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Internment Camp

The intern economy and the culture trust

For a very brief period not too long ago I was the “chief of research” at a glossy yet rugged men’s lifestyle magazine. An industry darling, this “practical guide to the sensory thrills and psychological rewards of an active physical life” (as its 1995 National Magazine Award write-up swooned), was one of the most celebrated and award-laden start-ups in recent memory. As they say in the industry, Men’s Journal was “a very hot book.”

Not coincidentally, it was also an advertiser’s wet dream—a place where we took press releases at their word, where we re-shot photos for “personal grooming” stories because the toothbrushes didn’t look “exciting” enough, and where being a “complete guide for high-performance living” (we used this phrase seriously) meant giving lavish coverage to every sexy consumer product we could get our comp-crazy hands on. In the pages of this morally bankrupt advertorial, this himbo of a magazine, you could, any given month, learn that speed-skiing was not only fun but fulfilling (“Courage wasn’t what would propel me down Willamette. Innocence. I would become innocent.”); read about the religious significance of mountain-biking equipment (“There’s a Zen-like mystery about Giro’s new Helios helmet.”); be the first to know that this particular style of Nikes was much better than the one we said was the best ever a month ago (this one uses aircraft tubing!); and discover all the reasons why Howie Long is a really good actor.

But do not be impressed by the lofty title I held there. “Research chief” was pure euphemism for “the-fact-checker-whose-head-will-roll-if-anything-goes-wrong.” In charge of the “legal invulnerability and factual accuracy” of the magazine, the bulk of my days involved determining whether octopi have pancreases (they don’t), what the hell “aircraft tubing” actually is (nobody knows), and if ex-Oakland Raider wide receiver Warren Wells would sue us for calling him “compulsively felonious” (playing it safe, we ultimately cut the “compulsively” and never heard from him).

I was also partly in charge of finding interns to send our faxes, answer our phones, and, among other sundry responsibilities, go shopping for the products in photo shoots that we couldn’t get comped. Compared to fact-checking, hiring interns was difficult stuff. Not because no one was willing, mind you. On the contrary, I was spoiled for choice. The applicants would walk in, these college kids, recent graduates, and grad students, always punctual and always white, sheepish but confident, polite, and well-fragranced. They would hand me clips from their school newspapers while I looked over their résumés, which always went something like this:

Interview Magazine
May ’95 to Sept ’95
Summer Intern

CBS News
Oct ’94 to May ’95
Fall Intern

The Village Voice
May ’94 to August ’94
Summer Intern

“Very impressive,” I would say. By my quick calculations they had contributed, conservatively, five or six thousand dollars worth of uncompensated work to various media conglomerates. I would tell them that they surely have all the “experience” they would ever get by following this strategy, and that while I had positions open (who doesn’t have unpaid positions open?), I was reluctant to fill them with people who were already competent cub writers, reporters, editors, and fact-checkers. They should have been demanding jobs a long time ago. They would try not to look too crestfallen at this news. They would explain to me that they were indeed the perfect person to work for me for free. Hell, they sometimes said, they had been doing it so long that they were good at it by now.

It’s easy to forget that internships are practically free money for big business.

Internships have never been more popular. According to the New York Times, the number of interns toiling for free has increased 30 percent in just three years, and internship guides, growing fatter every year, list anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 positions. As tales of layoffs, “downsizing,” and “rightsizing” (you only get one guess as to what that means) continue to flood the general business and mass market publications, internships are invariably presented as a refreshing bright spot of “opportunity” for the younger generation.

Don’t worry that “cost controls and job cuts in the 1990s pushed many companies to shrink their training and recruiting departments,” counsels an article in the December 4, 1996 New York Times. Big business is still looking out for you and “the surge in internships has created new opportunities for people like Jim Morabito,” a guy who, it turns out, held four internships before he even hit his senior year in college. While the vagaries of the information age visit hardship and ruination on families, towns, and entire regions, the intern economy is humming along unhindered, ballooning constantly, becoming an increasingly significant yet largely invisible segment of the American workforce. A study by Northwestern University determined that 26 percent of college graduates hired in 1993 had done some type of internship, compared to only 9 percent in 1992, and according to the author of the Student’s Guide to Volunteering, volunteering alone comprises a $176 billion industry. Training may have been the paid beginning of your father’s first job, but today you’re supposed to get it on your own, often on your own tab.

