"Internships, once a gateway, turn into employment purgatory"


In an original article for The National earlier this month, Ross Perlin discussed today's culture of internships and what the indubitable rise in internships says about modern society.

Just a few decades ago, it was virtually unknown for young people, or anyone else for that matter, to perform meaningful work for nothing. It was one thing to babysit for a relative or make dinner for a friend without seeking monetary reward—such "gift economies" are natural and commonplace the world over—but almost no one toiled in offices day in and day out without wages, waiving their right to be paid in return for a glimpse of a career, for references, contacts or a line item on their CV.

Enter the intern. Towards the end of the 19th century, the American medical profession borrowed the term from French (originally interne) to signify a new, intermediate role expected of young doctors between medical school and full entry into the profession. Starting in the 1930s, a few large corporations and government offices tentatively began to create their own internship programmes. Their principal aim was to ensure a steady supply of talent into their professions, bridging the gap between school and the workplace. An added impetus came in the 1960s and 1970s, when the social and political ferment on university campuses prompted students and faculty alike to demand more "learning beyond the classroom". For educational as much as pragmatic reasons, several universities and academic disciplines began to incorporate internships into their curricula.

Yet the real internship explosion is much newer. As recently as the early 1980s, according to the National Society of Experiential Education, the percentage of college students in the US completing an internship before graduation stood at less than 3 per cent. Today the figure may be as high as 75 per cent. As many as two million internships take place in the US each year, by a conservative estimate, with anywhere from one third to a half of them unpaid, often in violation of employment law. There are several million internships each year outside the US as well, with a similarly high proportion of them unpaid, if recent statistics for the UK (37 per cent) and Germany (51 per cent) are any indication.

Visit The National to read the article in full.

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