Blog post

Internships and the 'New Economy': Intern Nation reviewed in the Spectator and the Financial Times

Andrea D'Cruz23 June 2011

Alice Clegg's Financial Times review of Ross Perlin's book includes a handy do's and don't s list for interns and, drawing on interviews with recruiters, interns and lawyers, discusses what makes an internship good, bad or downright illegal:

When does give and take tip over into exploitation? In the UK, it boils down to whether an individual falls within one of four exemptions to the National Minimum Wage Act: volunteers; voluntary workers; work-shadowing/work experience; and students on course placements. Simply labelling someone an intern is not a get-out, says Alison Clements of Lewis Silkin, the law firm. What matters is whether “they are performing real work” and are obliged to work fixed hours.

Adam Foreman, a partner at Littler Mendelson, the law firm, says US law that guarantees interns a minimum wage is often ignored. Because “the interns are hoping to turn their internships into full-time jobs”, he says, transgressors are rarely hauled before the courts.

Reviewing for the Spectator, Edward King finds Intern Nation a "fascinating read," picking up on Perlin's innovative contributions to the debate:

One of Perlin’s main arguments is that the internship phenomenon has become a vehicle for an increasing interpenetration between the worlds of work and education. This is particularly pronounced in the US, where universities often run internship programmes hand-in-hand with businesses in which students can work for firms in return for academic credit. So far, UK universities have been more reluctant to open their doors to the market in this way (some Oxford colleges, for instance, forbid students from taking internships during holiday periods). But, with the radical overhaul in university funding, this is set to change. The problem with this encroachment of the business world into education, argues Perlin, is that it devalues both sides: replacing structured learning with nebulous ‘on the job experience’ and, in the case of the more unstructured internships, giving young people bad first impressions of the world of work.

Perlin is at his best when he attempts to situate the internship phenomenon within what he refers to as the ‘New Economy’. He argues that internships are part of a shift away from the company man to an entrepreneurial philosophy of ‘I am the CEO of me’. The benefit of most internships has little to do with learning about an industry or a career. Instead, internships are all about personal ‘branding’. Graduates gather internships as so many empty lines on a CV, evidence not so much of ability as connections and perseverance. In one of his most interesting arguments, Perlin links the increasing willingness to work for free to the ethos springing up around the intern, according to which businesses are willing to give their main commodity away for free and gain their financial rewards through subsidiary channels. In the internship system financial rewards are similarly deferred as graduates work for free in return for exposure, contacts, and references that are touted as the prerequisites to making money.

Visit the Financial Times and the Spectator to read the reviews in full.

Filed under: reviews