D.C. Council Member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) joins Kojo and Tom Sherwood to chat about her upcoming fight for re-election.
They don’t just get coffee and make copies. Today, internships are encouraged by most parents and colleges, and exist in almost all industries. But are they the first step on a career path… or free labor — or both? And what does the intern boom tell us about the values of the American workplace?
- Ross Perlin author, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a profoundly American idea, work hard and you can make it big. You can be whatever you set your mind to. But what would you be willing to give up in the name of a dream? For many of our nation's young people and some of its older ones too, what they give up for months or sometimes years is a living wage and basic workplace protections.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAll in the name of achieving, sometime in the future, a well-paid meaningful job. We're taking a look at unpaid internships from the point of view of the interns. And asking how they've evolved from a sometime thing into an almost universal rite of passage. Joining us in studio is Ross Perlin. He is the author of the, "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRoss Perlin, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROSS PERLINThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou got interested in exploring the role of internships after you experienced a, well, mediocre internship in English, right?
PERLINI was an unpaid intern about six years ago. And it was not a terrible exploitative experience. It's not one of the horror stories that you hear and that I documented in the book. But it was just a banal experience. I worked unpaid for about four months. I did real work that meaningfully contributed to the organization.
NNAMDIWhat did you do?
PERLINI worked on their website. I translated for them from other languages into English. It was a variety of different tasks, sort of, as they were needed by the employer. And I just began to wonder about, why I was doing this, why I was willing to work unpaid, why it was a completely natural -- naturalized practice for me and for other members of my generation.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Have you worked as an intern recently? What kind of experience did you have? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Ross, you called this generation, the intern generation and say we've reached a tipping point where someone must start paying attention. Haven't internships been around though for a long time?
PERLINWhat I call the internship boom, really got going, beginning in the 1980s, 1990s and has been accelerating every since. Even in the last three to four years, under the impact of the great recession, the number of internships out there, particularly unpaid internships, has just kept on increasing, no matter what changes there have been in economic cycles.
PERLINThe idea of the internships certainly goes back to the late 19th century in the medical profession and before that there's a long history of apprenticeships, which I document and discuss in the book. But that was really something quite different. And what I looked at was the way that the medical internship was transformed as it, kind of, became a broad practice across the white collar workplace.
PERLINSo, starting in the 1930s, 1940s, you do have internships in fields other than medicine. A changed notion of what people should be doing as they enter the workforce. But most of those situations were paid. They were mostly focused on training at large blue chip companies. And what you have, starting in the 1980s, when it was still an experience that only something like three percent of college graduates had, at least one internship before graduating.
PERLINIt might've been a little higher under different words other than internship. But generally speaking, it was not a common thing to work without pay at the time. Nowadays, you have something, like 75 percent of students at four year colleges doing at least one internship before they graduate. So what I call the boom has really, kind of, happened in the last few decades and I set out to figure out why that is, what's been driving it.
NNAMDIAnd one significant difference, both with the medical internship and with apprentice gill system, if you will, is that apprenticeships had the promise of a job at the end and medical internships had the promise of a medical career at the end.
PERLINAbsolutely. And internships, when they first entered other fields outside of medicine, also very commonly lead to full-time jobs or were seen as training. Now, you have more and more people being caught in what's often called, the intern trap, being forced to become serial interns, doing one after another, after another. You have organizations that offer a lot of internships, indeed may have more interns around then regular staff.
PERLINBut make no pretense of having full-time positions open for those interns after they're done with their term of duty. So it's really something, which now is used by far too many organizations as a kind of cheap labor force with no prospect of employment there, at the end.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ross Perlin, he is author of the book, "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." Do you employ or work alongside interns? What kind of effect does this have in your workplace? 800-433-8850, call if you have an answer to that question or you'd like to make a comment, 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, make a comment or ask a question there.
NNAMDIThere certainly can be benefits to taking internships. The intern may make valuable connections, become fluent, so to speak, in office culture and expand the resume. But you say, today's internship culture has lead to the infantilizing of young adults. How so?
PERLINWell, as you say, for any individual young person or a person changing careers later in life, an internship, a brief period, at least, of unpaid work, especially if there's training involved, especially if there are strong prospects of a job at the end of it, can make a lot of sense. With the book, I'm trying to look at this as a larger system, as a way of moving young people, especially from school into the workforce.
