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.

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.

We take on debt because of the promise of upward mobility and attend expensive private colleges to gain edge.

When we get there, we meet students who have been bouncing from one enrichment program to the next and taking advantage of every summer opportunity. They’ve traveled around the world and developed a sexy skill set.

If it’s worth nothing more, they’ve got the advantage at awkward networking parties. They’ve always made small talk with fancy people, whether while answering phones for a high-powered attorney their dad became friends with on a transatlantic flight, or sitting around their own dinner table.

Class issues aren’t new, though access to education for middle-class families is. Working kids go to private schools and learn to run faster.

If you can’t afford not to have an internship, and you can’t afford not to have a job, you do both – and the stakes are high on either end because if either operation fails you are left in the lurch with no safety net.

The technical term for this in my family is “building character,” and it’s filed alongside stories about walking to school uphill, both ways.

In the fundamental first several years out of college many young people are forced to decide whether it is possible to pursue their dreams or not. Unfortunately, if there’s no family money to keep you afloat, you are forced to take jobs miles away from your desired path. College passions become foolish ideals and the class system wins.

I was grateful to have the support of college funding to make my internship possible.

I can remember working at high noon in Patagonia, Ariz., on the border of Mexico at a seed conservation farm. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I was hoeing beans. I was an unpaid intern, and I cared about my job.

Everyone at Mount Holyoke College seemed to have summer opportunities like this. The air there made me believe anything was possible, and I was willing to go for it with little or no money in my pocket.

Through financial aid in the form of the Frances Perkins Program, the college funded three years of summer internships as part of my research to fulfill my independent major. Without that funding, I would never have been able to accept the volunteer positions.

These experiences are still opening doors for me. They provided the narrative for my first articles and video projects, building the portfolio to get the contracts I make my living with today.

Those internships granted me the privilege of “experience.”

The issues we face, from war to poverty and environmental catastrophe require serious skills and creativity in developing solutions. What ever happened to mentorship? Who’s going to step up and offer interns some real learning opportunities that will result in innovative leadership for the next generation?

Students must remember that the benefit of these internships is your personal narrative – who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve worked on. People get the impression that you are committed to your work. In some circles it’s a credibility badge – a key. The tragedy lies in keys being passed between the same people with every generation. We have the collective resources to change this fate.

If it weren’t for my unpaid internships I highly doubt I would be in a position today to make my living as a freelance writer, producer, and campaign consultant. It was the internships that qualified me for my first couple important entry-level jobs in the nonprofit world, which have given me the skills and experience to do what I want now.

Danielle Connor is a former intern who now codirects Rough Mountain Studios, a creative communications group producing videos and publicity campaigns for mission-driven projects.

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