From The L Magazine:
Jonny Diamond: I was shocked by the degree to which Washington is run by interns. How much power do these kids have, and what would happen to the country if they all just left?
Ross Perlin: Interns in D.C. run the gamut from completely powerless, idle kids spending a few weeks in some senator’s office to people doing very substantial and important work on energy policy, pending legislation, foreign affairs and the like, literally drafting official documents and shaping policies. It was during the federal government shutdown of 1995 that White House interns began to fill vital roles during a brief, intense period, when regular staff members had to go home—in some sense, that’s what led to the whole Lewinsky-Clinton affair, because ordinarily an intern and a president would not have been working in such close quarters. If all interns disappeared tomorrow, things would definitely grow quite a bit quieter in Washington and in various state and city governments across the country. Lots of politicians, agencies, committees, think tanks, lobbyists, etc. would have to consider either making some actual hires or scaling back what they do. A whole patronage mill would grind to a halt. Starting a career in politics and public administration would depend more on principles of merit and fairness and less on someone’s ability to work unpaid.
Why are internships overwhelmingly taken by women?
It’s unpaid internships in particular, 77 percent according to one recent study, that skew heavily towards women. This is a huge and troubling question, which I was only able to scratch the surface of in Intern Nation. The simplest explanation is that women are more heavily represented in the white-collar world generally, and particularly in the fields where unpaid internships flourish. There’s a correlation to subjects studied in school, with humanities and social sciences majors, more of whom are women, much less likely to be paid, even by the same intern employer. A more insidious reason might be the creepy gender dynamic that’s all too often present in internship situations, with women less likely to demand pay for their efforts or quickly leave exploitative situations.
What has been the strangest example of an internship you’ve come across in your research?
I’ve been impressed and astounded to find interns working in the Vatican, in the Army, at Los Alamos and in all sorts of other crazy places. I think it’s pretty wild to see Pizza Hut hiring an intern specifically to manage their Twitter feed. Likewise, guys in home offices who bring on interns ostensibly to help them develop a business, but really just to help them promote themselves and run all sorts of random errands, since the business is really non-existent. I talked to someone who interned for a Chinese businessman where all she did was do Google searches for him.
Why should I feel guilty about working with unpaid interns if they’re banging down the door to work with us?
One reason some people don’t feel guilty is because their interns can apparently afford to do it—they have money or support networks behind them. And the kids who can’t afford to become unpaid interns don’t even apply, don’t even show up, and you’ll never really see them or think of them, if you’re mostly hiring from your intern pool. Still, I think everyone deserves pay for real work, regardless of their background, and it’s dangerous for all of us when that principle starts eroding. The fact that interns are banging down the door reflects how much schools, parents, employers, and others are pushing them, how completely natural they’ve come to seem—it doesn’t mean that young people want to work for free, they just see no other choice to get where they want to go.