How to Make “Intern Nation” Work for Low-Income Kids

cross-posted at the Washington Post

I recently picked up Ross Perlin's "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." The book is a scathing critique of intern culture, which Perlin indicts as "unethical" and "illegal" for all the expected reasons: low and middle-income students don't have equal access to the best internships; many internships don't provide real learning opportunities; and internships have replaced good, paid, entry-level jobs at many companies and non-profit organizations.

Where I take issue with Perlin is in his solution to these problems: He proposes an "Intern Bill of Rights" that would require employers to pay almost all interns at least minimum wage. This would most certainly result in fewer internships, when what we really need to equalize opportunity are more internships organized through the school system. Every high school, community college, and university student in America should be required to complete several internships for credit, and should be given time during the school day and year to intern.

There are loads of problems with the majority of current internship-for-credit schemes. First, they are largely confined to four-year colleges and universities, and so exclude the neediest young Americans, those who don’t proceed beyond high school or community college. Second, colleges often require classroom hours in addition to on-the-job time in order for a student to earn credit for an internship, which makes it difficult for the student to work a paying job simultaneously, further limiting access for less-affluent kids. Third, too often schools and professors fail to adequately supervise for-credit internships. The students end up fetching coffee and making copies, and come out of the internship with some helpful office social skills and connections, but few higher-level resume-builders. 

What I have in mind would be quite different. In an upcoming Nation magazine feature, I report on two groundbreaking public high school programs that show how internships can change the life trajectories of low-income and working class kids. One is a partnership between JetBlue and Aviation High School in Queens, which leads directly to a unionized, $60,000 per year airplane mechanic job. The other is based at an innovative new school in Albany called Tech Valley High, where every student in grades 9 through 12 spends the month of January in a highly-supervised professional internship, in fields ranging from train conducting to video game design to the culinary arts.

Linked Learning in California and the MET schools in Rhode Island offer other nationally-recognized high school internship programs.

These are some of the most transformative education reforms in the country, because they introduce low-income kids to a professional world usually off-limits to them, demonstrating that academic success can lead directly to interesting and remunerative work. Surveys of drop outs find that many don't believe a degree would help them find a job better than their current after-school gig; high-quality, school-based internship programs directly refute that argument.

Yet unfortunately, there has been no federal effort to scale up successful internship programs linking school and work. The few federal funding streams that do exist for young adult career training were cut by hundreds of millions of dollars in the White House/GOP budget deal—exactly the wrong policy move in the midst of a recession with high unemployment. And perhaps because of the ubiquitous political rhetoric around “college for all” and “high academic standards,” vocational opportunities were largely left out of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation school reform grant competitions, even though we know that effective school-work partnerships actually support the goal of college completion, by making school more relevant to kids’ future lives as workers as earners.

2 thoughts on “How to Make “Intern Nation” Work for Low-Income Kids

  1. Anna Clark

    I appreciate the call for interns to be given time during the school day and year to intern, and for internships to be required, but I don’t think that gets at the core issue of accessibility.

    I went to college in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I wanted to be a writer. Coming from a low-income background and paying my own way through school, there was no possible way I could work for free over the summers, particularly with cost-of-living expenses, at the places I most wanted to work. While internship-for-credit is nice, especially if it’s available during the school year, what competitive advantage, really, would that have given me? “The best internships” in my field are still concentrated in a few select US cities. How would my internship at, say, The Ann Arbor News or 826 Michigan — wonderful though those places may be — given me a competitive edge with another budding writer who goes to school in New York and can intern at leading magazines and publishers?

    In this scenario, I don’t see how the end result is much different than it is now. (Though more substantive work experience, acknowledged by colleges, can only be a good thing.) Unless I learn about other possibilities, I have to err with Perlin on this one. Of course paid internships will translate into fewer internships … but it seems to me that I higher proportion of the “best ones” will be accessible to students like I was, and like so many others.


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