Nothing to Lose But Your Cubicles
By Ross Perlin.
How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy.
The Intern Manifesto.
“Do the interns get Glocks?”
“No, they all share one.”
—The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Picture unsorted mail forming menacing towers; websites, newsletters, and contact lists growing increasingly out of date. No one to get coffee, make Xeroxes, or run errands, but also no one to be mentored, no one to cover vital work during staff vacations, and no one with timid, bright ideas about reaching the youth demographic. The magic of Disney World would become a nightmare, and the iPod assembly lines of Foxconn would grind to a halt. Capitol Hill would grow hushed, as junior staffers took up administrative tasks and a slower pace of work set in. Nonprofits would make hard choices, focusing on core programs and pondering necessary hires. Companies would bring in temps and ask employees to put in overtime; eventually, some might even go out of business or never get off the ground. A general strike of all interns would show all that they contribute for the first time. Bringing a delicious, low-level chaos to the world’s work, it would demonstrate forcefully just how much intern labor now sustains a wide array of industries and offices.
For young people, the sheer scale of the internship arms race has made the raw credential unremarkable, a box to be checked, in economic terms a broken “signal” for college graduates just starting out. Its shelf life is short. Its power is largely negative—it seems risky not to have done one, it teaches you what not to do. Employers are increasingly aware that these experiences can mean just about anything: your parents are well connected, your school required it, you barely showed up at the office. Even elite internships turn on opaque, connections-based hiring processes and astronomical odds. An internship may occupy your days, but it’s hardly a summer break or a year off: more likely it’s a pressure cooker, another system of praise and censure. It keeps you out of trouble, but maybe “the organization kids”—the earnest, ever-striving millennials, aspirationally if not actually upper-middle class—could use a little trouble.
A whole generation has been utterly professional about their pre-professionalism, forfeiting the more relaxed jobs and leisurely summers of old, ignoring other paths of self-development. These young shock troops of the New Economy keep parachuting into the workforce, bristling with the armor of their credentials. They endured, even lapped up, the hyper-programming of childhood, every waking hour filled with karate sessions, piano lessons, after-school Spanish classes. Juiced for competition by parents and teachers, they keep blazing through private schools, magnet schools, and “gifted” programs, collecting Advanced Placement exams and chalking up extracurriculars, beating the curve with SAT tutors and gaining polish with foreign travel and study-abroad programs. Self-programming almost comes naturally by now, carrying to extremes every homily about work imbibed from relatives, friends, acquaintances, professors, and career advisors. Today’s interns cast their vote for careerism over curiosity, for networking over hanging out, for the office over the open road. Internships are boring us and they’re making us boring.
As education, internships pale in comparison to our universities. As training to work, they compare unfavorably with apprenticeships. As a form of work, they are often a disappointment, and sometimes a rank injustice, failing our expectations and violating our laws. They have come to embody the ethos that all free, unstructured time should be harnessed for résumébuilding and career development. Well-intentioned, jittery parents should not lend blind support, moral or financial, to anything labeled an “internship,” that magic word which suspends judgment. There have been decades of deliberate but half-baked efforts to help young people transition from the world of school to the world of white-collar work: and truly it’s a miracle that anyone can make the leap from Psych 101 to being gainfully employed. There is no single road. Paid work experience, personal projects, foreign-language mastery, community service, job shadowing, freelance work, academic research, registered apprenticeships, and just plain old living and learning are all possible ways forward.
Consider the entrepreneurs and artists who have tinkered with new ideas and inventions and then taken a risk. Figure out how to turn a job at the mall into something with a future: talking honestly about your ambitions to your supervisor, interacting with customers, pressing for better work conditions and career advancement. Strike out and develop a new skill—whether it’s taking a Spanish class or learning from a friend how to fix cars—and turn it into a career opportunity. Refusing to join the internship arms race need not mean losing your edge, resigning yourself to a second-tier career, or ending up on the unemployment rolls. Even in the fields where internships now seem a dominant prerequisite, employers will notice if driven, bright, and creative young people are finding other ways to break in. Young people need intense, structured learning opportunities and the space to be entrepreneurial. Why champion a onesize- fits-all way into work? You can make it without an internship.
