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The plight of the intern in the Sunday Times, the Evening Standard and the Guardian

Kaitlin Staudt31 May 2011

Reviewing Ross Perlin's Intern Nation for the Sunday TimesRobert Collins picks up on Perlin's mapping of the history of internships and their proliferation today:

An intern, Ross Perlin points out in his eye-opening, welcome exposé of this rapidly expanding sector of the workforce, used to be someone in training for a particular profession. Before the second world war, the term meant only one thing: a trainee doctor confined, or interned, in a hospital for a year... since then the term has crept ever more ambiguously into almost every kind of field—"interns" are no longer just trainees, but used for whatever purpose companies see fit ...

They are, he reveals, often to be found doing what should be classed as normal, full-time jobs ... And yet, elsewhere, internships have come to be seen as the only sure way of getting a foot in the corportate door—91% of new employees at Goldman Sachs in 2009 were former interns of the company...

[Perlin's] call to arms is timely. This month, a London employment tribunal set a precedent by awarding back pay to an intern at the website who, unpaid, had been responsible for running a team of writers—and hiring new interns.

In the Evening Standard Rosamund Urwin writes that "the plight of the office serf is currently a hot topic." Referring to the debate over internships, she suggests that they only benefit wealthy mediocrities. Mentioning Perlin's Intern Nation, she cites its subtitle, "How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy," as the tag-line for the life of post-recession graduates.

Today's graduate —already bogged down in debt—is expected to play the peon to enter many of the plum careers. Take the not-for-profit sector. Amnesty's pledge to protect human rights apparently excludes the right of university-leavers to a salary. For Oxfam, being Humankind doesn't stretch to being Internkind. These organisations have always been supported by volunteers but there's a difference between giving them your Saturday mornings and spending three months working with no pay, no security and probably no desk for the mere pipedream of a job ...

The student who paid the bills at university by pulling pints has emerged to find that that an expensive degree isn't enough, that there's an extra hurdle to jump, and they don't have the money to make it over. An acquaintance of mine worked unpaid for a Tory MP for a year—an option only affordable to the most affluent but which provided a perfect CV for the aspiring baby-kisser.

The only beneficiaries of the current system are the moneyed and mediocre: those who wouldn't succeed if it was open to all. Even for employers, it's a short-term gain for a long-term loss. For ultimately they want the best staff, not the staff who are best able to work for free.

Rachel Williams, writing for the Guardian also finds the trend of paying for internships as beneficial only for a few. 

Today, internships are both ubiquitous and highly contentious. There are campaigns denouncing the ethics of requiring young people already saddled with thousands of pounds of debt from their degree studies to do unpaid work, and debate over the morality of a system that allows those from well-to-do families to exploit their connections and secure opportunities that give them even greater advantage over those from humbler backgrounds ...

Yet with competition for graduate jobs more intense than ever—last week a survey showed applications were likely to be up by a third this year—internships are still widely accepted as crucial for those seeking the best positions after university. Demand shows no sign of dropping—and now it seems increasingly that the pressure to bag a career-boosting placement is leading students not just to work for free, but to pay for the privilege ...

Already concerned that unpaid internships put poor students at a disadvantage, [critics] say asking students to spend large sums for such opportunities harms social mobility even more.

"It's incredibly worrying that we're moving from a situation where people don't just have to work for free but are having to pay to work," says Ben Lyons, the co-director of Intern Aware, which campaigns for interns to be paid the minimum wage. "It puts these experiences and opportunities out of reach of the vast majority of young people."

Visit the Evening Standard or the Guardian to read the articles in full.

The Sunday Times review is available behind their paywall.

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