Blog post

The competition is on: Ross Perlin on the race for summer internships

Morgan Buck 3 April 2011

Despite ongoing precarity and lack of legal protection, the summer internship boom is bigger than ever as thousands of young people across America clamour for the privilege to work for free. And according to Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation (forthcoming from Verso this month), the participation of colleges is only making the situation worse. Writing for The New York Times Sunday edition, Perlin argues:

Colleges and universities have become cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom, failing to inform young people of their rights or protect them from the miserly calculus of employers. In hundreds of interviews with interns over the past three years, I found dejected students resigned to working unpaid for summers, semesters and even entire academic years - and, increasingly, to paying for the privilege.


The uncritical internship fever on college campuses - not to mention the exploitation of graduate student instructors, adjunct faculty members and support staff - is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Far from being the liberal, pro-labor bastions of popular image, universities are often blind to the realities of work in contemporary America.

Perlin goes on to explore the issue particularly in the context of an overall increase in competition for jobs and the precarity of labor in the US. Perlin also does not hesitate to  point fingers, calling out big names like NBC and "The Daily Show" whose cooperation with university internship programs has resulted in positions for which interns "have essentially had to pay to work for free." In consideration of potential solutions to the problem, Perlin suggests that

Cooperative education, in which students alternate between tightly integrated classroom time and paid work experience, represents a humane and pragmatic model.


To be sure, the unpaid internship is only part of a phenomenon that includes the growing numbers of temps, freelancers, adjuncts, self-employed "entrepreneurs" and other low-wage or precariously employed workers who live gig by gig. The academy should critique, not amplify, those trends.

Visit The New York Times to read the article in full and watch bookstore shelves for Ross Perlin's Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in Today's Brave New Economy.