Internships are a new way to work, with huge implications for higher education, access to the white-collar world, social inequality, and the future of laboring. Call it experiential education, volunteer work, participant observation, training, or apprenticeship—but most interns are now workers. Concocting all these different labels provides only the thinnest justification for taking away the rights of interns as workers, for keeping them from understanding what work itself is all about. The first intern, confined within the four walls of his hospital, was a medical apprentice, updated for the modern age by a profession seeking to burnish its reputation with standardized forms of practical training. By mid-century, Corporate America, in high Fordist fashion, was finding internships to be a rational form of workplace planning, guaranteeing a sufficient supply of skilled, credentialed labor to power economic growth. The transformation and massive expansion that has followed—the ever-accelerating explosion of the last few decades—now positions internships as the gateway to all white-collar work, in an era when decent jobs outside that charmed circle are increasingly hard to come by. Fired by this incentive, interns have become a craven, flextime labor force sanctioned and even mobilized by academia, available in two principal flavors: the privileged and the precarious.
Despite changing priorities, firms have found interns to be well worth the trouble—old motivations like standardizing the abilities of employees, guaranteeing a steady supply of skilled workers, and saving on labor and hiring costs are easy to grasp. The indifference and even collusion of government is unsurprising: non-enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act is part of a larger pattern of allowing New Deal protections to decay in the name of deregulating labor markets. The failure to measure or address the internship explosion is symptomatic: laws and regulations are simply not keeping up with the times. The indifference of unions bespeaks their own torpor, their inability to combat the rise of contingent labor, and their lack of a foothold in the white-collar world.
Refusing to offer or take internships in their current form is a feasible option, but many internships are already ethical and well paid, with strong mentoring and real opportunities for advancement. These model internships—fast-track positions for minority students arranged by INROADS, well-paid corporate internships in finance and engineering, life-changing stints at small companies and nonprofits that invest in training and mentoring, and so on—may still represent the best way to enter the workplace for many young people. Yet the better internships are, the more competitive they seem to be, unfortunately.
Any thoughtful approach to fixing the current system must proceed along two separate tracks: rectifying the indignities faced by current interns and ensuring greater access to internships that are worthwhile and meet basic criteria of fairness. The current system generates more and more opportunities—of increasingly lower quality. Few interns are willing to speak out. Many of those I’ve spoken to complained bitterly about their positions, but they worry that exposing illegal or exploitative internships would result in fewer opportunities across the board. Although widespread, this feeling has little evidence to support it.
Why jack up the quantity of internships before we’ve made a concerted effort to improve their quality? While it’s true that some individual employers might balk at paying minimum wage and feel moved to cut their programs, this would only separate the wheat from the chaff— the internships that are least valued by employers and interns alike are the ones that would disappear first. The excuse that a firm “doesn’t have the money” rings hollow: in the scheme of things, internships are never particularly expensive, and the question is simply whether they are valued enough to make it into the budget. And at least two important data points attest that raising the alarm and fixing abuses are unlikely to bring about an appreciable decline in internship offerings. First, mandating pay for interns is equivalent to closing a minimum wage loophole, and a substantial academic literature on the minimum wage has shown few adverse effects from instituting wage floors in the labor market. Second, as we’ll see below, the architecture profession moved decisively to combat unpaid, illegal internships and witnessed no apparent drop-off in the number of available positions.
Employers do need sufficient incentives to give young people a shot. No one would suggest employee status for a high school student shadowing a petroleum engineer or a banker for a week or two. Putting in fewer than ten hours a week at a nonprofit, on a flexible and occasional basis, may resemble volunteering or freelancing a lot more than regular work. Supply and demand will inevitably play a role in the internship aisle of the labor supermarket, and different norms will continue to prevail in different industries. But let’s insist on one simple principle: you shouldn’t have to work for free to break into the white-collar world. To allow that is to devalue work, threaten regular jobs, and exclude the less privileged. To enact this principle, companies, industries, schools, governments, as well as interns and their families, should try several different measures and see what works. Initiatives and experiments are needed from all quarters; together, their combined effect could be decisive, ending an unethical, inefficient drift with a sensible, professional, and humane approach to entering the workforce.
