuit recently filed by Eric Glatt and Alex Footman, two former interns at Fox Searchlight, about a hundred people were hired for the production, "functioning as production assistants and bookkeepers and performing secretarial and janitorial work," using their own laptops and cellphones for the production, and sometimes working more than 40 hours a week, or 10 hours a day. And they did all of this for free, as part of an unpaid internship.
Does the predominance of unpaid internships offered to school and university leavers infantilise a generation of young adults? Does the increase in such roles contribute to the phenomenon of 'extended adolescence' - the growing trend of adults abstaining from settling down in a traditional sense, and living lives as perpetual teenagers?
Exploring these issues in the latest Psychologies magazine, Decca Aitkenhead asks the author of Intern Nation, Ross Perlin, his views on the social impact of the growing culture of exploitative internships.
"Internships in the traditional sense used to be something you would do in your Summer holidays while at school, but now they do them after they graduate and well into their twenties. And a third to half of all internships are unpaid, and the rest are not well paid."
Perlin goes on to concur with the sentiments expressed by Aitkenhead, and thinks that the increased use of interns as cheap labour providers can have a pronounced psychological impact.
..it's one of the factors that leads to this prolonged adolescence. I think we can consider it infantilising, because it means you cannot move into the stake-holder role in society that's traditionally been thought of as adulthood.
The article will appear in the September 2011 issue of Psychologies magazine (not yet available online).
Following up their article on The Ethics of Unpaid Internships, which traverses the legal and ethical swamp of the US intern economy, U.S. News has interviewed Intern Nation author Ross Perlin to get the full scoop on growing trends in internship culture. Ross describes the two main arguments in his book as follows:
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 ... 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.
His second argument is that internships possess a highly unequal class character—perhaps not a phrase (or political argument) that the readers of the U.S. News business page are all too comfortable with.
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.