Dylan Ratigan Show   |  May 29, 2012

Ross Perlin: ‘Don’t get caught in the internship trap’

Author Ross Perlin joins MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show to talk about the difficulties associated with post-college internships, and the real cost of unpaid internships for new graduates.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> would intern for three months, four months, and you were guaranteed almost to have that turn into a job. now people are interning for free for two to three years with five to seven different employers before it turns into a job.

>> that's matt siegel, the co-founder of our time on wednesday here, talking about an increasingly critical part of the u.s. work force , interns. for many college grads, it's their only option. for companies, that free or low-wage wager has been a boon. they're often doing the work of employers but with no salary, no medical care and no. he's the author of "intern nation ", how to earn little in this country. what would you say first? i know lots of kids who are either in college or just coming out of college, internships that are unpaid are basically their only option to get a toehold in the work force . you think that's really a disaster for the economy. say why.

>> that's right, matt, internships have become a prerequisite for young people wanting to enter the white color work force which is where prestigious jobs are located. they're displacing untold thousands of regular full-time workers and have made the entry level job virtually an endangered species . un unpaid internships are going gangbuster as never before. i think the internship boom has all kinds of significant issues we need to be talking b.

>> there is also a class angle to this as well, right, because parents do their best to help their kids land those plumb internships, but there is a real gap between what they can wrangle in terms of intern ships and what they have room for. is that the issue here?

>> it's the key issue, matt, and it's often gotten lost in the debates around this. not only do we have exploited stories of interns making zil yonz of copies, running coffee to their boss, but it's more about access and the come flexion of whole fields. internships have now become a pay to play system. you can't essentially pay to work for free, that is, cover your rent in some of the most expensive cities in the country. food, living expenses often pay for the academic credit you need to buy from your school to do it, you're simply out of luck. increasingly, young students have to do not one or two internships, but pseudo internships, and even then a job is not necessarily around the corner. it's become another factor in social inequality . the field where intern ships are most important, politics, film, media, television, entertainment, those are places we're going to hear a more limited range of voices because of this. people from working class backgrounds who need to be working a paid job who can't afford to work for free and don't have the kinds of personal connections, the kinds of networks to get these positions will be left out and will be all the poorer for it.

>> susan has a question.

>> my question is, when i went to school, i did internships. i did an internship after school as well, all unpaid, and that was kind of part of the experience. what you're talking about, though, is when you hear people interning in their mid to late 20s, it seems like there is a difference between the two. can you get a little deeper into maybe someone who is doing this for a college credit versus someone who is doing it because they just can't find a job?

>> there are certainly great internships out there, still. in many ways, internships is a great idea with intentions that have gone wrong. 30 to 40 years ago when internships were still an experience done by a relatively small population -- i'm not suggesting you were doing it 30 or 40 years ago --

>> thank you.

>> just going back to the boon as it's progressed, it used to be the companies were hiring full-time, in full-time positions, 60 to 70% of their interns. you did one or two internships. you often did it for college credit , as you were saying, in schools that were heavily involved in an education component. recent graduates are finding virtually no entry level positions available to them. we're finding people in their late 20s, 30s, 40s transitioning their careers doing anything they can in the job market and taking unpaid internships. it's a good idea gone wrong.

>> karen has a question.

>> my question would be, on the intro we were talking a little about the lack of leverage interns themselves have, being used and abused, as cheap free labor, essentially. what kinds of things can interns do, though, if you are in an internship to ensure you are getting something out of the experience, that you're not just getting coffee but you actual get some relevant, work-related experience or exposure, at least, when you're doing an internship.

>> a lot you can do begins before the internship even starts. having an internship agreement, having a very clear sense with your employer what your responsibilities will be, what kind of work you'll be doing so you're not brought in to a so-called marketing internship and find yourself moving furniture and lifting heavy objects, so you don't find yourself carrying your boss' urine sample to the boss' doctor as a personal favor.

>> wow.

>> you have to start up front and understand what you're doing, and if you can see this is real work that the organization needs done, it should be paid. it should be paid at least minimum wage . that's fundamental, that's the law. many employers sort of feign ignorance about that, but increasingly you can't do that. increasingly it's known that most interns are workers as well. so when you're in the internship, you have to have a clear strategy about what you're going to get out of it, and you have to know your rights. you have to understand what you're there for, what you're getting out of it, and don't let yourself be taken advantage of and don't get caught in the internship trap of never seeing the results from that.

>> that urine-sample-toting internship will be an image hard to shake. do you have a question for him?

>> not about that, i certainly don't. i appreciate your book and will read it. i'm not sure i'll buy the premise of it, but i will read it. when i was 30, i switched careers. i became an unpaid intern on capitol hill in the senate office, and i made of it what i wanted to make of it, which was a career. not as an intern, but i did all the things that i needed to do to get promoted and to get hired full-time and to get salary, benefits, health care , et cetera , et cetera , and i worked my way up. as a staffer in the senate, i had interns. i would say about three-quarters of them sucked and about one-quarter of them were decent. the ones that were decent actually produced. they didn't ask me for stuff, they just went and did it. i think at the end of the day , if you want to be an intern, it's kind of up to you what you make out of it. it's not that you're being used and abused. i had to get coffee, i had to do all that stuff, but at the end of the day , i had to learn senate rules and write memos to senators and m.a.s and to staffers. i get it, i think there is definitely abuse, but it seems to me you make of it what you want of it, and if you want an internship to turn into something more permanent, that's up to you to do that.

>> ross, before you answer, jimmy clearly learned how to filibuster when he was in the senate. what's your response?

>> there are two answers to your point, jimmy, which was well taken. one is precisely as matt said, there is as much an issue here for those who can't afford to break into this system, access to the upper echelons of the economy. it's as much of that as much as the experience of interns themselves and whether they're paid or not and what work they do. that's why we should take this seriously as a public policy question as something that influences young people . it's right there with rising tuition, deepening student debt, downward mobility , a whole set of issues that galvanizes the occupy movement which has been a major discussion in the past year in america. the second answer to your question is absolutely an internship is what you make of it to a considerable extent, and, of course, young people need to understand you can't go immediately into high levels of work. there is some getting of coffee and doing paperwork and making xeroxes and that sort of thing. i don't think anybody is disputing that, but what we're saying is where real work is happening, very few of these situations are bona fide or shadowing programs. where real work is being done, it needs to be paid for.

>> ross perlin. the book is "intern nation." putting your finger on an economic trend we'll need be watching. thanks for coming by. thanks as always to our internal alumni panel. thanks as always for your insights, guys.