What employers can do is not a mystery: open advertising of positions; a strong training and mentoring component; discrete and manageable projects; a duration of at least a few months (for internships—less time for shadowing), allowing intern and supervisor to adjust to each other. What about the nature of the work? Most interns don’t and shouldn’t expect immediate glamor, writing legislation and designing the summer fashion line. Nearly everyone staples reports and makes coffee sometimes, but interns should not replace administrative assistants, janitors, couriers, or temps, for a dozen obvious reasons. College student plus work does not equal an internship. The term “intern” should be applied ethically and transparently to opportunities that involve training, mentoring, and getting to know a line of work—internships should reflect what a given industry is all about and what the organization actually does. Tasks should play to an intern’s strengths and account for the training she’s receiving. Academic credit, supervised by a professor, can be a valuable enhancement and a useful safeguard, if there is a genuine academic tie-in—but this applies to a distinct minority of internships. A project-based model allows interns to focus on achieving something tangible, instead of becoming a gofer or doing the work of a regular employee, only with lower standing. More geared to future managers, a rotation model can be equally effective, granting access to different areas and functions of an organization—but should not be confused with doing “a little of this and a little of that” dependent solely on the shortterm needs of a firm. Virtual internships and home office internships should be treated with suspicion, unless there are sufficient guarantees.
Having large intern cohorts can mean camaraderie and quality control, while individual situations may offer close mentoring and the chance to work on more momentous projects. When things are clicking, interns can do big things: unlock energy savings for companies, help start-ups get off the ground, lend serious technical expertise, and run marketing strategies and ad campaigns, to name just a few real examples. Whatever work the interns are performing, the question of pay is central. There’s a reason that money issues have been a key theme of this book, and why I have cast a much harsher light on the hundreds of thousands of interns, probably millions around the world, who receive less than the local minimum wage each year. All research indicates that pay radically changes the equation: broadening the applicant pool, providing powerful motivation, allowing interns to focus on their work, enabling longer and more fruitful stints, and publicly marking the seriousness of the position. Pay is about respect and livelihood—only the thinnest sliver of internships can, and should, be exempted from the FLSA by meeting the Department of Labor’s six-point test, providing such vital training, in return for so little labor, that pay need not be an issue.
People have asked me: if interns are from the elite to begin with, why bother paying them minimum wage? Aren’t companies being rational in spending their money on other things, when interns don’t seem to need it? These are valid and important questions—although it should be emphasized again that a clear majority of unpaid interns come from middle-class backgrounds, and they are likely making a sacrifice to be where they are. Indeed, even when a given group of interns is more privileged, these questions put the cart before the horse: if the firm did pay wages, they would attract a diverse, normal group of young people who certainly could use the money. An equally important point is that it is simply not possible, or ethical, for employers to discriminate about compensation in this fashion—the wage should match the work, not the family background of the worker. Nor is any employer in a position to decide who needs to be paid: especially in this day and age of long credit-lines and easily maintained appearances, one never knows when a well-dressed, cheerful young man is deep in debt.
Internships save firms money, but these savings can easily be dwarfed by the risks inherent in the current system— from bringing people who are mediocre or worse into an organization (if their parents win an auction, for instance) to blackening a firm’s reputation and attracting the undesired attention of employment lawyers and government regulators. A much safer and more reasonable strategy for saving money through internships, already pursued by many blue-chip companies, is to use them as a genuine recruiting tool. Even if there’s little hiring in the offing, consider that you’re ushering someone into an industry and may well do business with them again down the line. A firm’s best interests will be served by kick-starting the careers of its high-performing interns and helping them find work inside or outside the company. A firm can start by getting its own house in order, consulting, if in doubt, with HR professionals, legal counsel, and university career centers about what goes into a sound internship program. (In the interests of accuracy, the word “program” should only refer to cases where an organization, or one of its departments, is demonstrably working to shape a standard experience for all of its interns.) If an executive says a firm’s program is all about “giving back,” and boasts about the important work that interns do, let him put his money where his mouth is.
That’s just what the Atlantic Media company did, announcing in April 2010 not only that it would immediately start paying its interns, but also that the previous year’s intern class would receive retroactive pay. The company said in a statement that it had previously worked with outside counsel to develop an unpaid program where “interns work side by side with our editorial and business-side staff ” and can experience “a strong academic program with a formal curriculum including lectures, case studies, homework and exercises.” Nonetheless, a New York Times story about the proliferation of illegal internships and Department of Labor concerns brought about a rethink: “We had thought this was the way to structure unpaid internships but if it sits near a gray zone, it’s not for us.” Especially in the wake of the national discussion prompted by the Times story, the company reaped good publicity from the announcement—and the interns, of course, were thrilled. As Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute says, “Some companies will be scared into it. Other companies will do the right thing because it’s the right thing.”
