I recently read Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation and it was an eye-opener. Opening with a chapter about the 7,000-plus “interns” flipping burgers and cleaning toilets at Disneyworld each year, Perlin makes his case about how we have been brainwashed into thinking that our young people must serve as unpaid interns as a transitional step into the work-world. In truth, internships have gutted the pool of entry-level positions (making them scarce), stripped young people of labor rights that people fought and died to establish, and shut millions of low-income and middle-income young people out of their chosen fields of work because their parents can’t support them while they “intern” for free.
The largest numbers of unpaid interns are working in government (D.C. is glutted with them), at nonprofit agencies, and in for-profit start-ups operating on a shoe-string budget. However, many internships are in corporations making huge profits and withholding even a pittance from these unpaid slave workers (who often do not secure a job as a result of having worked for free). Perlin shows how 99.9% of internships in the U.S. are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which states that to qualify as an internship by law, “the employer that provides the training [to the intern] derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees [interns].” Whoa. There is a myth out there that if a person is gaining college credits for the internship, then it is legal. Not so. This is just another part of “the racket.” The college manages to coerce the student (or the student’s parents) to pay tuition for the student to work in an unpaid job. In fact, many internships are not only unpaid, but the intern must pay the employer for the privilege of serving as an intern.
Personally, I have no quarrel with unpaid internships of short duration that really do provide mentorship and on-the-job skills training for young people, whether or not the employer benefits or the internship is legal/illegal according to the FLSA. Two of my children have served in such internships and have benefitted from them enormously. Even so, I am outraged by the exploitation of our young people within this internship system, which has only recently (in the past couple of decades) spread throughout the country (and the world). Why should employers pay entry-level workers, and afford them benefits and protection under labor laws, when they can get them for free with no obligation to abide by labor laws? I think that young people need to stop buying into this system. Parents need to stop buying in. Universities need to stop buying in. Young people should be paid for their work. Period. Honor labor.
One more thing, and then I’ll sign off and let this go. My daughter has a degree in journalism; but her chances of breaking into the field are zilch because we can’t afford to support her in an unpaid internship. According to Perlin’s book, it is impossible to break into journalism without working for free first. Many journalism schools require that their students serve in an internship to get their degree, and they charge tuition for course credits for it. (My daughter was required to do this; but fortunately we secured a terrific internship for her with an “employer” who was a good friend of ours and provided her with an excellent work experience and mentorship that continues to this day.) In order to break into the field of journalism, a young journalist (in print, radio, multimedia online venues, etc.) must work for free for some time to get a foot in the door. This system is having a massive impact on the field of journalism, which is now, more than ever, increasingly dominated by people who come from upper-middle-class and upper-class backgrounds (read “able to afford to work for free for a year or two to break in” because of a trust fund or financially secure family, etc.) and also dominated by Anglo/Euro males. One of the young journalists whom Perlin interviewed said it perfectly: “It narrows the voices of who we hear, it narrows the kind of news that we hear.” That young journalist goes on to say that she sees, as a result, that public radio “tends to cover upper-middle-class issues.”
On this weekend, when I am thinking of Dr. King, and his life’s work, I am particularly struck by the ramifications of the expanding institution of unpaid (and low-paid) internships, and who is being cut out of jobs and who is being denied access to labor rights as a result. I am thinking, as I often do, about the voices that are not being heard. What would they say?