With all the books, magazine articles, and pundits barraging us with an alarmingly unified rhetoric of, “Internships give you the edge in a competitive job market, “It’s a win-win situation for both employer and intern,” and “It’s not a job, it’s an education,” it’s easy to forget that internships are practically free money for big business. It’s easy to forget that the kids are getting royally screwed.

Somewhere over the past two or three decades, a secret and shrewdly undeclared war between the titans of the glamour industries and a small undefended segment of the labor pool has been fought, and labor has lost. By deft public relations maneuvering, innovation in the face of decreasing cash flow, and the merciless leveraging of an ever-younger, starry-eyed, and unwary segment of the population, the media mandarins have cemented the institution of the internship—working for free—as not merely an acceptable route up the corporate ladder, but the expected one. Tomorrow’s Mike Ovitzes, David Geffens, and Barry Dillers won’t have started in the mailroom at William Morris, they will have been interns there.

It’s safe to say that when 35 black sugar workers were shot dead while striking for a dollar a day in 1887 or when 500,000 Southern textile workers walked off the job in 1934, no one was thinking ahead to the summer of ’96 when Jessica from Swarthmore would be sweating over the green glow of the Xerox machine, logging hundreds of unpaid hours as an MTV intern, assuring herself that this doesn’t suck because now her CV will have “résumé radiance,” as the authors of America’s Top Internships like to put it. And granted, the intern class does not make a particularly sympathetic symbol of exploitation. It’s hard to care about the plight of privileged college students when they themselves have volunteered for—demanded, even—this demeaning servitude. The inconvenient fact remains, however, that labor laws apply even to the rich, white, naive, and stupid (all necessary attributes for being an unpaid intern). And just because these hopeful careerists don’t think of themselves as scabs, it doesn’t mean they aren’t.

There are almost as many definitions of “internship” these days as there are “internship programs” (over 100,000 by the Princeton Review’s count). “Apprenticeships,” as free-labor pundits such as Bob Weinstein, author of the formidably shameless “I’ll Work for Free!”, call them, are as old as the Code of Hammurabi itself, suggesting a long and noble tradition of uncompensated tutelage in the workplace. (I often wonder if anyone will go the extra mile and assert that “interns” also built the pyramids, but they never do.) The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938—a typically meddlesome piece of federal legislation, in true Second Wave fashion—prohibited child labor, established a minimum wage for any kind of work within a for-profit institution, and stipulated that no one may work more than 40 hours a week without extra pay. The law was a major setback for employers of every stripe. For more than half a century, it forced the captains of industry (barring significant exceptions, of course) to cooperate with the newly established and accepted labor unions. A thoroughly blue-collar piece of legislation, the FLSA targeted only the most abusive employers of the time: factories, farms, and other heavy industries. It provided exemptions for charities, churches, and other perpetually cash-strapped non-profit organizations who had always (and still do) filled their ranks with young volunteers.

There is, however, another exemption in the FLSA. Vaguely worded, it concerns “trainees,” or the oddly redundant “student learners.” It allows for-profit institutions to pay short-term employees less than the minimum wage if they are there in an educational capacity. The Department of Labor requires that six criteria be met before it considers someone not an “employee” but a “trainee” exempt from the FLSA: The training is similar to that one would get in school; the training is for the benefit of the trainees, not the employer; the trainees do not displace regular workers; the employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and may even incur some loss; the trainees understand that they are not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training; and the trainees understand that they are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Even though the Department of Labor doesn’t use or even recognize the word “intern,” this clearly legitimate educational arrangement is what certain branches of industry—banks, law firms, tech companies, engineering companies, and many federal agencies—refer to when they use the term. College students follow a highly structured path of seminars, lectures, on-the-job training, personal “mentors,” and company-assigned moot projects. And, despite the exemption, many of these interns are still quite well-paid.