Calling things by their proper names is another major step that organizations can take. Bosses who want to give back but can’t pay for work should consider setting up a shadowing program, so that students from local high schools and colleges can experience something of what it’s like to sell insurance or write software. Nonprofits should call on volunteers when that’s genuinely what they need—not full-time six-month interns, doing the work of regular employees without pay to further their careers. Offices committed to their interns should be publicly recognized and perhaps even rewarded—even calls for an “internship tax credit” (a measure of this kind was recently passed by the Philadelphia City Council) may be worth heeding. As it stands, feckless employers enjoy a dual benefit by not paying: a short-term competitive advantage over firms that do pay, and an outrageous exemption from recognizing interns’ other workplace rights.
But what if an entire industry changed its practices? The sky didn’t fall in when the field of architecture did precisely that in the mid-1990s, taking a powerful and effective stance against the mistreatment of unpaid, overworked interns. At the time, Thomas Fisher, dean of the architecture school at the University of Minnesota, wrote of a “cycle of exploitation that gets passed from one generation of architects to the next,” that “misunderstandings about the wage and hour law abound in the profession, and that non-compliance with the law, especially regarding interns’ overtime pay and consultant status, is widespread.” Architect Fred Stitt estimated that as many as half of small architecture firms were in violation of the law.
“There were a lot of problems with star architects,” says Kevin Fitzgerald of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and interns would “be going to work for them basically for free, for nothing. They wouldn’t get paid, but they worked these crazy hours.” These firms, adds Fitzgerald, weren’t “budgeting projects very well and [weren’t] willing to pay for the real costs of having an employee.” The “ignoble tradition” of architects demanding free labor was considered deep-seated in the profession, wrote Fisher, with an impeccable pedigree dating back at least to Frank Lloyd Wright’s unpaid Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930s and the workplace practices of legends such as Le Corbusier and Bruce Goff. “My office runs on unpaid interns,” said one noted architect to Fisher. “A bit,” replied three young employees of another prominent practitioner, when asked by Fisher if they were paid. Summing up the different forms of exploitation still popular in the 1990s, Fisher notes that “some of the best-known firms do not pay interns at all” while others “engage in less obvious forms of exploitation, much of which is illegal and all of which damages the profession”—including misclassifying interns as independent contractors or consultants, not paying for overtime, and discriminating in the studio. “There is nothing unusual about such experiences,” wrote Fisher in 1994, although “it’s scandalous that the architectural community has looked the other way for so long.” Compounding matters was the fact that a multi-year internship (termed an IDP, short for Intern Development Program) is virtually required to become a licensed architect in the United States.
Since 1976, when the structure of IDP was first established, the program has become an indispensable career move for graduates of architecture schools who want to continue into the profession—typically a three- to five-year period spent working full-time at a firm, learning every aspect of the field. Small firms with under ten employees, quite common in architecture, might have one or two such interns; larger ones with multiple offices could have as many as thirty or forty young architectural interns at any given time. And not all architecture internships are structured IDPs—it’s still common for students and recent graduates to do more informal stints, not geared specifically towards becoming a licensed professional, undertaken for a summer or longer.
The fact that unpaid and barely paid interns were patently performing vital work, sometimes for years on end, stoked anger among many young architects, which finally boiled over during the recession of the early 1990s. The involvement of professional associations like the AIA in creating and managing the standards of IDP afforded a certain amount of leverage for reform; the understanding that these firms also violated federal labor law added further urgency. “We were the first to cry out,” says Je’Nen Chastain of her organization—she is currently president of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), an independent nonprofit that represents 30,000 architecture students and interns. First building its case at industry conferences, in journals and in newsletters, the AIAS Board of Directors then passed a resolution in 1993 strongly condemning unpaid internships. The student group lobbied other key professional organizations to follow their lead in establishing a strongly worded policy on the issue—which the AIA soon did, along with the organizations that represent architecture schools and the profession’s state licensing boards.
