Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Ross Perlin's "Intern Nation": Are employers (and universities) getting slave labor out of young people?

Author: Ross Perlin

Title: "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy"

Publication: New York, Verso, 2011. ISBN 13-978-1-84467-686-6, Amazon link.

Professional, academic, or work internships sound like something we take for granted.  College students may think of them as a way to “pay your dues” to get into the white collar world, and (for the rest of your life) "get out of things".

Perlin argues that the system of internships invites widespread abuse by employers and universities, depending on “academic credit” in lieu of pay, creating situations where “the rest of us” are lowballed out of jobs, the perennial “race to the bottom.”

On the other hand, apprenticeships have long been valid arrangements to learn trades (and not just on Donald Trump’s reality show). And back in the 1950s, many tech colleges had developed coop programs, where students take five years to graduate but gain valid work experience.

Perlin gives a lot of discussion of how the Fair Labor Standards Act works, and notes that many employers are failing to comply with many of its provisions in the way they run internships, inviting big time lawsuits some day.

Some of his discussion of specific internships is quite striking. He starts out by describing internships at Disney World (“the happiest interns in the world”), living under almost military conditions.

My first job, after my mandatory Army hitch, started in 1970 with RCA, as an” operations research trainee” at the David Sarnoff labs in Princeton, NJ.  But I was paid a reasonable starting salary for that era, $13,500, so one could call it an “apprenticeship”.  The first year was broken into assignments at various plants, one of them in Indianapolis. One problem was that some assignments really couldn’t be completed in a short time with 1970 technical computing resources.  Another was that, while we were given per diem to travel, it wasn’t really adequate to pay fully for secondary short term housing.

Perlin’s Appendix includes an Intern’s Bill of Rights.

I'd love to hear Barbara Ehrenreich's reaction to this book!  Is this another "bait and switch"?

One could compare this book to Bob Weinstein's "I'll Work for Free: A Short Term Strategy for a Long Term Payoff", from Henry Holt in 1994.  Again, this sounds like a race to the bottom.

In this YouTube video, Ross Perlin talks at Google:

Update: July 3, 2015

Ross Perlin writes about an appeals court decision favoring employers use of interns, narrowing the standard to "who benefits" in the New York Times, here

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