PERLINThe infantilization comes from -- usually from being unpaid, in particular, from not having the kinds of benefits that we associate with regular full-time jobs, from being in a situation where you're moving from gig to gig. So one thing a lot of people have been talking about, especially in just the last few years, is a phenomenon of prolonged adolescents, which is a similar idea to the infantilization, where you have more and more people, you know, living with their parents, living at home, late into their 20s now.
PERLINSomething like 20 percent of young people are doing this, delaying the traditional milestones of adulthood, like getting married and having children and then owning a home because they're not earning any money. They're going from one internship to the next. They're trying to get a foothold in a career area. But the entry level jobs have disappeared and been replaced by internships. So the psychic effect on the this internship generation, I think, are just beginning to play themselves out.
NNAMDIYou worry that unpaid internships can be pretty damaging psychologically to many students. In the book, "Intern Nation," you tell the story of Will Batson, a Colgate University student from Augusta, Ga.
PERLINSo with Will, he was a college student and he was looking to burnish his resume one summer. He went to work for WNBC in New York, which, is course, is part of NBC which is part of General Electric, a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars. But they don't pay their interns. They demand full-time work from them through a summer, 40 or more hours a week, doing substantial real tasks of reporting and research that are necessary to keep the organization going.
PERLINAnd so, Will's situation, coming from a middle class family in a relatively small town, was that he could not afford -- his family could not afford to put him up in New York City. He could not afford the rent. This is several thousand dollars in rent and not to mention other expenses. So he was affectively homeless in New York City for that summer.
NNAMDISleeping on couches.
PERLINSleeping on couches at over 20 plus kind of friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, exhausting his extended network, never feeling like he had a place to really rest his head. And he tells his father this, back in Georgia and his father is crying, feeling he can't -- he doesn't have the resources, he doesn’t have the money to help his son kind of get a foot in the door and have a career.
PERLINSo this is just one example of the kinds of situations that are set up when you have to work without pay. Especially in internship hubs like New York, D.C., L.A., which are comparatively expensive. And this is the kind of thing you have.
NNAMDIBecause renting an apartment in New York, given that his family was living in Augusta, Ga., would probably cost as much as, oh, buying a house in Augusta, Ga., doing that.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Jason, in Sterling, Va. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASONHi, I actually go to Drexel University in Philadelphia. And with my university, we have a co-op program which is similar to having an internship program. And I actually am doing a co-op right now at Orbital Sciences in Dulles. And it's been a -- a lot of the co-op, you know, we -- it's paid, but there's definitely some that aren't paid. But I think, you know, schools should try and step up and get a co-op program going for the schools because Drexel's one of the few schools that actually (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIHow does the co-op program work, Jason?
JASONI go to -- I have a five-year program. So I'm going to be going to school for five years. But for three of those years, I go to school for six months and I work for six months. And so by the time I graduate, I'll have a year and a half of job experience on the job training and have some connections in the business world.
NNAMDITalk about the co-op program, Ross Perlin? You talked in the book about Northeastern's co-op program.
PERLINYeah, I discuss a little bit, the history of co-ops and how they compare and contrast with internships. And I think it's telling that Drexel, your school Jason, bills -- I don't know if they still do this, but when I was writing the book, I know, they bill their co-op program as the ultimate internship. So they feel they need to kind of link what they're doing with the much better known phenomenon of internships, even though co-ops have been around for over a century now and in some ways represent a much more rational and humane model of bridging this gap between school and work.
PERLINSo my impression is that, that co-ops -- although, these days, really located in particular at certain schools like Drexel and Northeastern and Waterloo in Canada, you know, are something which has been too often ignored by the mainstream of schools. The golden age of co-ops was really in the years after World War II. The federal government was involved and actually funding and supporting these programs. Understanding that, you know, the really close linkage between education and work that co-ops provided and the close faculty involvement in this programs and the fact that many of them were paid and were, you know, very well structured that lead the government to invest in them for a period of time.
PERLINBut then, a couple of decades ago, to disinvest, to pull money out for various political reasons and in some ways that left the vacuum into which internships have immerged. As an alternative, which I think is many ways, inferior. Pushing the costs onto students, young people and their families, not insuring, sort of, dedicated structured training and overall providing a less rigorous model.
NNAMDIJason, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Chris in Alexandria, Va. Chris, your turn.
CHRISHi, Kojo. I come at the internship issue from two sides. Number one, I was an intern at the University of Maryland when I got -- getting my journalism degree and I thoroughly enjoyed that process. I worked it hard and it wound -- it turned into a full-time position. I left the field and then started a flooring business that I ran for about 10 years and in that business, I actually put carpet in your home, in your basement.