“The AIAS maintains that employers must properly compensate all employees,” states the policy, which is still in force today. “Compensation must be in compliance with the regulations for the jurisdiction in which they are working … In the past, it had been considered appropriate to ‘hire’ students or recent architecture graduates to work for an architecture firm for little or no compensation until they had obtained a sufficient amount of experience”—a practice that “ignores and belittles the contribution that each participant adds to an architecture project.” AIAS “denounces those firms, organizations, and individuals that do not properly compensate their employees” and “supports the efforts of interns who refuse to work” for such firms. Any student, intern, or architect wishing to participate in any AIAS event—as a speaker, awardee, jury member etc.—must sign a statement that they are neither engaging in nor making use of unpaid work.
Other key professional organizations in architecture soon endorsed the policy and sought a means of enforcement, ostracizing architects who continued not to pay—effectively making fair compensation part of the ethical code that all upstanding members of the profession are expected to follow. Deans of the different architecture schools began to scrutinize the postings for unpaid positions that came their way; a prominent architect, Peter Eisenman, was pointedly barred from speaking at a major conference after refusing to verify that his studio only arranges lawful internships. Five detailed surveys of young architects, undertaken since then, have enabled the profession to better understand what works and what doesn’t about internships in architecture. As a part of its ongoing mission, AIAS distributes a toolkit to members about “why unpaid internships harm students and the reputation of the profession and what to do to deal with those situations,” according to Chastain. The discussions of the mid-1990s even opened up the possibility that an offending architect could lose his membership in the professional organizations or his license to practice architecture.
But such drastic measures haven’t been necessary. “I think it is a different world out there now,” says Kevin Fitzgerald of the AIA. “I think most architects would shy away from not paying people these days: they’re wiser than that.” Brett Roeth, vice president of AIAS, adds that “it has become a part of our professional culture that internships should be compensated,” that anything else is “just not acceptable in architecture.” According to Roeth, “The early 2000s were a boom-time for interns,” with some even earning signing bonuses—clearly the need to bring fresh, still very affordable talent into the profession hasn’t gone away, despite a changed professional culture. Only lately, with the deepest recession in memory and 40 percent unemployment in the profession, have a small number of postings for unpaid architecture internships quietly reappeared.
Those in the profession are remaining vigilant—from professors of architecture to the bloggers who flag such postings to student leaders like Chastain and Roeth. Strongly supported by the major professional organizations in the field, AIAS remains “an independent, student-governed organization that represents the voice of emerging professionals in a strong way,” says Roeth, explaining the group’s success in spearheading the campaign. What architecture has achieved proves that a profession can take a practical and ethical stand against abuses—and win. Other student groups and professional organizations should follow suit.
There’s an old joke among architects, says Chastain, that the profession “eats its young,” who still face long years of demanding apprenticeship, challenging standards, and overtime work. But the worst is clearly over, and at least now an ever more diverse crop of young architects can stop worrying about basic issues of livelihood and get back to designing the world around us. Like professional associations, educators are in a position to initiate positive, momentous changes. Why have they allowed the casual exploitation of their charges, who are just on their first, fledgling attempts at self-discovery? Why do they encourage their students, already burdened with the need to find paying work, to take time away from school to work without pay, subsidizing the operations of cheapskate companies and spineless nonprofits? Evidently, schools believe they can control a system they have done much to create and have learned to benefit from. To a certain extent, the issue has simply flown under the radar. Although internships vetted by schools at least have some oversight, this doesn’t change the fact that American colleges and universities have disgraced themselves by pushing unpaid and illegal internships and by squeezing credit money from students while providing little in return.
Just as damning is the fact that, although perhaps unwittingly at times, economists, sociologists, psychologists, education theorists and career counselors have all provided intellectual justification for the internship explosion, attacking the idea of substantive training and helping to overturn the once deeply held concept of fair pay for hard work. Regardless of whether their students are tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, or come from impoverished backgrounds, they cynically assume that students can work for free, or pay their college to work for free.
