The Internship Problem

by Rita Koganzon

Unpaid internships are unregulated, often illegal — and ubiquitous.

It has been a long time since a revolution of the workers was thought to be imminent, but maybe we’ve just been looking in the wrong places. Marx told us it would come from the industrial proletarian, alienated from himself, stripped of his humanity, reduced to the bare minimum of an animal existence by the declining value of his labor. But then the proletarian unionized, industrial wages went up, and his revolution was aborted. What Marx never imagined was today’s intern — young, well-educated, ingratiating, and willing to pay for the privilege of working. This, according to Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, is the new revolutionary vanguard.

The unpaid internship is still something of a “First World Problem” — a complication generated by one’s own advantages. Perlin estimates that up to 75 percent of students at four-year colleges take at least one internship before graduating — but such students and graduates make up less than 30 percent of their age cohort in the U.S. Moreover, in fields like finance, engineering, and business, internships are often well-compensated and conclude with offers of full-time employment.

But in “cultural” fields — media, politics, the arts, non-profits — unpaid, insubstantial, dead-end internships are increasingly a prerequisite for landing a full-time position. Intern Nation is full of anecdotes of dismal “work” situations: “custodial interns” at Disney assigned to clean toilets, pyramid schemes stringing along interns in New York apartments, movie-studio interns running around L.A. trying in vain to secure a certain “discontinued flavor of Powerbar” for their bosses.

“The internship,” Perlin writes, “has emerged victorious as the unrivaled gateway to white-collar work, now backed by government policies across the globe, employers’ hiring practices, a nearly unanimous Academy, and a million auxiliary efforts.” Yet they are unregulated by the government, under-scrutinized by the universities that advertise and sometimes require or subsidize them, and blindly boosted by thousands of desperate college students and self-satisfied alumni.

On top of that, the unpaid ones are usually against the law, which requires that any work undertaken by unpaid “trainees” constitute actual training and not contribute to the firm’s “immediate advantage.” As Perlin points out, this hardly describes most unpaid positions, which consist primarily of clerical work for which no training is given (or needed). And firms — even non-profits and the government — absolutely benefit from all those intern-generated stuffed envelopes, promotional tweets, and Capitol tours. In the meantime, interns scramble to cover the costs of such ambiguous “opportunities,” working extra jobs on the side, taking out loans, and pumping their parents for support.

Nonetheless, students are throwing themselves at employers — up to 2 million of them a year, though precise numbers are impossible to track — offering to work for free even where no established internship program is in place. “For many employers, the only limitation in accepting such offers is desk space.” Actually, that’s not quite accurate — I interned at an organization that solved its desk-space shortage by sending interns away to “work from home.”

The incentive for employers to take on unpaid labor is clear, but why should universities and students so eagerly play along? Perlin’s answer is an old-fashioned revolutionary combination of false consciousness and hidden benefit. The false consciousness exists in the minds of former interns, who “now perpetuate the system that gave them a start and an ‘in,’” Perlin writes. Universities receive more tangible rewards: When they offer academic credit for internships, as though envelope-stuffing were a college-level course, the interns must pay for it, in addition to the costs of their room and board. Universities rarely bother to find out whether these positions are credit-worthy or to supplement them with actual academic work, which of course would chip away at the profit they stand to make from selling credits without expending their own resources.

Reprehensible as these policies are, they point to the broader problem behind unpaid internships and similar labor-market distortions: The value of a university degree is unclear, and its content is not meaningfully connected to recognizable workplace skills. A history degree does not (and should not) consist of clerical training, but the first job of most history majors will most likely call more on their fluency with a copier than with Old English. At the other end, entry-level jobs in “cultural fields” increasingly demand vague qualifications such as “social media experience,” “excellent verbal and written communication skills,” and “ability to work well within a team environment.” One would be hard-pressed to imagine a college graduate who doesn’t meet these qualifications. Perhaps one reason that interns so often complain of learning nothing during their stints is that there is nothing to learn between college and an entry-level job in these fields.

Perlin seems to recognize this disjunction between higher education and the workplace when he discusses the role that internships play in the economics of “signaling.” He insists that older models of training, such as apprenticeships and co-op programs, can fill the gap so that formal schooling and job training can each occupy distinct but complementary spheres in an economy of secure (which for him means unionized) and well-compensated employment. “The distinction between work and education has become almost nonexistent,” he laments. But internships did not create this ambiguity; the packaging of service careers into academic majors and the glut of liberal-arts majors clamoring for scarce cultural careers did. Universities have real incentives to ensure their graduates’ employability, but they have no better idea about how to do this than the students themselves. As for the students, they would hardly submit to secretarial training — even if it were accurately billed as the most transferable skill in the white-collar world — because that looks like more of a dead-end than an internship, even if the latter consists entirely of coffee-fetching for important people. Compensation in what Perlin calls “the currency of opportunities and experience” holds more promise, if potentially also greater peril.

So the revolution of the interns that Perlin predicts may contain some contradictions if it ever comes to pass, which should come as no surprise given that it’s a revolution on behalf of the most advantaged. Perlin claims that the labor performed by unpaid interns is indispensable to firms, but also that it’s insubstantial grunt work. He declares that unpaid internships devalue labor and ought to be replaced by more “humane” routes from education to work but also laments that internships are too competitive and exclusive, the corrective to which is of course more internships.

Pressed between these conflicting goals, Perlin limits himself to calling for one major reform to internships: federal labor oversight that would ensure minimum-wage compensation except in the minority of cases in which interns actually meet the federal definition of a “trainee.” Such regulation, Perlin insists, will not substantially diminish the number of internship opportunities currently available; it will only force employers to recognize with paychecks the current indispensability of intern labor.

That may well be true in those fields where paid internships are already the norm and only a few firms remain as unpaid holdouts, but such industries are structurally different from cultural fields. Investment-banking interns are screened for quant-heavy college courseloads, trained to become junior analysts, and then frequently offered employment and handsome compensation as such. Museum, think-tank, and film-studio interns are asked to perform tasks that require a high-school diploma at best because these are actually the job descriptions — full or partial — of a good number of entry-level staff in these fields, and the lack of compensation closely parallels the low compensation offered to full-timers.

The top jobs in cultural fields are often severely disconnected from the jobs at the bottom, and the path from the latter to the former is tortuous and indirect. A research assistant at a Washington think tank will find it difficult to be promoted to scholar simply by diligently compiling reports for his boss for many years. The most visible and coveted jobs in these fields are instead secured by substantial independently-produced work — published books, completed film scripts, spectacular scoops, original humanitarian projects. Internships can’t approximate “training” for these accomplishments anywhere near as well as they can for programming Excel spreadsheets, and so the rhetoric of the ineffable — “exposure” and “networking” — must be introduced on their behalf.

Perlin’s demand that interns be paid what they’re worth — minimum wage — isn’t unreasonable. He is perhaps overly optimistic about the willingness of employers to retain internships rather than delegate their mundane tasks back to salaried employees. But given how little is now gained from such internships, it’s likely that equally little stands to be lost. Perhaps this will allow (or force) some college students to return to relatively sane if not prestigious summers of lifeguarding and camp-counseling. But it will hardly be an impediment to American higher education’s quest to consume the entire labor market by posing as a universal credentialer of increasingly vague and meaningless expertise.

Rita Koganzon is pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard University.