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Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave new Economy, Ross Perlin

2011/06/15

If you have been job-hunting anytime in past years (and who hasn’t), you know that internships are viewed as a golden key to the door of employment. And in an increasingly competitive market, college and graduate students find themselves competing against seasoned job hunters for the opportunity to work for free, or even worse, to pay hefty tuition fees to work for free. Perlin examines the history and legality of these internships, looking at some very good programs, and others which seem designed to capitalize on the desperation of hopeful graduates and soon-to-be graduates.

The author begins with the Disney franchise, which has hosted thousands of interns, many of whom fill positions which would otherwise require permanent, paid employees. Perlin notes, “like other employers around the country, Disney has figured out how to rebrand ordinary jobs in the internship mold, framing them as part of a structured program — comprehensible to educators and parents, and tapping into student reserves of careerism and altruism… yet training and education are clearly afterthoughts: the kids are brought in to work” (3). He finds this across the board in all forms of internships — far more interns are used as replacements for paid labor, rather than for any training or educational purpose. And for the most part, schools know and condone this; many of them see internship credit as a way to increase their tuition flow without having to actually offer classes or much structure. Perlin also investigates the legal ramifications of internships, noting that most use the loophole of “training” to avoid paying their interns, and points out the fact that offering academic credit does not make an illegal internship legal, contrary to what many companies believe. He examines how a constant flow of free labor impacts the value of work and the job market as a whole, suggesting that instead of contributing to a well-rounded, educated entry-level work force, the abuse of internships devalues work and creates a demand for unpaid workers at the expense of wage-paying jobs. He does, however, also look at successful internship and apprenticeship programs, as well as making suggestions for action in regards to the internship culture.

As someone who is still smarting over the $2000 tuition fee paid in order to get academic credit for 150 hours of unpaid work, this issue is very personal, and I think many other struggling young adults would agree. I am glad to see that this book was published, and I hope that others in the media and in education begin to realize that they are severely hampering young adults and their entry into the workforce with these internship programs. An excellent read for educators, students, and those who are considering internship programs either as intern or supervisor.

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