Take sociologist Dalton Conley, who doesn’t think it’s worth the substantial effort to make internships transparent or investigate their role in widening social inequality, since “there’d be an uproar” and both nepotism and connections-pulling are only natural. Otherwise, he told the American Prospect, “it gets to where, for anyone to be in a summer internship, you have to do an ad in the newspaper and vet all résumés”—surely more effort than it’s worth, despite the decisive impact that internships are supposed to have on the rest of our lives. He arranged academic credit and some associated readings for a student’s internship at Vogue, which the magazine required and for which NYU received tuition, although he finds such situations “ridiculous.” Pointedly, Conley notes how the internship explosion is one of the “unintended consequences” of “a very progressive view of education from the ’60s that life experience is equally valid as classroom experience. And that was meant to help the working class.”
Past theories aside, schools must face up to their current responsibility for shaping the internship landscape—there are several steps they can take. From the perspective of interns, the most urgent of them is to stop the practice of making students pay to work. Charging tuition for a relevant, optional seminar is perfectly valid, as is assessing a fee for administrative services performed by the school. But directly assigning costly credit units to work that students undertake off campus, typically running into the thousands of dollars, is a heinous practice. The excuse that it’s just part of normal tuition simply doesn’t hold up. Schools are anxious about internships becoming a cheap way for students to rack up the credits they need to graduate—but the problem is one of the schools’ own making. If need be, they can exclude internship credits from the required total, or rethink the purpose of granting credit in the first place, but levying outrageous pay-to-intern fees is not the answer. The fact that many schools have earnestly raised small pools of money to support some unpaid positions is sadly overshadowed by these practices.
The use of academic credit to justify unpaid labor is poisonous, as many faculty and career center staff have started to recognize—the Department of Labor, which has discussed academic credit as a possible proxy for an internship’s educational and training content, risks making a serious mistake by doing so. Credit, as we have seen, is bought and sold with consummate ease and zero oversight—for the Disney program, for University of Dreams, for international students on countless J-1 visa schemes. Some institutions are awarding credit to students knowing nothing but their name and address and that a check from them has cleared at the bank. As described in Chapter 5, companies require students to get credit, and they in turn pressure their schools to help indemnify those employers, who are acting illegally. The least that schools can do is not penalize their students for being caught in this vise, not force them to subsidize an employer’s flimsy indemnification. In the long run, college presidents have to take a stand against the complete subversion of academic credit and the way that firms abuse it to hide from the law— instead of writing petulant letters to the Department of Labor, daftly averring that they have the situation under control.
Higher education also artificially inflates the supply of interns, weakening their negotiating power in the labor market. (Likewise, schools blithely create new degree programs, leading to an overproduction of credentials in fields that have few jobs: recipe for a desperate labor market.) At the same time, colleges effectively endorse thousands of internships, between career counselors touting them, professors arranging them, and university websites formally posting them. The promotion of illegal work opportunities in higher education must stop. It doesn’t take an employment lawyer to make these judgment calls, even a basic algorithm could do half the work: any unpaid internship that fails to lay out a clear training program should be summarily rejected or slapped with a warning label. Internship handbooks, internship fairs, and info sessions of various descriptions should go beyond describing the networking techniques and fawning flexibility needed to squeeze into the workforce—they should cover the workplace rights of interns and the concept that work demands reward.
Requiring internships is often tantamount to outsourcing part of a student’s education—in many cases, schools themselves should offer the applied opportunities if they’re really that vital, just as chemistry departments are expected to have lab facilities for hands-on work. Still, there may occasionally be educational grounds for a given department, or even an entire college, to require an internship for graduation. Yet it’s still a stretch to mandate that students pay the school to do this off-campus work and to disallow credit from appropriate, well-documented internships that students might have arranged on their own. Schools requiring internships should pledge to find paid positions for their students, negotiating with employers if necessary—and only charge when the school is providing something clear in return. If relevant, paid work proves impossible to find, schools should contemplate the use of shadowing or participant observation techniques instead, where learning can take place with no strings attached.
In short, schools should either keep their distance from the Wild West of sketchy internships, however much that might disappoint students, or take a few lessons from the cooperative education movement founded by Herman Schneider. A century old, that movement still represents a thoroughgoing approach to bridging the gap between education and work. Its collapse and comparative irrelevance are ascribed to its being too vocational, stressing work experience over a well-rounded education, and the fact that it relied financially on the changeable support of schools and governments, rather than the eternal anxieties of students and their families. Yet not only did coops provide career paths accessible to students of all backgrounds, they also by and large guaranteed honest wages for an honest day’s work, humane working conditions, and real training.