CHRISBut I used interns as well. And I had one intern that was absolutely fantastic from Bowie State. He challenged me. And that got me to look at the interns, that if I'm going to give them an opportunity, they need to work and they need to work it hard. And in my business now that I have, I still give interns opportunities, but it really, truly is, just in my case from my small experience, it is what they make of it. Because I don't have time running a business to really hold hands and make promises. But I will open doors, all day long for the right kind of intern.
NNAMDIWere your interns paid or unpaid, Chris?
NNAMDIWhat do you say about that, Ross Perlin?
PERLINWell, my view and the view that the law takes on this, is that if they're performing real work, they should be paid. If you don't have time to train them, Chris, then you should be paying them for their work. On the other hand, if you do feel that this is a way of giving back, that this is something you're doing to help them primarily, then I think it is fine for it to be unpaid.
PERLINBut if you have laying carpets in basements and doing that work and you yourself don't have the time to really be training them and holding their hand through that process, then the law says you should pay.
CHRISBut if I could just make one comment.
CHRISThey do receive a very tangible benefit that they can put on that resume. I will give them -- certain things that they've done. I will break down to metrics how their contribution effected the overall operation of the business and I will give them an experience working with an entrepreneur that -- actually I sold that business, the flooring business.
CHRISI didn't have them doing the labor. I had them doing research, you know, maybe helping me design some mailers or different things like that or paperwork. But they got a very valuable, marketable skill by working with me or they wouldn't -- or I wouldn't of let them stay. Because it would've been -- not have been a win-win situation.
CHRISThey receive -- yes?
NNAMDII was about to say thank you for your call but finish your sentence or your thought please.
CHRISSure. But they do receive intangible asset of marketable experience that I can help them pose in the right line, which -- to help them in their job search.
NNAMDIThank you very much Chris and I guess the intangible asset is what we're talking about here. Because about a year ago the Labor Department caused an uproar when it issued -- or maybe I should say reissued a set of rules addressing when interns should be considered employees for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
NNAMDIAnd I get the impression that what Chris was describing would fall under the need for compensation?
PERLINI think it would. There's a six-factor test that the Department of Labor administers or enforces, which is ultimately based on a Supreme Court decision about what constitutes a training situation, who is a trainee and in this case you can substitute the word intern for trainee and the kinds of intangible benefits that Chris has provided are obviously important and obviously can benefit the intern and make it a better experience.
PERLINBut the law is very clear that pay, that minimum wage compensation over time if the intern is working more than the standard amount of hours. That is the real compensation and when you make it more of a barter situation where the intern is working for a reference or contacts or an item on their CV that begins to go against the law.
PERLINYou know, in our society wages are the basic currency that are returned for work. So while other, you know, other arrangements are often agreed to by two parties, the larger effect on the labor market, on the economy, can be detrimental.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called stay on the line, we'll try to get to your call. We still have a few lines open. We're talking with Ross Perlin. He is author of the book "Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little In The Brave New Economy."
NNAMDIDo you employ or work alongside interns? Talk about your experience there. How important are interns to the work you do? What do they add to your workplace that you would not have without them? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet at kojoshow, e-mail to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ross Perlin. He is the author of "Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little In The Brave New Economy." I knew you participated in a panel at the Economic Policy Institute that included somebody from the Labor Department, Wage and Hour Division. What did that individual have to say? Is this use of internships without pay a problem or not?
PERLINThe Labor Department clearly recognizes that this is a problem. This was the Federal Labor Department here in D.C. I know at the state level they're also receiving complaints, the various state departments of labor. There's clear awareness that this is an emerging problem. The words "spreading cancer" were even used by that official from the Labor Department.
PERLINUnderstanding that this is a new thing in the workplace and that there are a lot of violations out there. At the same time, it was clear that they feel that their hands are tied to some extent. Both by the limitations on their own resources, the Labor Department -- this is the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department in particular, which is tasked with enforcing things like minimum wage and overtime.
PERLINYou know, they have to cover a huge range of workplaces, a huge range of different situations and internships are difficult because a lack of statistics, a lack of clear definitions and because there are complacent victims as he said. Meaning that many interns, most interns, don't speak up. There's not even full awareness of the law out there.
PERLINSo there's awareness of the problem very much so I think in departments of labor and in the federal department. But so far, relatively little action in this area.
