Recently the subject of work internships has become part of the national conversation. The topic has shown up in articles, books, television shows, and even a debate on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. It hit home as our youngest son is more than halfway through an unpaid internship at a business in Manhattan. Like most young people completing internships, he has been lead to believe and hopes it will result in a full time job. Ben Zarov, an intern at Publishers Weekly, recently posted on-line the following joke which sums up one current perspective on internships: “How many interns does it take to screw in a light bulb? [Answer] Who cares it’s free.”
In psychology, social work, and related fields, internships, field placements, and practicums have always been a big part of the standard curriculum. They are often closely connected to licensure and certification requirements. Before she finished graduate school in psychology, my wife Diane had done an internship and four practicums in a variety of settings. I, on the other hand, had dodged all of them like they were the plague. I somehow managed to graduate and get a job with as little practical experience as possible.
It has been estimated that over one-half million young Americans will participate in internship programs this year. The number of interns has almost tripled over the last decade. Our middle son says that most businesses in New York City rely so heavily on unpaid interns they could hardly survive without them.
According to a Pew Research Center report, issued in February, only 54% of young adults currently have jobs. That is the lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics back in the 1940s. Youth unemployment is usually much higher than the adult rate, but it has been especially hard hit by an economy which has forced many experienced adults to flood the entry job market. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of young adults have taken unpaid jobs or moved back in with their parents due to the shrinking job market.
While paid internships almost double the chance of a job offer after completion, there is less evidence that unpaid internships are nearly as beneficial. The unpaid internship, however, is becoming so familiar it has shown up on television. In April an unpaid internship figured in the premiere episode of the critically acclaimed HBO television series, Girls. When Hannah, the lead character asks to get paid, she is unceremoniously terminated from her literary agency internship in New York City, after giving them two years of free labor. Upon hearing that she was let go, her highly insensitive boyfriend says, “Weren’t you an intern? So they just asked you not to hang out there anymore?”
Under the U.S. Fair Labor and Standards Act, private sector internships are generally considered a form of paid employment. Payment, however, may be withheld is there is (1) a strong training component, (2) the intern doesn’t displace a regular employee, and (3) the employer gains no direct immediate benefit. In theory training and experience are the compensation that the intern supposedly accrues. Internships are often the only way that young people can garner the experience and job skills that make them marketable in our fiercely competitive economy. Even when they lead to a job, many internships function simply as unpaid probationary periods.
It has been estimated nearly half of all unpaid internships are technically illegal and American businesses benefit from them to the tune of over $600 million dollars annually in free labor.
In his 2011 book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Brooklyn-based writer and former intern, Ross Perlin examines the dark side of internships, which for all practical purposes have become the defacto conduit to a white collar job in America. He describes in detail various questionable and exploitive practices which have lead to situations such as a sexually harassed intern, who couldn’t sue because she wasn’t considered a legal employee, and the Disney intern who ended up owing money to the Disney Corporation after being charged for rent. Disney currently has over 8,000 interns at Disney World alone. Universities also come under fire for charging students exorbitant tuition for participating in internships under the school’s purview. Even the White House, with its large unpaid internship program, doesn’t escape unscathed in Perlin’s exposé.
Unpaid and exploitive internships are most frequently seen in the media, politics, publishing, arts, and entertainment industries. Finance, the sciences, and the law tend to have more traditional paid internship or work study programs.
In a February New York Times Op-Ed piece Perlin says, “The well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket.” He says it is time to enforce the law. Other Western countries have also acted to protect interns. In France, for example, interns are not paid wages, but they must be given a bonus if they work more than two months in one academic year.
Another criticism of unpaid internships is that it perpetuates class differences. As the new gateway to a professional career, unpaid internships may block the path for young people who cannot afford to work for free. In a recent lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, one intern claimed that unpaid internships intensify class distinctions, reducing the capacity for social mobility in our society.
Even Perlin, however, admits that genuine internships still exist that provide both learning opportunities and pathways to substantial employment.
My personal lack of an internship or practicums finally caught up with me. Although I graduated with a large number of credit hours, it was almost all theory, with very little if any practice. When I started my first job as a new staff psychologist in Mississippi, I had never actually seen a real life client face-to-face for counseling. I was pretty much terrified when a surly adolescent boy was hauled into my office, after he had been kicked out of school for smoking. I quickly discovered three things that college had not taught me: (1) Theory has its limits, (2) maybe an internship would have been helpful and (3) perhaps I wasn’t nearly as clever as I had thought I was.