The Magazine

What Price Interns?

Punching the tickets of the meritocracy.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the current age of print saturation it’s always a shock to encounter a book billing itself as a “first exposé” on a topic. Yet that’s exactly what Intern Nation is. When between one and two million American students hold internships each year, and the nearest thing to an objective examination an Amazon “intern” search reveals is a Dominique Swain film, it’s time for a more serious look. Ross Perlin has accomplished the task, and very credibly.

Book Cover

Perlin describes his subject as the “internship explosion,” which is an apt description both for the recent meteoric growth in the numbers of interns and the rupturing of any coherent sense of what the term entails. From its origin as a term for early medical-student hospital residencies, “internship” has come to describe, in the narrowest definition, virtually any sort of work or learning in virtually any field. Like so many film McGuffins, while no one has a clear idea of what an internship is, countless parties seem agreed that one or more are desirable or essential. I don’t know a single collegiate contemporary who would have disagreed with Perlin’s assessment that “the subtle, relentless pressure to do an internship is now simply part of being young.” There are droves of guides to getting an internship; this is the first look at what the phenomenon means.

Internships are seen as a valuable leg-up in the postcollegiate career search, excellent proof of initiative and real-world experience. Perlin notes a Michigan State study which revealed that “50 percent of new college graduate hires came out of internship programs at the same firm .  .  . while an additional 40 percent had interned at other firms.” Internships are a “dream solution for employers, allowing them to ‘test-drive’ young workers for little or no cost.”

It’s no surprise that students might find a system that increasingly encourages unpaid work during college as less than ideal, even if they’re unaware of Perlin’s most dramatic assertion: that countless internships violate federal labor law. Internships squat in a legal space established by the 1947 Supreme Court case Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., which established an exemption from pay requirements for “trainees.” That case established several standards, all of which must be met, including that the training must resemble that given in a vocational school, that trainees do not displace regular employees, and, most damningly, that “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.” Numerous internships fail all of these criteria; massive numbers run afoul of the last. I’ve never seen an internship program which wasn’t explicitly concerned with gaining some immediate advantage from interns, as only makes sense; but in that case, interns legally deserve the minimum wage, which fewer than half receive.

How does this go on? On the foundation of a misunderstanding encouraged by the sector most responsible for the internship explosion—higher education—that the provision of academic credit for internships is sufficient for exemption from pay. In writing about the topic in the past I had blithely assumed this to be fact, and I was hardly alone. But Perlin points out that credit may stand as evidence that an intern is, in fact, a trainee, “yet many employers still buy into the myth that academic credit provides a blanket legal and ethical sanction for their all-work, no-pay internships, while the real test remains centered on the six overlooked Supreme Court criteria.” For all of higher education’s dedication to meritocracy and fairness, do they provide any reminder to students of this fact? No. In fact, in indiscriminately awarding academic credit, colleges and universities are the principal malefactors in this scenario and have funneled countless numbers of students into situations that often offer neither real pay nor real academic content.

Ironically, for a system that Perlin mainly faults businesses for exploiting, he traces the roots of the modern internship culture to the 1950s growth of government internships and to “a new impetus .  .  . for the growth of public-spirited internships, this time from schools and students caught up in the social and political ferment of the time.” From these roots in social work, criminal justice, and journalism, internships ballooned to their current dimensions, routinely featuring no substantive evaluation for academic content.

In a survey of 713 colleges, 95 percent reported that they allow unpaid internships to be posted on college campuses and websites, though a few added that they exclude unpaid positions at for-profit companies. In the same survey, only 27.6 percent of the colleges required classroom experience in granting academic credit for an internship.

Parents and students have become convinced that internships are a desirable and necessary career aspiration, and colleges have been happy to oblige. In this unthinking acquiescence, however, colleges have both ignored questions about what their academic credits actually represent and actively encouraged a system that directly contravenes the notions of meritocracy that they so vigorously trumpet. This builds to Perlin’s most trenchant critique of the internship culture: If career advantages accrue to those who can take internships, and if these internships often pay little or nothing, those who benefit will invariably be the affluent. Anecdotes aren’t really necessary to prove the point that most students simply cannot afford to work for little or nothing; internships, Perlin argues, provide “the already privileged with a significant head start.”

Of course, the affluent would enjoy an advantage in most employment scenarios; but universities exacerbate inequality when they encourage a credential that is inaccessible to many. It was not business lobbyists, Perlin points out, but “a group of thirteen university presidents who recently wrote to the Department of Labor, complaining that protecting interns might get in the way of their brisk trade in academic credit and cozy employer relationships.”

Anthony Paletta is a former senior editor at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University.