Internships, often unpaid, have become a prevalent rite of passage for youth entering the workforce. The rise of internships, especially as part of higher education, is notable: according to estimates, 63% of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2013 reported having completed an internship, up from only 17% in 1992.
Both The Daily Beast, a media outlet, and ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization, called 2013 “the year of the [unpaid] intern.” Although 2013 was a landmark year for those who support intern labor rights, commentators might soon call 2014 the year of the intern. The rapidly changing landscape of the intern economy, especially the recent challenge of unpaid internships, has been propelled by two interrelated (and persistent) developments: intern lawsuits and labor rights activism.
As I argued in a recent article in the sociological journal Work and Occupations, to be an intern is a challenging, highly ambiguous role. Unpaid interns can be seen as a source of cheap labor, an opportunity for valuable training, or both. The ambiguous legal status of interns (as both students and workers) has helped bring this problematic issue to the forefront.