When I agreed to review this book, I wondered how anyone could produce 258 pages on interns without padding it out with soft and fluffy anecdotes. In the event, Ross Perlin has penned a serious and extremely well-written text that offers sophisticated historical material about the origins of internship and its impact on the individuals concerned, the firms that use it and the world of work more generally.
Intern Nation is not merely a collection of narratives of intern experiences but takes a strongly critical view of the majority of intern users, pithily summed up in the statement: "they hawk hope, sell unpaid labor for a fee and peddle in human futures". Perlin's central thesis is that, although there are organisations in the public, private and third sectors that are responsible users, in most cases interns are grossly exploited.
The author highlights the scale of the use of interns by drawing attention to the fact that of the 9.5 million students in US higher education, about three-quarters have undertaken an internship at least once before graduating. What really concerns Perlin is that much of this work is unpaid.
In the US, he contends, 50 per cent of interns work for free, in the UK 37 per cent and in Germany 51 per cent. According to the union Unite, he notes, in the UK less than 1 per cent of the significant number of interns working in the offices of MPs receive the UK minimum wage and half are not reimbursed for expenses. This practice is thought to save Parliament nearly £5 million a year. He summarises his argument thus: "All of us - employers, parents, schools, government agencies, and interns themselves - are complicit in the devaluing of work, the exacerbation of social inequality, and the disillusionment of young people in the workplace that are emerging as a result of the intern boom."
Perlin focuses on Disney, which runs the largest internship programme in the world, with up to 8,000 college students at any one time. His view is that Disney interns work long shifts in menial jobs for minimum pay and with few employment rights.
In illustrating the increased demand and extent of the use of interns, Perlin highlights an interesting 2010 report by Michigan State University academic Phil Gardner, The Debate Over Unpaid College Internships. It found that 80 per cent of internships are based in non-profit organisations, government offices and small-to- medium-sized enterprises, with only 20 per cent based in larger, for-profit companies.
Traditional registered apprenticeships, Perlin notes, are better paid and are more likely to offer the training and development that blue-collar and craft workers need. In contrast, he says, "apprenticeships have been stymied in the white-collar world, pre-empted by the short-term, unpaid, employer-dominated internship model". In a chapter titled "A lawsuit waiting to happen", Perlin considers the Fair Labor Standards Act in the US, and notes that some organisations try to justify their use of internships by getting universities to offer course credits for such work.
The sixth chapter is an eye-opener in its exploration of the concept of "no fee for service" - companies that do not pay interns for their services use the argument that "it will be good for them to have on their CVs", or argue that it is in the "public interest". While acknowledging that such experience may help interns in the long run, Perlin says "there is little evidence that internships in the public sector or at non-profits will convert directly to permanent employment" - an important point, and one where more research evidence is needed. On the other hand, of course, being exposed to new environments is beneficial. As Albert Einstein observed: "Your imagination is the preview to life's coming attractions."
Perlin concludes by looking at the economics of internships, future markets, the picture outside the US (which draws on Alan Milburn's report on internships in the context of the UK) and the "rise and rebellion" of interns around the world, with his final chapter sarcastically titled, "Nothing to lose but your cubicles".
This is a tour de force of the topic, and Perlin should be congratulated for amassing such a large amount of data to support his thesis. He sums up his argument powerfully in his concluding chapter: "the internship explosion...is a slow boil, a simmering injustice, a glass ceiling half-built which there's still time to tear down...when working for free becomes the norm, everybody loses, except at the very top". A compelling and enjoyable text, Intern Nation should be read by employers in all sectors before they begin to offer internships.
Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy
By Ross Perlin
Verso, 288pp, £14.99
Published 30 May 2011