By Alexis Grant

Intern Nation author Ross Perlin says free labor is problematic for society

If it seems like an increasing number of internship opportunities are unpaid, that's because they are. And while college students, recent graduates, and even mid-life career-changers are often willing to go without a paycheck to gain experience, not everyone supports this work-for-free phenomenon.

In what could be called an exposé of internships, Ross Perlin 's new Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy examines the history of the practice, what's really legal, and how students, employers, and colleges can change the tide so more interns are paid. Perlin, a 28-year-old researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in China and first-time author, talked recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

Can you explain the arguments you make in the book?

One is that the internship system, if you can call it that, is chaotic and sprawling, and in many ways has gone off the rails; it's not working as it should. That's something which goes back to what's been happening with the recession ... People are becoming serial interns, doing four or five or six internships, none of which are leading to a job. Companies are not using internships in the way they used to in many cases, as a recruiting pipeline, as a way to bring talent into the firm. They're using them as a cheap labor force that they're cycling through without any prospect of bringing [interns] on as regular workers ... Internships are displacing full-time workers in significant numbers.

The second argument is a little more subtle, but it relates to the first. Those who can't access internships, those who can't pay to play, who can't afford to work unpaid for significant amounts of time ... those people are being left behind, and they're unable to enter a lot of key professions in the white-collar workforce. Professions like politics, media, film, and entertainment. There is a social justice issue here. If you have the gateway into the workforce being something where you have to come from a well-off-enough background ... people who are from [big cities] where internships are concentrated and have a place to live or are from families that have the money to enable somebody to work unpaid for a summer or six months or even a year, those people are at a serious advantage. So the overall impact on our society is just beginning to show.

Where did you find the data to support these points?

For the most part, it's based on self-reported surveys of college students who have done internships. Some of the best [surveys] have been done by a research firm called Intern Bridge, some have been done by The National Association of Colleges and Employers [but] those have often been surveys on the employers' side ... The data is indicative, but the gold standard would be if the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor tried to track and define internships in a clear way.

How'd this book come about?

What dawned on me in London when I was doing a master's degree there was I hadn't done an internship. I'd spent my summers traveling [and] I was beginning to feel that everything I'd done was pretty impractical. I needed to make some step toward a career. So I did this internship [with a non-profit that follows environmental news related to China] that lasted about four months. It wasn't a horror experience, but it sort of got me down.

I was thinking about this state of being an intern and realizing that I was the last of my friends to go through it ... As I began doing research, I realized how many other issues internships connected with. How they were tied to changes in academia, to changes in the labor market, to certain generational issues, even to digital culture and the internet.

When I started researching the book, the recession hadn't even begun and I started looking at the internship boom during the last 20 or 30 years. But the recession has really exacerbated things. It has especially led to many more students who just graduated from college or even are a year or two out taking on unpaid internships, and even people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are trying to change careers or are looking to get a foothold in the labor market. I think people have come to recognize it as a broader issue than just what are students doing with their summer.

If this problem is so systematic, how do you propose we fix it?

[We need to] change this culture of being unpaid and the expectation that you need to work unpaid to break in.

For parents, I say, take a more critical look at internships. Help protect your child from going into one of these, for instance, home-office internships that are often particularly exploitative situations where people don't know what they're getting into. They end up doing all sort of menial personal tasks for whoever they're working for and not really getting the experience.

To schools, I recommend not posting and promoting illegal internships on campus, which happens all too often. Ninety-five percent of schools, according to one survey, post unpaid internships on campus without really looking into the legality, without filtering any but the most egregious illegal situations.

I recommend that schools look into how they're charging students to go off campus to work unpaid because of this whole academic credit issue. [Students] are not only working unpaid somewhere, but they're also paying often several thousand dollars to their school to do that.

In terms of the government, I recommend that the law be enforced. There is a law related to interns called the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is the key piece of legislation that protects workers in the U.S., and it's simply not enforced around interns.

To companies themselves, I set a recommendation, saying that paid internships work better across the board. If you're only offering unpaid situations, first of all, you're running the risk of getting in trouble with the law, which can be embarrassing and really not worth the penny that you're saving. You're also not getting access to the best talent. You're closing yourself off from a lot of people who can't afford to work unpaid. You're essentially saying, "There's only one way in here."

For young people themselves, know [your] rights. Take a clear-eyed and pragmatic approach to the world of internships, and have an exit strategy. Be focused on the transition to a regular job, to a paying job, and [do] not get caught in the internship trap.

I do think it needs to be an approach coming from all different directions and the change I would most like to see is just to roll back this idea that's becoming prevalent that working unpaid is normal ... When in fact, it's against the law, it's unethical, and it's problematic for the broader society.

You've talked before about the myth of academic credit. Can you explain that?

The idea is out there among many employers that you don't have to pay an intern no matter what work they do as long as they're receiving academic credit from their university. I can understand why that's out there because there's some ambiguity with the law, but essentially there's a six-point test ... which the Department of Labor has, which is based on a Supreme Court decision, which says basically, if you don't want to pay your interns, the internship has to meet these six criteria. The Department of Labor has come out and clearly said the academic credit is only relating to one of those criteria, so given that you have to fulfill all six of them, just because the student is getting academic credit doesn't mean they're not still entitled to minimum wage.

Many employers ... say, "We don't pay, but we do offer academic credit." That's disingenuous for two reasons. Employers don't offer academic credit, schools do ... Second of all, they're setting a false dichotomy. Just because [students] are receiving academic credit, they still have that fundamental right to be paid.

Students are backed into corner here. How can they help eliminate the no-pay culture without penalizing themselves?

Students could do a better job of talking amongst themselves and spreading the word about bad employers, about bad situations ... Ideally young people would band together more and take up this issue that's really affecting a whole generation.

I don't think young people are realizing that they're part of a larger economy of work and they're potentially displacing regular workers, which can lead to animosity in the workplace ... It's leading to the disappearance of the entry-level job.

What's the easiest way for an intern, parent, or college counselor to determine whether an unpaid internship is legal?

Unless it's essentially a training program, it should be paid at least minimum wage. When you boil down the six points, what it basically adds up to is, trainees don't have to be paid because they're benefiting from the training. That is their payment. But internships have largely replaced trainee-ships.

The other way you can think of it is, if you're doing real work that benefits the organization that you're working for, you should be paid.

The one caveat is with non-profit organizations, the law is more ambiguous. For that, there's not one simple answer.

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The Growing Culture of Unpaid Internships