Although the intern price floor can’t go any lower dollar-wise, it can go lower by the amount of time served.

The real abusers of the intern economy, however, are the glamour industries. Fashion, architecture, and virtually every media outlet (except for newspapers and some magazines, with their fuss-budgety unions) piggy-back on the credibility of the more legitimate programs by hiring college kids as little more than clerical temps, paying them not a dime, and disguising the whole operation as a “learning experience.” It is not a coincidence that the industries offering youngsters an unending parade of subversive cartoons, daring advertising, and rebellious photo spreads are also the ones most likely to strip their earning power from them. It’s almost their duty, as the institutions that have taught us to value style over substance, to take advantage of people’s resulting faith that working someplace cool is better than getting a paycheck.

But why should the rest of us care if Chip from Brown, who fetches coffee for the green-room guests, is an “intern,” not a “temp”? Or if the entire student bodies of Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, Columbia, and Vassar are stupid enough to sign away their summers to Wenner and Eisner, Geffen and Redstone?

First, a bit of basic employment-market economics. The glamour industries enjoy a tremendous surplus of labor. There are more people who want media jobs than can be employed. Therefore labor is cheap, as demonstrated by the industry’s already low salaries ($18,000 a year for an editorial assistant is not uncommon, which is about $9 dollars an hour, assuming the most optimistic work schedule possible). Left to its own devices, a rational market with surplus labor will bid wages down almost to the point where no one will accept a job. If it can, a market will bid the wages all the way down to zero, as long as someone, anyone, will do the work, for whatever real or imagined benefit. Which brings us back to Jessica and Chip. For them and their classmates the imagined benefits of an internship are so great that real benefits—you know, wages—have been bid out of existence. Businesses, obviously, have a real, bottom-line incentive to encourage the trend toward labor that is not only free, but without any type of obligation whatsoever. In other words, interns are restructuring the labor market. Thanks to those who can afford to win the labor auction with the lowest possible price—I’ll work for free!—those without outside (read “parental”) support are forced to take tremendous real-dollar losses to stay competitive, or they are simply priced out of competition entirely. This ensures that the glamour industries remain the land of the rich and privileged, for they are the only people who can absorb a short-term loss to get an imagined long-term gain.

But why stop there? Left unchecked, a labor market knows no boundaries when it comes to exploitation. Although the intern price floor can’t go any lower dollar-wise, it can go lower by the amount of time served, or by the size of the labor segment drawn into the swindle. As more people do internships, the supply of intern-alums increases, driving the value of that “experience” down even further—a phenomenon you could call “intern inflation.” So college kids feel pressure to do more of them, or for a longer stretch of time. And those previously thought of as obvious employee potential, like college graduates, grad students, and career-changers, are increasingly told, “Have you thought of doing an internship?”

Without some sort of check, this admirably efficient market will just continue on its merry way. Not long from now we will begin hearing: “Summer internships don’t really give you that much experience because they are only 12 weeks long. You need at least a semester or even a year to get a real grounding.” It is not outlandish to imagine a day when a year’s internship is explicitly required before you get hired for a new job, or when employers start charging interns for, let’s say, “training costs.” Before we laugh at Jessica and Chip for exploiting themselves, we should consider that years of Jessicas and Chips have already made unpaid internships for certain jobs an unspoken requirement, and the longer the intern economy hums along unhindered, the more this labor inflation will increase. By giving away work, interns reduce the value of everybody’s labor.

How much have they cheapened our lives? Since statistics concerning interns aren’t counted by the Department of Labor, it’s nearly impossible to estimate. But the figures for individual intern-exploiters are readily available. Take MTV, which alone uses between 150 and 200 interns at any given time and requires from each at least two days a week of work. There are three seasons—summer, fall, and spring. A 12-week summer intern is forfeiting $989 if he works the minimum two days a week; $2,472 if full time. A 20-week spring and fall intern gives up $1,648 if he works two-day weeks; $4,120 for full time. How does MTV make out in all this? Very well, thanks. Granting MTV the minimums for all variables of its program (150 interns working only two days a week), MTV saves $642,270 a year in unpaid wages. To extend these calculations nationwide, assume there are 40,000 internships every year (the low end of the internship guides’ estimates) and they all work only two days a week for only 12 weeks (again, all low-end estimates). What do you get? Every year kids forfeit and businesses gain more than $39,522,000.

