‘Intern Nation’ author visits D.C., says ‘glamor industries’ often mistreat interns

Laura Donovan Contributor
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In a time when the internship has essentially become a necessary requirement for employment, companies might be tempted to take advantage of their batch of desperate interns, who need the work experience to progress professionally. Stanford graduate Ross Perlin addresses these issues in his new book, “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,” which explores the “explosion of interns,” intern exploitation in and outside of “glamor” fields, office neglect of the Fair Labor Standards Act, stories of people who shell out cash to take internships, how the Disney College program sometimes puts students in debt, and what happens to those who simply can’t afford to work for free.

“Every year in the United States alone, between one and two million interns work in all kinds of offices…as well as several million more interns beyond the U.S.,” Perlin said on Tuesday at a Busboys and Poets book signing. “Approximately one third, one half are unpaid, saving companies in the U.S. alone about $2 billion in labor costs.”

Noting that the “explosion of interns” is a relatively new phenomenon, Perlin mentions in his book that intern duties can be unreasonable, laborious, and even potentially hazardous to one’s health. Perlin added that many internships operate illegally because they don’t follow the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“An intern for a New York theater company carries urine samples to her boss’s doctor,” Perlin writes of an actual incidence. “A supervisor directs an intern to load his own car with leaking bags of garbage and drive around until he finds a dumpster. A public relations intern finds herself cleaning out an attic…and doing heavy lifting that leaves her with back pains.”

Though the author said he’s talked to interns who have reported being verbally abused or yelled at on the clock, Perlin clarified that his book isn’t merely about intern horror stories.

“This isn’t just about rough stories….This is a broader issue about work in America,” Perlin said. “There’s the question about what happens to the non-interns. The people who can’t pay to play. People who can’t…break into the world of white collar work, which is where increasingly high level influential, highly paid jobs are in our economy. If to get into that sort of layer of the white collar world, you have to work for several months unpaid, you have to live often in cities like Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, they’re expensive to live in.”

Acknowledging that D.C. is a major intern hub, Perlin told The Daily Caller that the nation’s capital is “pretty bad” in terms of its treatment towards interns.

“D.C is pretty bad,” Perlin told TheDC. “Sometimes I think the glamor industries [can be unfair to interns], so that includes politics, journalism, media, fashion, a lot of the worst stories come out of fashion and film. To my surprise to some extent, not bigger companies but home offices, really small companies, start-ups rely on that stuff. I would say glamor industries, film, fashion, entertainment, politics, media, that whole set and New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. [aren’t the most fair to interns].”

When it comes to unjust internships, it still takes two to tango. After all, plenty of interns don’t think twice about working sans paycheck. Perlin says that younger generations might be more willing to work without compensation because they already access so many things free of cost on the Internet.

“With the rise of digital culture…certainly people of my generation, in their twenties and thirties, maybe they’ve gotten their music collections for free,” Perlin said. “They’re used to major Internet services being free. They’re used to things being free, and in some way the corollary of that has been that there’s a willingness to give your own labor for free and that’s been a change of mentality that has fueled the internship movement.”

Reading from his book, Perlin reflected on what the world would be like if interns disappeared. “Picture unsorted mail forming menacing towers. Websites, newsletters, and contact lists growing out of date. No one to get coffee, make Xeroxes, or run errands but also no one to be mentored, no one to cover…work during staff vacations, and no one with timid bright ideas about reaching the youth demographic…Capitol Hill would grow hushed as junior staffers took up administrative tasks.”

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Laura Donovan