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The real intern scandal: working without pay privileges the privileged

As the Obama administration tightens intern rules, the rise of unpaid internships is giving a leg up to those who can afford to work for free.

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Internships are becoming a joke. Once a coveted form of apprenticeship, they’re now a cynical way for companies to trim labor costs.

During this great recession, more and more students and young people are accepting unpaid internships because there simply aren’t paying gigs available.

Some employers are taking advantage of this, deceiving young people and offering shallow experiences that won’t actually help them develop professional skills.

Now the Obama administration wants to crack down on these abusive practices.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” a Labor Department official told The New York Times this week.

Such accountability is welcome, but there’s a deeper issue at stake: the way internships today privilege the privileged.

In an environment where getting a good job requires a long stint as an unpaid intern, only those with substantial savings can get ahead. So rather than act as a leveler, this great recession may end up providing a further boost to the prep-school crowd.

It seems the more competitive the field, the higher the entry fee. Aspiring lawyers and doctors who weren’t born into wealth are cornered into immense debt situations, making the idea of pro bono work unrealistic to many even if that’s why they started. Writers and filmmakers, among other artists and performers, are looking at enormous entry fees that might require years of low or unpaid work.

This all was news to me. I was raised with the idea that if you are willing to work and study hard you will make it. If you invest in your education by taking out student loans you will wind up in a higher pay bracket. If you want to work, there will be a job for you. That’s the story, anyway.

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