And that’s not all internships do. Take a trip to any design studio, advertising agency, or editorial office (even the most responsible left-wing publications) and you’ll see one of the glamour industries’ dirtiest secrets: There’s not a black face in the joint. If you can’t get a job unless you’ve had an internship, and you can’t take an internship unless you can be supported by daddy for a couple months, then the system guarantees an applicant pool that is decidedly privileged. But you needn’t let a little arithmetic and your innate sense of decency bother you. Do what the free-labor advocates have been doing for years now: Simply holler, “Internships are not racist and elitist!” as loud as you can; repeat as necessary until you believe it.

To be sure, these are tough times for workers in media-land. Newspaper firings aren’t even news anymore; networks are cutting back on personnel in every department; meanwhile, tabloid and TV talk shows, with their low overhead and small staffs, continue to draw huge audiences. Indeed, the only asset that many media outlets have left is their cultural cachet, their name brand appeal, the fact that they are cool. As the job market tightens and the ratio of college graduates to total employable adults increases, there is an ever-increasing glut of “marketing” and “communications” majors who will work for free. Unhindered by the regulatory watchdogs that continue to plague sweatshops, factories, and farms, the media-market is only too happy to oblige them. Those MBAs who now rule the newsrooms are no fools, after all.

Vernon Stone, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, and one of the few researchers who has acknowledged the downside of unpaid media internships through the years, notes, “Unpaid internships, once rolling, tended to crowd the paid ones off the road. In 1976, 57 percent of the TV and 81 percent of the radio stations with interns paid at least some of them. By 1991, only 21 percent of the TV and 32 percent of the radio stations with interns were paying…. Seven times as many [unpaid interns] were in TV newsrooms in 1991 as in 1976. Radio’s increase was fivefold.”

Stone cautions that every employer should make sure they comply with the law, but the chances that any company would actually be held responsible for labor violations are miniscule. The only time a company has been nailed for intern abuse in recent memory was in March 1995, when A. Brown-Olmstead Associates, an Atlanta public relations firm, was ordered to pay back wages of $31,520 to 42 interns. The problem was not that they failed the Labor Department’s “immediate advantage” test of “trainee” labor—hell, almost everybody would fail that one. The clincher was that they had the audacity to bill their clients for the interns’ work, thereby putting an exact dollar amount on the toil they weren’t compensating.

All Internships Lead to MTV

Given the fact that they benefit so handsomely from the intern economy, it is no surprise that the media routinely run stories on the virtues of internships. The stories always seem to follow the same pattern. First comes the bad news about how tough it is out there: “For 17 years straight, A. Todd Iannucelli made a late summer trip to the stationery store to buy loose-leaf sheets for classroom note-taking,” goes one cautionary tale that appeared in August 1995 in the Washington Post. “This year, he went to replenish a dwindling supply of résumé paper, having joined a growing number of college grads who, as fall approaches, remain jobless and planless.” Then they assure us that internships are the only way a college kid is going to get by in the cutthroat world of the Culture Trust: “Consultants say the route has become a popular one with savvy jobseekers,” the Post continues. “For a new entrant into the job market, volunteering or unpaid internships may be the only ways to amass credentials.”