NNAMDIYou could say that Washington runs on interns, though many of those are with government or not for profit organizations. Do different rules apply?
PERLINDifferent rules apply in the case of Congress, in particular. And this, to me, somewhat shocking. That there is a special exemption which Congress passed in the 1990s for itself for interns on the Hill, saying that they did not need to be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which we've been discussing.
PERLINAnd that they were indeed free not to pay them whatsoever. But otherwise, as far as I'm aware, this legislation and this six-factor test which I mentioned, does cover certainly everybody working at -- it covers certainly everybody working at private sector -- in private sector situations. When it comes to non-profits and some public sector things as well, there is the challenging extra issue of volunteering and whether interns could be considered volunteers. But the six-point test can still be applied in many of these cases.
NNAMDIBefore I get to the telephones and if you are there, hold on. I'll get to your call. Many colleges were upset with the Department of Labor's criteria, especially the first one. A rule saying, quoting here, "Training should be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment." What did the labor regulation mean?
PERLINWell, the regulations -- and there are six different points and just one of them has to do with academic credit and has to do with, you know, the educational content of the internship situation. So colleges clearly feel that this is their turf.
PERLINThat they are the ones -- they began the internship boom in many ways, they've encouraged their students to do these, they're always in constant contact with employers and they often do fight for their students to land internship opportunities. But they don't really talk much about the law. They're not interested in having the actual laws enforced and they're not looking at the wider situation.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. We go to Elizabeth in Arlington, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air, go ahead please.
ELIZABETHYes, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say that, you know, I do appreciate where, you know, your guest is coming from. I work for a non-profit organization. I manage lots of interns who do receive a stipend because we acknowledge that it is very expensive to live in Washington D.C.
ELIZABETHWhat I would say, you know, on the flip side, having been a full-time graduate student here in Washington D.C. and worked on a paid internship, sometimes you just, you know, there are seasons in your life where you just kind of have to pull it together and work.
ELIZABETHI mean, I had to work to pay my bills and do an unpaid internship, knowing that the payoff would be -- hopefully, that it would lead to a job sometime. And I have kind of noticed a progressive kind of attitude of entitlement, I think, in interns and I completely think that it's important to compensate but, you know, there is a reality too.
ELIZABETHIf you are good enough to get a job that is paid, there's only so many of those internships available and I think that's an important kind of life reality that maybe interns should acknowledge in college or that we should be teaching our college students.
ELIZABETHNot everybody's going to get a really well paid internship and you're not -- that shouldn’t be the case forever. You shouldn't take those jobs forever but that's just kind of life. I mean, I say as somebody who believes in compensating interns but as someone who also had to work a lot to make the difference up so, I don't know.
NNAMDIDo you feel that any of your internships specifically led to getting a job?
ELIZABETHAbsolutely, yes, I do. I think that they helped. I do think they helped. I think some probably more than others. I mean, some you just kind of do for the experience, right. Like, I mean, I interned on the Hill and I think, I didn't end up on the Hill, but at the same time it was a great experience. Being able to go there, I mean, it's a privilege to go and to assist in those things and to kind of be in those settings that you would not normally have exposure to.
ELIZABETHI do feel some of my later internships did absolutely contribute, you know, skills that have completely helped me be where I am today.
NNAMDIElizabeth, thank you very much for your call. But before you respond to Elizabeth, Ross Perlin, allow me to go to Eleanor so you can compare and contrast. Eleanor, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELEANORHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to tell you about my internship experience. At the University of Maryland, at College Park, and our last semester we were required to do a full-time internship to graduate in my major.
ELEANORAnd during this time we were given 12 credit hours for that internship. We had to pay full-time tuition and almost nobody had a paid internship. So not only were we paying commuting costs, costs of living, we had to pay full-time tuition. It was, far and away, my most expensive semester of college. Even though I didn't need books, we did meet on campus a few times but I thought that was completely ridiculous. I was sort of stunned to discover that at that time and...
NNAMDISo you don't necessarily reflect fondly on your internship?
ELEANORI had a great internship experience but it was very, very expensive. In addition, I'm a family caregiver, so I had to pay somebody to take care of my mother while I was doing more hours than I was in school.
ELEANORSo it was extremely expensive and the fact that we had to pay tuition to the university, this was an off-campus internship with a completely different organization, was absurd. I mean, just to get the credit hours to qualify and we were required to do it to graduate so this wasn't even sort of an optional choice, was, in my mind, completely unacceptable.
