by Jen Paton
In America we believe in chasing our dreams. Our young people are smart and can do whatever they want to do when they grow up. They should chase their dreams even as our economy falters and youth employment hits its lowest rate since records began (that would be 1948). Even now, especially now, “it’s really important that students have someone there to relate to them … I’m there to guide them to their dream,” says Lauren Berger, aka the “Intern Queen,” who runs an internship listing and advice site. She founded it after completing fifteen unpaid internships during her four years as an undergraduate, convinced she had expert advice to provide aspiring interns. Her book, “All Work and No Pay” comes out next year. Despite the title, I don’t think it’s an anti-internship polemic. Berger is one of legion middlemen who middle class, college educated students can consult to find opportunities to work for little or no pay. At the University of Dreams, one can pay upwards of $8000 for a summer internship – inclusive of college credit and housing.
To the growing subset of overeducated, under-or-unemployed wannabe white-collar workers, for those of us who can afford it or finagle a loan, working for free has become normal. The internship is understood as a way to gain experience in your chosen field or even just to figure out what you want to do. The London University where I took my MA hosted a panel discussion for those interested in media and arts careers (I realize this is already, sadly, a questionable premise). The panel featured young and youngish professionals in museums, television, and PR, describing how they go their start and how “we” – mostly BA students, but some MAers like myself, might think about building ours. All agreed that the unpaid internship was fundamental.
“You’ll get a better idea of what you do like doing and don’t like doing,” said the woman from the museum, describing how, after finishing her own MA, she “wasn’t sure what to do” and so “flew to Singapore” to take an unpaid internship that helped her find her passion for curating. The young woman next to me raised her hand to ask – “But what if you can’t afford to fly somewhere else and work for free?” The panelists, in so many words, said, we’re sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Save money up. If you Google “I Can’t Afford an Unpaid Internship,” an article from Vault.com advises you to “take the hit on student loans,” because “graduates with internship experience tend to receive a higher starting salary.” Those who find a job, at least.
Ross Perlin’s incisive and, for any aspiring “professional” under thirty (or anyone attempting a career transition at any age), profoundly depressing book “Intern Nation” traces the relatively new phenomenon of the internship. Perlin estimates the value of the intern economy at around 2 billion dollars per year, and examines its implications for labor and higher education. Supposedly, it used to be possible to “pay your dues” by working your way up from the mailroom, or at the very least a junior, entry level administrative position. Now, we are expected to literally pay our dues – the experience internships provide seems to be required to even get many of those formerly junior level jobs.
Of course, there are internships and internships. The word itself is applied to what Perlin calls a “nebulous cluster of job titles” of varying worth to students and organizations. Writing “news blasts” for a London art gallery? (You’ll have your name published online!) That’s an internship. Working a highly structured, reasonably paid training programme in banking or consulting? Internships like these more closely resemble apprenticeships like those that exist in medicine and, in the UK, in law. Flipping burgers at Disney World for slightly below minimum wage? Could be an internship – thousands of students descend on the Magic Kingdom each year to participate in internships in the hospitality industry.
Perlin is at his best pointing out the obvious (but hardly talked about) legal and ethical implications of all this. Partly because they are so ill-defined, there is little existing law on internships. But, though “the word intern is rarely used in the relevant laws…doing substantive work without pay for any meaningful length of time is illegal in most countries, barring exemptions for legitimate student trainees.” Those student traineeships, however, are rare, and where they do exist, the course credit “student interns” receive to legitimate their internship is often highly questionable: Disney’s classes on “Marketing You: Personal and Career Development Strategies,” in which students learn to write a resume and practice interview skills (things that could be learned for free at one’s college career office) are one example.
Universities are an important part of this dubious system. When companies try to be responsible to the law by requiring students receive course credit for internships, it is students who end up out of pocket, paying University tuition fees to go into a company’s office a few days a week, or full time during the summer. Though some schools provide thoughtful, structured support throughout the internship process, they are paid for credit that costs them very little in overhead. Perlin is correct that this represents “outsourcing a part of a students educations” to the private sector – though at any private university, this is only a small part of a much bigger privatization pie.
I have done four unpaid internships, and I am happy with my experiences, really, my investments in an arts nonprofit, my local radio station, and, more recently, two large international organizations. I learnt about my professional interests. I met people I wanted to meet. I did real work. But I was lucky: I could afford it.
There something wrong, especially in a tanking economy, with our insistence on talking about internships as pathways to “realize our dreams,” especially when the best internships – or any unpaid internship – are available only to those with some other means of paying for food and shelter. Nor is pointing out the problems with the intern economy tantamount to typical millennial laziness, a complaint that seems to be an undercurrent to many reviews of Perlin’s work. The Economist concluded that:
Many people are outrageously exploited at work, but interns are not among them. After all, they are getting a free education, something that few universities provide these days.
To say internships provide a “free education” is laughable. Whatever the benefits to companies and organizations, universities, and a few of us privileged students, whether one is paying ones way via savings, Daddy, or a grant , there is certainly a cost to spending eight hours or more a day in an office and not getting paid for it, particularly in the big city. As we should know by now, whatever the market can bear is not necessarily what is best. And as Perlin points out, bright eyed, unpaid interns have broader impact on the labor market: in many instances, they take assistant and secretarial work that would otherwise be performed by low paid (and…whisper it…possibly unionized) office workers.
Perlin offers some solutions which make sense: clearer legislation on this new class of work, better of enforcement of existing minimum wage law, and organized resistance by unpaid interns themselves to promote these changes – as is already happening in Europe. But he also might have done well to point out the connections between the growth of the intern economy, the deeper collapse of the American middle class, and the massive amount of debt that it has become “normal” to take on in order to receive a Bachelors degree. Most young people privileged enough to achieve a college degree have a great deal of debt and not much sense of how to build a life for themselves in America. Perhaps we should stop telling ourselves, and our kids, to just “follow their dreams,” and everything else will come into place.
Unpaid internships are certainly not capitalism’s most egregious sin. I know first hand that at the right organization one can learn a great deal. But only a very few are lucky and well placed enough to take advantage of a “good” internship, and only a very few organizations are providing honest training. Perlin is corrrect that we should ask ourselves whose interests are served when honest work is not met with honest pay.