restricted access Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin (review)
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Reviewed by
Ross Perlin, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (New York: Verso Publishing 2011)

In his book, Intern Nation, journalist Ross Perlin argues that internships are a new wild west – unregulated, often exploitative, a key factor in perpetuating income inequality, and a symptom of neoliberalism’s reach. And this new labour category is growing. By one account, three-fourths of students now attending four-year colleges will intern at least once by the time they graduate, resulting in between one and two million interns in the United States each year, and countless others abroad. (xiv) This represents a twofold increase over the percentage of students holding internships thirty years ago (26).

Perlin argues that this explosion comes at considerable cost. One study estimates that half of internships in the United States are unpaid, including more than a third of internships at for-profit companies. (28) Unpaid internships are now the norm in journalism and politics. Students are often required to pay to receive college credit for internships with dubious educational value, cheapening the value of their degree and permitting interns to participate in payto-work scenarios. Few employers train interns. As a result, interns often float from internship-to-internship instead of being prepared for a full-time, paid job. Meanwhile, interns sometimes replace paid workers, eroding working and living standards, reducing possibilities for union organizing, and transforming the value of pay and work.

Perlin argues that internships raise serious economic, political, and legal concerns for society at large. It is not the wealthy Ivy League grad toiling away at an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill that Perlin hopes to save. It is the community college student aspiring to become a public servant who cannot afford to spend a semester working for nothing about whom he is most concerned. What are the consequences for the rest of us in the intern economy?

In order to answer this question, Perlin cites studies, economic concepts, labour law, and a tremendous number of examples culled from media reports, interviews, blogs, and message boards. Perlin begins with a case study of Disney World’s internship program. The program is one of the largest anywhere, employing 7,000 to 8,000 students and recent graduates a year in a variety of menial functions. The interns earn minimum wage, doing everything from operating amusement park rides to flipping burgers to performing as Disney characters. They must live in and pay for Disney-provided housing, subscribe to Disney rules on and off the job and often pay for college credit (required for international students in order to get around visa regulations) in [End Page 317] exchange for their labour. The arrangement “looks suspiciously like a term of indenture,” according to Perlin. (3)

Interns are rarely offered full-time offers after they graduate, and interns often replace full-time employees who leave or are fired from Disney, causing a host of safety problems. Disney World is unionized, and the agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers (ufcw) provides for up to 35 per cent of the work force to remain casual, a category that includes interns. The current workforce is approximately one-fourth casual, resulting in a spike in union membership to 60 per cent of those eligible in the right-to-work state. (12) Perlin presents the Disney World intern experience and the effect that it has on the company’s operations and bottom line, as well as on the local economy, as a key example of how strongly entrenched internships are and the devastating effect they are having. If Disney can get away with it, Perlin argues, so can everyone else.

After contrasting the highly regulated, highly structured, highly successful apprenticeship model with the new breed of Disney-like internships, Perlin lays out the reasons why Disney’s intern program is possible. He examines the legal infrastructure that permits the internship economy to flourish, arguing that internship providers have cynically or sometimes unconsciously used legal loopholes to establish programs that operate on the margins of legality and on the fringes of ethical behaviour. Perlin is at his most compelling in this chapter. He...