ELEANORI could not believe that.
NNAMDI...allow me to have Ross Perlin respond. Congratulations for emerging from that experience. Here's Ross Perlin.
PERLINWell, the situation you describe is far too common. The requirement to do at least one internship before you graduate from a given college or to fulfill a particular degree, has become the norm in many fields. In sociology, social work, psychology, journalism, many, many fields.
PERLINAnd I've talked to people who paid up $14,000 for a semester essentially to go work unpaid, off-campus when they were not accessing campus services. And one of the big discussion I hope to get going with this book is colleges need to recognize that they've been somewhat greedy about this.
PERLINThat this is a revenue stream for them. Their costs are almost nil in many of these cases and I understand that their thinking to some extent about the educational value of these experiences and as an internship as a natural extension of course work.
PERLINBut the financial burden on students going through these things is immense and this is an era when student debt is mounting and mounting. Which kind of leads me back to the question of entitlement from the previous caller. I think this is something that happens in every generation.
PERLINYoung people are said to be entitled and to feel that they, you know, that they own the world and it's true that many people are, you know, eager to enter the white-collar world. They think, you know, that they should be changing the world when they're 22, 23.
PERLINBut I don't think it’s a particular sense of entitlement to feel that you should be paid for your work, to feel that you shouldn't have to pay your school in order to go work unpaid. So these things were actually not expected of young people in 1950s and 60s for example. When paid work was the absolute norm when there was no culture of working without pay.
PERLINSo I don't think it reflects a sense of entitlement on the part of students who have tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and are then being asked to do two, three, four unpaid internships.
NNAMDIEleanor, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Steve in Annapolis, Md. Steve, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEVEHi there Kojo and Ross. Ross, thanks for bringing this topic up. I'm actually the co-founder of an international internships provider company. We've been around for about 10 years now, called Global Experiences. And we help, usually university students from the U.S. access internships aboard.
STEVEObviously a little bit different than, say, U.S. based internships because it's a lot more challenging to find an internship or a company in Italy that's going to host an intern and take them on and give them some kind of training and practical experience.
STEVESo this is something that obviously we feel pretty strongly. I read your book. I've been following some of your articles and it just seems to me that you're a little bit lopsided in terms, you know, your outlook on the value of internships.
STEVENow, I'm trying to get a sense of whether or not it's the value of the experience or if it's the fact that their unpaid or even perhaps, in our case, where they're paying us to help them set up an internship. So we consider the internship an extension of one's academic experience.
STEVESo get out of the classroom, get some experiential education, some practical skills, add a little something to your resume. Of course, make some contacts in your field, but really just to get in under your own skin to learn a little bit about yourself so that you can have a lot more to offer a prospective employer and you find the right path for you much earlier in life.
STEVESo there's a lot of statistics out there as well that kind of support the value of these internships. Like, 78 percent of employers hire people who have had internships over people who have not. Or 20 percent of, you know, starting salaries are 20 percent higher for those who have done an internship over those who don't.
STEVESo I don't think that, perhaps, you're not seeing the value of the internship experience is so much the issue as it is the paid versus unpaid nature of it. You often site GE and -- which is a very big company of course and it's easy to go after, you know, the imagination or the mind's eye of the average individual who will hear this big, bad company is taking advantage of these poor unwitting sort of interns and that's just not really the case by and large because most companies are not big. They don't have huge budgets. They certainly would dry up a lot of opportunities for interns if they had to be forced to pay all of them.
NNAMDIWell, I guess given...
STEVEAgain, I'm just asking them a question...
STEVE...whether or not you think it's the value of the internship experience or if it's the notion or the nature of being paid versus unpaid?
NNAMDIOkay. Here's Ross Perlin and of course, within the limits of time on a radio talk show we cannot tell you everything that was in the book but since you mentioned what the overall picture is by and large, Steve, maybe Ross Perlin can talk about that and not just isolate it to GE.
PERLINI don't think there's an either or situation where it's either a good experience or you get paid. And, in fact, I think on all sorts of measures and a lot of research backs this up, paid situations are better in many different ways. Employers, when they're paying, are much more deeply invested in the internship experience.
PERLINThey know that they want to make something out of it. They're more likely to want to hire the people. They see this as an investment in those people. That they're training them and that they're trying to bring them into the company on a full-time basis in many situations.