For too long, governments have informally counted on schools to form a first line of defense. After all, the original Supreme Court decision outlining the six-point test likened a proper trainee situation to vocational school. Yet the reality is that learning at school and learning at work are two entirely different things, pace Hamburger University—the first occurs because the institution is directing all its efforts to that end; the second comes as a byproduct of the economically useful activity that the worker is performing for an employer. The number of internships that are really school-like, full-time, dedicated training programs is vanishingly few. Overwhelmingly, the expectation of employers is that interns will labor and (somehow) learn simultaneously, and that their work will bring clear benefits to the firm.
There’s a reason that the Supreme Court understood an unpaid trainee to be someone who brings “no immediate advantage” to a firm: immediate advantage is something you should pay for. This criterion for FLSA exemption alone lays bare the fact that trainees and interns hail from different universes. Of course, employers expect to derive a material advantage from their interns—the interns are workers, often indistinguishable from regular employees, as we have seen. On the other hand, National Public Radio’s “Intern Edition” is a “fully featured,” internproduced “program,” brilliantly demonstrating that it is possible for employers to give interns serious, nonexploitative work that introduces them meaningfully to a profession. Employers who actually want to train the next generation, and not just squeeze it for cheap labor, should consider intern editions of their own.
The Department of Labor must start by enforcing the law—the same goes for governments around the world. Investigators should respond to all plausible hints or allegations that a firm is failing to pay minimum wage, but also actively seek out abuses, recognizing that interns feel understandably timid and have little incentive to come forward. As things stand, few firms will be able to pass the six-point test absolving them of employer responsibilities, even under the reasonable “totality of the circumstances” interpretation where interns are permitted to provide their employers with “immediate advantage,” but still must get at least as good as they give. Labor law tests of volunteer status should apply to those nonprofits that want to continue using unpaid interns. With overwhelming numbers of interns now doing the work of regular employees, the law should assume that the word “intern” means a type of employee, not a type of student. Legislators should start with interns in the political system, ending the unholy FLSA exemption for congressional interns, who should receive at least the same consideration as the high-school-age congressional pages. Elected representatives, perhaps even more than judges and DoL investigators, must close the significant loophole that permits the discrimination and harassment of interns at work, leaving interns like Bridget O’Connor in legal limbo.
If wisely used, federal, state, and local money used to support internships in government could have a dramatically positive effect, as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) indicated in its 2009 proposal “Paving the Way Through Paid Internships.” Over four million college students aged sixteen to twenty-four come from working families whose combined income is three times the Federal Poverty Line or less—that is, under $67,000 annually for a family of four. When they’re even able to shell out thousands of dollars for a single summer of unpaid work, these families are making a considerable sacrifice. Alex Hertel and Kathryn Edwards of EPI have estimated conservatively that 22,000 federal interns each year would fall into this category and be eligible for income assistance under their proposal.
Providing as little as $3,500 for a low-income student to take a summer internship in D.C. or the state capital could significantly broaden the range of young people able to break into politics. According to EPI, an annual $500 million outlay could subsidize as many as 100,000 public service internships, harnessing for administrative needs the Federal Work-Study Program offices already installed at some 3,400 schools. Indeed, a much more significant portion of existing work-study funds could arguably be allocated to internships meeting certain criteria—as Gardner writes, “This sacred cow for institutions needs to be revamped to help students reach their career goals.” Any such programs would have to do better than AmeriCorps at ensuring that existing and potential fulltime jobs aren’t axed in favor of these government-subsidized internships. Even at the level they propose, say the researchers at EPI, only 4.3 percent of eligible college students would be covered—but it would be a good start.
