Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Fastest Growing Job Category: Unpaid Interning

Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New EconomyWhen it comes to employment, it’s a buyer’s market. If there was ever any doubt it is laid to rest in an article by Andrew Ross in the London Review of Books. He discusses a book by Ross Perlin.

Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin
Verso, 258 pp, £14.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 84467 686 6

Ross titled his article A Capitalist’s Dream. And what is a capitalist’s dream?—getting someone to do your work for free. He provides a number of examples from show business and the internet where people have learned how to make money from the unpaid efforts of participants. The main topic however is the growing practice of requiring inexperienced or modestly experienced people to take a temporary position as an unpaid intern as a means of gaining access to a given career path.

“The most widespread trend in the world of working for nothing, however, is the explosion of white-collar and no-collar interning. Not only is interning the fastest-growing job category, it is also fashionable, with Kanye West signed on at the Gap and Lady Gaga in line to be taught about millinery by Philip Treacy. In Intern Nation, Ross Perlin, a survivor of serial internships on three continents, describes the lengths to which graduates must go to secure an unpaid intern position (often the first of many) that might help them build a CV or get a foot in the door.”

Incredibly, there is even a market where one can bid on unpaid internships.

“An auction market has even sprung up to sell these positions to the highest bidder. A Versace internship fetched $5000 at auction, temporary blogging rights at the Huffington Post went for $13,000, and someone paid $42,500 for a one-week stint at Vogue.....At one Californian outfit, Dream Careers, 2000 internships all over the world are sold annually. You can buy an eight-week summer position for $8000 (a placement in London will set you back $9500).”

One might think that these positions are like a true apprenticeship such as exists in the crafts, but one would be disappointed.

“The educational value of these gigs, whether organised by an operation like Dream Careers or a university careers centre, is notoriously slight. The work is usually menial; it’s rare for interns to receive any structured training. The biggest beneficiary is, of course, the employer. On Perlin’s estimate, corporate America enjoys a $2 billion annual subsidy from unpaid internships. He also confirms that a large number of full-time jobs have been converted into internships, while formerly paid internships have morphed into unpaid ones. An estimated 37 per cent of internships in this country [England] are now unpaid or below the minimum wage; the figure is 50 per cent in the US.”

The growing requirement that a person pass through one of these internships is inherently discriminatory.

“Internships have always been upper-class rites of passage. But this economic burden is now obligatory for almost any family intent on launching their child into white-collar employment. For those whose families can’t support them, the only way to avoid adding to their debts is to take on a paying job too. One survey cited by Perlin suggests that three-quarters of interning students in the US have other jobs, while some are collecting food stamps and relying on Medicaid. A consequence of all this is that occupations that don’t provide a steady income are almost exclusively reserved for those from monied backgrounds.”

There are also questions about the legality of the practice.

“While many positions at non-profit organisations can be regarded as ‘volunteer’ labour, internships from which an employer derives an ‘immediate advantage’ are subject to government regulation. Greenhouse described cases of interns suing corporations for backpay, which sent America’s human resources departments scrambling for legal cover. The Department of Labor has done precious little to clarify the legal status of internships, and Perlin does a good job of explaining why everyone involved has a vested interest in maintaining the conspiracy of silence. Interns won’t lodge complaints for fear of spoiling their career prospects. College administrators save money when students who intern for course credits don’t need to be taught. As for employers, the prospect of talented young people willing to pay to work for nothing is a capitalist’s dream.”

Perlin provides some suggestions for both employers and job seekers.

“....employers should abide by an Intern Bill of Rights (included as an appendix) or adopt codes of conduct....and interns should not only refuse work not linked to training: they should also organise, as US medical residents did (their union is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union).”

Ross sees Perlin’s book as providing excellent coverage of an issue of growing importance. Society has learned how to protect waged workers from predatory tactics, but salaried positions have few such protections.

“Today, there is reasonably broad agreement on what constitutes fair labour in the waged workplace, or there are limits at least to the range of disagreement. People understand, more or less, what a sweatshop is, and also recognise that its conditions are unfair. By contrast, we have very few yardsticks for judging fairness in the salaried or freelance sectors of the new, deregulated jobs economy, where any attempt to equate work with pay seems to be increasingly irrelevant.”

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