PERLINWhereas an unpaid situations are more likely to be through connections. They're more likely to sort of be ignored, the interns, as they're sitting there. This is not always the case. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. There are situations that are dedicated training programs where it's completely legal and fine for there not to be pay involved because it's basically about training.
PERLINBut let me kind of emphasize again that, of course, there are lots of great, wonderful internship experiences out there, paid and unpaid. As I say, I think the paid ones are better on a number of measures and pay is kind of a leading indicator in many ways of the quality of an internship.
PERLINBut that aside, a recent survey found that over 20 percent of large companies, that is with over 500 employees, were making use of unpaid interns. So this is happening at large firms. It's happening on an even larger scale at small firms as you indicate and at non-profits and in the public sector.
PERLINBut it's now happening across the board. And my worry, again, is not entirely about the quality of the experiences because indeed they can be transformative in many but not all cases. My worry is about access and a company -- when you have companies in particular that are selling internship placements I really worry about people who can't afford to do that.
PERLINSo there are all these different levels of, you know, pay to play now, in the internship system. You have to be able to work unpaid for a period of time. You have to afford the rent to live in one of these internship hubs. You know, maybe you have to pay for academic credit.
PERLINMaybe you even feel you have to pay a company for their services to help land you one of these things. Maybe you even have to buy an internship at an auction. The practice of internship auctions is now taking off. So we're reaching kind of new levels of absurdity, but what it adds up to is a pay to play system. I don't think we can take the issue of pay out of it and just say, oh, these are great win-win experiences. I think we have to look at the economic realities.
NNAMDIYou mentioned -- and Steve, thank you for your call. You mentioned Congress exempting itself from Labor Department regulations having to do with interns. What work place protections, what work place laws are in existence for interns? Are OSHA rules applicable, are protections against sexual harassment applicable for interns?
PERLINFor paid interns, the answer is basically yes. Certainly for those receiving minimum wage. Unfortunately, and this is far too little known, unpaid interns are left essentially unprotected in the work place. That is to say that the Civil Rights Act, Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act, all of these key pieces of legislation which protect workers in their work places, do not apply to unpaid interns.
NNAMDIWhy, because they're seen essentially as volunteers?
PERLINThey're seen as like bystanders who happen to be holding down a cubicle. It may sound absurd, but the...
PERLIN...the common law definition of an employee is connected to pay, and this is coming from a separate legal tradition than the issues we've mentioned. But on numerous occasions, courts have heard, or interns who have sexually harassed in particular, numerous cases in many states have gone to the courts and said, I want to seek redress, you know, for this sexual harassment. I want to bring a case into this court. And they say, well, you were an unpaid intern. You have no standing. You don't qualify as an employee. Therefore, this court will not even hear the merits of your case.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that several jurisdictions or states have added interns into their laws protecting workers, is that correct?
PERLINThis is a growing trend as people recognize this problem. Here is Washington D.C. there has been an effort led by Mary Cheh on the city...
NNAMDID.C. City Council.
PERLIN...City Council, to amend a local law. The D.C. Human Rights Act I believe it's called. An effort in Oregon as well. This is starting to happen. But first you have to have local laws in place that address these issues of age discrimination, sexual discrimination. But as it stands, these broad, crucial federal national level laws, which are not so easy to amend, they don't cover unpaid interns.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try our best to get to your call, but the lines are busy, so if you'd like to get through, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with author, Ross Perlin, about his book, "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ross Perlin. He is the author of "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." We are taking your communication at this point at our website, kojoshow.org, or you can send e-mail to email@example.com, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Students from a low income background face a serious disadvantage when it comes to internships. You have kind of referred to that earlier. You say that problem can prevent them from entering the job market on an equal footing.
PERLINAs I said, students at four-year colleges, something like three-quarters are now able to, often with great sacrifice, do at least one internship before they graduate. But those at community colleges, the vast majority of whom have to work paying jobs in order just to get through school, and those who never go to college in the first place, high school graduates for instance, are often completely shut out of this system.
PERLINNot only because schools are often the ones directing the traffic as it were in the internship game, but because of the funds involved, and the necessity to work for pay. So one of the major issues I wanted to raise with the book is what happens to everybody else? What happens to the non-interns, those who can't afford to break into the system? And the short answer is that they don't have access to key professions where internships have become a virtual prerequisite, where they've become the gateway in.
