A Critical Look at Internships
By Leanne Italie, Associated Press
NEW YORK - Charlie Sheen's paid tweet for an intern with tiger blood summoned 82,148 people hoping to serve the warlock.
As internships go, at least it's a paid gig with a real job description: eight weeks helping the actor with social media at $10 an hour.
That's more than many interns get, said Ross Perlin, who leaps into the fray over internships in a new book, "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy" (Verso Books).
"The Charlie Sheen thing, it's the most competitive internship ever," Perlin told The Associated Press in an interview. "The most sought after, and it sort of beautifully sums up the absurdity of what's going on with this incredible explosion of internships."
Perlin views the competition for internships among college kids and even jobless grads and high schoolers, as not only absurd, but even legally questionable when measured against labor laws governing internships.
Perlin, himself a paycheckless but satisfied intern a few years ago, estimates that roughly 1 to 2 million people take the resume-burnishing gigs every year in the United States, with more around the globe.
Three-quarters of about 10 million students at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. take at least one internship before graduating, according to the College Employment Research Institute.
Interns permeate most every corner of the economy, from Disney World to Capitol Hill, the Fortune 500 to the nonprofit sector, Main Street to Silicon Valley. They fetch coffee, clean toilets and staple, but they also do more substantive work for little or no pay, Perlin said.
Perlin estimates that a third to a half of all interns go unpaid. "It's the only major category of work that I know of that is not tracked at all by the Bureau of Labor Statistics," Perlin said. "Nobody's paying attention."
The number of internships that are "school-like, full-time dedicated training programs is vanishingly few," he wrote in the book, noting the clamor for the opportunities has sprouted its own industry in on-campus career centers, online middlemen and employers looking for free entry-level bodies.
Struggling interns, meanwhile, include a growing number without wealthy parents, connections or other safety nets. According to research from Intern Bridge, a Boston-based consultancy to colleges and businesses, three-quarters of students have to work paying jobs on the side in order to support unpaid internships.
"An overwhelming majority of colleges and universities, as well as some high schools, endorse and promote unpaid internships without a second thought, provide the lucrative academic credits that employers wishfully hope will indemnify their firms, and justify it all with high-minded rhetoric about `situated learning' and `experiential education,'" Perlin wrote.
He also finds it outrageous that some employers now "require not only that their charges work for free, but that they also obtain (academic) credit, which usually means paying (tuition fees) to work."
Richard Bottner, founder and president of Intern Bridge, said government labor agencies may not routinely "audit" internship hardships, but they do "invite and investigate" complaints.
"I think the quality of internships is improving," said Bottner, a survivor of a bad internship at a Boston advertising firm. "There's so much attention on internships right now. Companies can't afford not to put some effort into it."
The U.S. Labor Department does have some standards, saying that interns may work without pay only when the program is similar to that offered in a vocational school; benefits the student; doesn't displace a regular employee; and doesn't entitle the student to a job. The employer must also derive "no immediate advantage" from the work, and both sides must agree that the intern isn't entitled to wages. The department has also said "academic credit alone does not guarantee that the employer is in compliance."
Despite Perlin's concerns, many interns - and ex-interns - have no complaints and consider the experience worthwhile. An Intern Bridge survey of 27,335 U.S. undergraduates showed seven out of 10 would accept less money in exchange for greater work experience.
Andrew Riedy, 28, soon to get his master's degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has had both paid and unpaid internships. A veteran of the U.S. Marines, he relied in part on military benefits to support himself while interning at the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. There he wrote blog entries, co-authored an op-ed piece published by a newspaper and developed valuable connections.
"The stars align sometimes," Riedy said. "The only task that wasn't great was every once in a blue moon we would help stuff a few envelopes for some fundraising. It wasn't a big deal."
But Rebecca Benison, 21, of Valley Stream, N.Y., does not have fond memories of her internship last summer at a New York City-area nonprofit. Her memories of the grant- writing work include "a flea-ridden office space, stage four mold that resulted in us being displaced and shuffled around the building for four weeks and a supervisor who was conveniently out `sick' during the entire relocation period for half my internship."
She's now a college grad working for a news release distribution service, "but the thought of that internship still leaves me with a strong feeling of disdain. It was so miserable there."
Perlin observes that the sheer number of internships has "made the raw credential unremarkable, a box to be checked." 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."
Worthwhile alternatives, he suggests, might include volunteering, freelance work, academic research, even mastering a foreign language, finding a registered apprenticeship or taking an old-fashioned paid job if you can find one.
And he encourages parents to refrain from lending "blind support, moral or financial, to anything with the label `internship,' that magic word which suspends judgment."