In an interview available online today, Ross Perlin engages in a frank and witty exchange with The L Magazine's Jonny Diamond about Intern Nation and the ins and outs of the "black market internship economy." In addition to analyzing the shocking statistics, the conversation also addresses some of the underlying inequalities and practical issues that are confronting both businesses and interns involved in the recent boom:
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 do I tell my interns after they've read this and learned they're being exploited?
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 [The L Magazine interns] 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.
Visit The L Magazine to read the interview in full.