PERLINAnd this includes everything from politics to media to film. A whole range of very influential professions that impact our wider society.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Tanya who said, "how does the guest see the role of new organizations like the Internship Institute to protect an advocate for the rights of interns and effective internships?" And we got a comment posted on our website from C.M. who said, "I would hope that Mr. Perlin would recognize the work of the Internship Institute, a non-profit dedicated to best practices in internships. The website is internshipinstitute.org. The director of the Internship Institute calls herself the intern lady, and is a resident of Washington D.C. who works with young people to move them into the world of work with success."
PERLINThere has recently been a proliferation of organizations for-profit and non-profit, like -- which are, in many cases, claiming to or actually working to sort of standardize the landscape around internships, or to make internships better, to lay out best practices. And I champion that effort. I can't speak too much to the particular work right now of the Internship Institute, but I would say that, you know, the core principles of following the law, paying for work, discouraging a culture of unpaid work.
PERLINIf those core principles are in place, then this kind of advocacy work is to be welcomed.
NNAMDIHere is Eleanor in Washington D.C. Eleanor, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELEANORThank you, Kojo, for taking my call, and thank you, Ross, for this book. I'm an internship, one of my duties -- I'm a professor of English at a state university. And one of my duties is supervising internships for English majors. And I would like to note, we've been fairly vigilant I guess in our department. We allow students to take paid and unpaid. And in the unpaid cases, we are very concerned that they're getting the proper mentoring and training.
ELEANORAnd if the employer is not willing to do that, then we don't place our students with them. I will say also that many of our students do an internship for three credits which amounts to ten hours a week during the semester, and that allows those of lower income to afford the experience. There's a lot of socialization I think that students today need to go through to be ready for the work force.
ELEANORSo I think if you have employer that's aware of the fact that they're going to have to do some training up front, then it's not exactly unpaid. I mean, they're giving part of their time and maybe getting half or three-fourths of the work that they would do. Non-profits, smaller companies especially like this.
PERLINYou vigilance seems well-founded. I think that schools are perhaps in the best position, at least as far as kind of college-age interns go. The schools are in the best position to monitor and be providing feedback to employers to be making sure that if it's unpaid it's still following the law, that there are still, you know, that it's basically a training program, and training focused. So that's very important.
PERLINIn terms of socialization into the work place, I agree that this is critical. One thing that I advocate to some extent as a replacement for certain kinds of internships is more job shadowing. This is a pretty traditional practice, usually shorter term. It's very clear to everybody from the get go that the young person or whoever is a fly on the wall, observing what happens, and being socialized just through watching office culture, through watching work place culture and sort of soaking it up and you can visit, you know, different environments, different parts of the office or the firm.
PERLINSo I think the word internship to some extent has muddied the waters because nobody's clear what it means exactly. You know, how much work are you going to put in, how much training are they going to put in. So I think it is important for everybody to be clear from the get go, and for your students, and for all students to understand what their rights are as well.
NNAMDIEleanor, thank you very much for your call. What about older people who accept internships in the hopes of changing careers? Is this actually a successful strategy, or just an expensive one?
PERLINThe idea of using internships to change careers when you're in your 30's, 40's or indeed in your 50's is a relatively recent phenomenon. It seems to have picked up in particular in the last ten years or so. And, you know, the prototypical intern of course, is still a college-age student or a recent graduate. So there's very little research and very little understanding so far about the role that these kind of career change internships play. I've heard good stories, I've heard bad stories.
PERLINOlder people arguably are at least in a position usually financially a little bit more to kind of afford that time of unpaid work. But at the same time, they're kind of out there on their own. They're not linked up with a school that potentially would be, you know, doing some of that monitoring and evaluation. So, the law, of course, is essentially the same. The issues I think are fundamentally similar. But it's a phenomenon kind of waiting to be studied further.
NNAMDIE-mail from Jonathan in Washington D.C. "Ultimately any internship, even the paid ones, are only worthwhile if there is effort put in on the employer's side. These kids are looking for mentoring and guidance. Instead they often get mind-numbing busy work dumped on them with little direction and few interactions. Are there things interns should look for when they are interviewing for potential unpaid jobs? Are there warning signs?"
PERLINEvery day on Craig's List, on Monster.com, on college career websites, you see internship postings that are clearly illegal, that are clearly exploitative, where they're looking for, you know, eager, motivated, talented interns with XYZ experience and skills that they already bring, you know, that you can already bring to the table, and where it's clear that training is not the first thing on their mind. So there's only a limited amount unfortunately that you can tell from these postings, you know.