It should hardly surprise us, given the amount they stand to gain from the unfettered operating of the intern economy, that the hippest publications are among the most regular and most sanguine chroniclers of the intern’s happy lot. Rolling Stone, a notorious intern abuser, runs gooey features on the glories of unpaid internships in its annual college issue. One year it profiled the lucky guy who drove the Oscar Meyer weinermobile, the even luckier guy who got to fetch lunch for Howard Stern, and, luckiest of all, the New York Knicks towel guy. But Rolling Stone doesn’t want Chip and Jessica getting swollen heads just because they get to sweat for the stars, and so on occasion it will tincture the standard categories of the intern story with a certain wholesome contempt for the young people who so put themselves out for the glamour business. “You would be surprised how many intelligent people cannot take a cohesive phone message or Xerox more than one copy of a document,” it quoted Victoria Rowan, a woman who had risen from internhood to be a powerful and glamorous assistant editor at Mirabella, as saying back in 1993. “It’s not a game of shit on the peon. Coffee has to be ordered.” Indeed it does, gentle Victoria. But if you’re not paying the peon minimum you are, in fact, shitting on her. Even girl-empowering Sassy gets in on the act, following in 1995 the heroic exploits of an intern at—surprise—MTV: “Biggest perk: We got to go to Madonna’s Bedtime Story Pajama Party at Webster Hall (a huge club in New York City). Worst part of the job: We have to go up to the 50th floor a lot, and the elevator makes me nauseous.”

But to read the most addle-eyed intern-economy glorification of all you have to turn to the new New Yorker, which in October 1994 ran “Rocking in Shangri-La,” a story by John Seabrook about interns at—you guessed it—MTV. The story actually attempts to convince readers that “the real power brokers” at MTV are not President Shirley McGrath, Chair Tom Freston, or even Viacom Chair Sumner Redstone, but its “employees under the age of twenty-five. “When you are in your early twenties and you are working for MTV,” Seabrook writes, in one of the most appallingly misguided tributes to the Culture Trust to appear to date, “you carry in your brain, muscles, and gonads a kind of mystical authority that your bosses don’t possess.” After 14 long pages it turns out that the “authority” possessed by the low-paid production assistants and the unpaid interns boils down to this: They are walking, talking demographic surveys who tell executives what is cool and what sucks. In exchange, they get free MTV stuff! And they’re allowed to listen to music as loud as they want! Often, observes the venerable New Yorker, interns will “rock out together for a moment before continuing along the hall,” because, we are told, “employees who think that a particular song ‘rules’ are encouraged to crank it.”

It is nearly impossible to raise a battle cry for a war that has already been lost. Knowing too well that old notions like government protection for the exploited, fair wages, and—not to sound quaint—common decency will probably never catch up with the go-go information age, the Culture Trust has won this battle even before the other combatants had realized it started. The tide of indentured college servitude is unstoppable and the market for free labor can only get worse in the near future.

Don’t bother looking to government. The people who passed the FLSA have long since been supplanted by the likes of Ohio Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg, who fights courageously to liberate employers from the tyranny of paying a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. In January, Knollenberg introduced an amendment to the FLSA entitled the “Job Skills Development Act of 1997,” which aims to revoke the basic provision that labor contributing to the wealth of someone else must be compensated. When he introduced a virtually identical bill in 1995, Knollenberg told the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that the FLSA “places an unnecessary burden on individuals seeking employment in a competitive profession…. Frankly, the FLSA restrictions on volunteer services illustrate why the American people believe their federal government is too intrusive.” What Knollenberg doesn’t mention is that without that “intrusiveness,” any sweatshop proprietor or factory foreman could legally claim that the work their scabs are doing is “volunteer work” aimed at “furthering their career goals.” After all, they’re only trainees at the drill bit, learning skills that will help them get ahead in a competitive job market.

Curiously enough, there have been some hopeful developments in fields where the would-be exploiters of interns are bound by a professional code of ethics. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) instituted a program a few years ago to combat unfair labor practices by its members. Every architect who receives an award from the AIA or makes a speech at its meetings must sign a document affirming that his or her company upholds all tenets of the FLSA and the association’s agreed-upon labor practices. But this is an anomaly permitted by the unique position of the AIA within its industry. Any hope that the National Association of Broadcasters, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would follow suit is almost laughable.

As for the interns themselves, it would be a little naive to imagine that the children of the white-collar class could make some stand of solidarity and resist, at any and all times, working for free. The era is simply too selfish, EMI Records too alluring, MTV too sexy, Spin too hip, Frank Gehry too prestigious, and CBS too powerful. The glamour titans will have all the free labor they will ever need. And in a world where we are forced to mortgage pieces of our soul every day, we are increasingly going to have to give it away for free.