If these fixes don’t improve conditions more broadly, members of Congress and state legislators should pass an Intern Bill of Rights (see Appendix A), or companies themselves should take the initiative by endorsing such a code of conduct. Recall what the Fitzgerald Act did for apprenticeships—a brief, straightforward piece of legislation and a tiny office in Washington D.C. have largely been able to set the standard for what constitutes a high-quality apprenticeship. The law’s success demonstrates that there are sufficient reasons for employers to participate in well-structured programs, held to a high standard and involving on-thejob training of young workers at a living wage. The past few decades have shown that demand for internships is more than robust, from young people and employers alike—and not just because it’s a lawless free-forall. With the right incentives, a Fitzgerald Act for interns might just work, providing firms with the best interns, still at a relative bargain, and placing them in situations where they can “earn and learn” at the same time. It could galvanize a political demographic that is famously lethargic, seeming to awaken with the 2008 election only to slumber again soon after. An Intern Bill of Rights would recognize internships as a distinctive and important form of work, worth taking on its own terms, measuring and evaluating, improving and protecting. Interns would enjoy the same rights and privileges that apprentices do today. After the titanic struggles of the early twentieth century, the industrialized world reached a surprising degree of consensus about work —a consensus which still remains substantially intact today. Whatever people think about politicized issues such as taxes, welfare, abortion, or gay marriage, they generally agree that ten-year-olds should be found in school, not in coal mines; that weekends and vacations should be available to all; that a minimum wage and basic workplace protections are part of a fair and just society; that workers should be able to organize around their common interests. Perhaps most of all, we continue to believe in the power of an honest day’s work, and in the virtuous imperative to spend some of one’s time in productive activities that require more than casual attention. William Faulkner wrote that “the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work”—and we had best make the most of it. As practiced today and documented in this book, many internships represent a slow drift away from this firm, humane consensus about work. Along with the explosion of contingent labor and much scarier trends such as the resurgence of sweatshops in our midst and a global race to the bottom around labor standards, internships are turning back the clock. They are symptomatic of a drastically unequal, hypercompetitive world in the making—one in which, as so many Americans rightly fear, succeeding generations will work harder for less reward, for a lower quality of life with fewer avenues for getting ahead.
Present, former, and future interns, listen up and take action. Whether any particular internship is life-changing or completely forgettable, a month long or a year long, paid or unpaid—attention must be paid. We’ve had the professional mindset, believing we could defend ourselves, parley with the boss, complain to the career center, take the problem to mom and dad. Knowing nothing of grievance procedures, collective bargaining, or severance packages, all we could do was quit. Intern dropout rates would be shocking if anyone tracked them.
Up until now, young people have ceded everything, asking only for a foot in the door in return. It’s time to stop spreading the internship gospel without a second thought. Stop thinking your labor is, was, or will be worthless. Just because you have a student ID and live in a dorm doesn’t mean you’re not also a worker. Identify and organize as interns, and form alliances with like-minded groups such as temps or freelancers. Even if you’ve moved on, don’t forget the freshmen of the workforce, the unpaid kids doing menial and administrative work: the interns. Blow the whistle on illegal situations you’ve experienced or witnessed or heard about. Stand up for people’s right to get paid for an honest day’s work, whoever those people may be—7,000 miles away or just next door.
“How can you be the first to speak up?” writes the anonymous author of the blog Unfair Internships, which chronicles the hypocrisies of the Intern Economy—adding that what interns face is “a simple collective action problem.” Internships pass by quickly, and few interns are experienced enough to know the levers of power. “Internships are just a transitional situation,” as the blogger points out. “Students suck it up for a year or two and then get a job and move on. It’s not like some major issues of unfairness, such as gender and race, where it follows you all your life and, at any point, you have an interest in addressing the unfairness of the situation.” And so it always goes with injustices faced by the young— you forget about them as you grow older, then you perpetuate them, and the cycle repeats itself …
Legal protection for interns is not a pipe dream—it’s a reality within reach, a set of rights waiting to be claimed. Learning about a profession should include learning about the nature of work itself and issues such as fairness, compensation, protection, and solidarity. Interns can and should organize, as interning becomes near universal, and schools, employers, and governments continue not to do the right thing. Large-scale student organizations, the anti-precarity groups, and platforms for contingent workers such as WashTech and the Freelancers Union all represent possible models, though organizing interns represents a special challenge, given the diversity and transience of internship situations.
What has to change is more than a policy or a law—it’s a mindset. We are the future of work. The internship explosion is not an emergency, yet—it’s a slow boil, a simmering injustice, a glass ceiling half-built which there’s still time to tear down. This is more than just a phase or a fluke: when working for free becomes the norm, everyone loses, except at the very top. We’ve trusted too much. We’ve been free for the taking. When will our hours matter?
Ross Perlin is a researcher at the Himalayan Languages Project. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.