PERLINOf course, the best thing is to speak with people who have interned at the organization before when you go and have an interview, or speak to people at the organization. Ask to talk to former interns. I think that's a reasonable request in just about any case. There are now a few limited kind of internship review websites where people actually talk about their experiences.
PERLINBut what you should really look for is, you know, if it's an unpaid situation, that it's short term, that, you know, it's clearly about training and they understand that, and indeed, the more specific the better. The hours of training, the nature of the training, the structure of the training. And if they're looking for somebody with a great deal of experience and they clearly need you urgently to fill in roles, you know, that people are out on sick leave or on vacation or whatever, that's a bad sign.
NNAMDIWhile Disney is not necessarily a typical American company, it's arguably one of the most American of companies. You used Disney as a case study. Why?
PERLINI wrote a whole chapter about the Disneyworld internship program, the Disney College Program as it's called, which employs seven to 8,000 interns each year down at Disneyworld, which is the largest single site employer in the U.S., which 63,000 or so employees. So interns make up a significant chunk of that population. And I looked at it, on the one hand, because it's the largest -- or one of the largest internship programs anywhere as far as I'm aware, certainly at a single place.
PERLINBut also because it's growth over the last three decades or so, in some ways mirrors the larger growth of the internship phenomenon. So what began as a program involving a few schools, and a few hundred students filling in, you know, particularly in the, you know, in the summer, has now become a massive year-round program that people stay at for long periods of time. And it's a significant cost-savings for Disney.
PERLINThey use they interns -- I mean, they pay them minimum wage, so strictly speaking, it's generally legal, but they would have to pay quite a bit more if these were regular full-time career employees. The interns are forced to live in company housing, these huge housing complexes where there are thousands of interns. And their lives are essentially kind of centered around the company. And to all this there's a kind of academic stamp of approval.
PERLINMany, many schools encourage their students to go do this. They advertise for Disney very heavily on their campuses. So I was interested to understand kind of all the different dynamics that work in the program.
NNAMDIGot an e-mail from Elizabeth in Washington who says, "I was of the understand that unpaid internships are illegal unless you receive college credits or some other points towards certification and the like. I would love to hear your thoughts."
PERLINUnpaid internships are illegal at for-profit companies when they fail to meet the six-point test which the Department of Labor lays out and which you can easily find online just by Googling intern six-point test, or something like that. Now, there is a myth out there, and I think you can really call it a myth, that academic credit alone can counterbalance the lack of pay in an internship, and it's simply not the case. Many companies believe this to be so, or wish it to be so, and require their interns to be enrolled college students, and go by the credit, or go get the credit for their schools.
PERLINBut I've had it direct from the Department of Labor on multiple occasions that academic credit only fulfills one of the six points in that six-point test. So the basic thing is still that this needs to be essentially a training program, and it needs to meet these six criteria of what a training program looks like. Otherwise it should be paid.
NNAMDIMany public radio producers and hosts got their start as interns or volunteers. Our managing producer, Diane Vogel, for example, began as a volunteer here at WAMU. These days a public radio internship can mean hours of transcribing recordings, filing away old scripts, and other clerical tasks, but it's considered by many the first step on the ladder to one day being able to make great radio themselves. Should we in the public radio world be taking a closer look at ourselves?
PERLINI think public radio should take a closer look at its own practices. And indeed, I think across the media in particular, there's a need to kind of examine and be self-conscious about workplace practices. I don't know too many specifics about how internships in public radio usually work, but from what your describing, these larger effects that I talked about of excluding certain whole groups of people who could not afford to do this real work unpaid, that would be a problem for public radio stations, just as it is for other organizations.
NNAMDII'll tell you how it works at this station. The intern who assisted with preparation of this show, Ann Hoffman, stood outside the door threateningly if I did not ask that particular question. So apparently threatening the host by an intern is apparently legal. Ross Perlin is the author of "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." Ross Perlin, thank you so much for joining us.
PERLINThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Taylor Burnie with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
D.C.-based writer Paul Goldberg recently published his first novel, "The Yid." We talk with him about the story, how living in D.C. shapes his work and his 'day job' overseeing the influential Cancer Letter project.
Julette Saussy was hired by D.C. government less than a year ago to oversee reforms in the city's troubled fire and emergency medical services department. But she recently announced that she'd be quitting the post - and she says the department's failure to change is putting lives in danger.
Concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus have escalated - both among those who may be traveling to affected areas, but also now locally, where three cases were recently identified.