Ross Perlin – Intern Nation (Book Review)

In my teenage years, I loved scouring collections of Dilbert comics. The characters were so implausible it was amusing. Till I realized that they were perfectly believable in real life – what a shock! One character, Asok, puzzled me though, because I didn’t know what an “intern” was, and why he deserved such abuse.

For all the career self-help books available, I found little specificity about internships. It was just something you can or should do. Alright, so interns are temporary staff seeking work experience. But shouldn’t they be paid reasonably? Shouldn’t Asok be paid more for his obvious wit and value?

Eventually I found Intern Nation, published in 2011. Ross Perlin set out to investigate the booming industry of unpaid internships. His book features many case studies and much fire in the belly. This was no self-help book, but a scathing exposé of brutal norms curtailing youths now, especially in but not limited to the US.

Insights Into Internship Industry

Internships are deemed as pre-requisites for jobs. For good reason, because companies prefer tested applicants. Yet the internship gateway is getting longer and longer. Increasingly, students hurry to burnish their resumés with job experiences – sometimes with academic credit, at the expense of higher education – even before entering the workforce for real as a paid employee. Just imagine taking 15 internships just to land a full-time position!

As the competition intensifies, more companies realize they can save on monetary incentives. In the US, interns are excluded from minimum wage law. Thus, unpaid internships. Perlin believes these constitute mass exploitation. In theory, internships are learning opportunities which require no remuneration. In practice, however, internships are often temp jobs where students do paid work for free. Companies win, students lose.

It gets worse, with paid-for internships. So now companies say, thanks for working, that will be a thousand bucks! What?! Not exactly. Students are not paying to work, they are buying the prestige of brand names. It sounds less ludicrous, but it actually is worse. If you are buying work, you’d look to buy useful skills and experiences. But if you are buying credentials, then the learning is unimportant.

What to do, then, for those who cannot afford such ransoms?

Weak on Solutions

After spending most of the book attacking the state of affairs, Perlin ends with a few brief solutions to address the indignities. Companies should 1) offer pay as respect for internship work, 2) look for diversity, 3) consult on designing internships. Admittedly, as Perlin notes, such bottom-up approach suffers from the collective action problem, where no one will do more in the expectation that others will not do more.

Students, meanwhile, should expect to 1) gain knowledge about the industry and organization, 2) apply their strengths in tasks, 3) do admin work but not only admin work, 4) reject positions without clear training programmes. Again, these suggestions seem rather superficial and are unlikely to change the mindsets of internship hunters at the mercy of recruiters.

Intern Nation Ross Perlin Book Review

Review Verdict: ★★★☆☆ (constructive)

Intern Nation is rich on anecdotal evidence and passion, which is well-matched with the prevailing anti-establishment sentiments across the developed world these days. Yet solutions are lacking. Admittedly, this issue is difficult to resolve, in US no less. Overall, it is a creditable first book on the topic, certainly worth reading and thinking about.

May the Asoks get what they deserve!


Socio Empath

Hi, my name is Eugene. I am a Sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore. This blog is an invitation: To see our selves as colored by cultures, and to brighten the colors of our society. I seek to help you create freedom in everyday life, with empathy and the sociological imagination.

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