Photo via Paul Bradbury/Getty Images (Licensed)
Before I got a paying job in the industry I wanted, I held down unpaid and underpaid internships during the summer. I had the privilege of doing this because I grew up in a city where there are lots of internship opportunities, allowing me to live at home with my family, who had enough money to support me when my only income was a work-study desk job while I was in school.
The ability to hold an unpaid internship is something available only to a select few, which leads to a bottleneck in industries where wealthy, urban-adjacent, and often white people are the ones who get a leg-up. So it’s pretty rich that Ivanka Trump, daughter of billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump, is running advice on how to handle unpaid internships on her website. She is also tweeting about it with #nomoneynoproblems.The post, written by Trump’s own (unpaid) copy intern Quincy Bulin, gives tips on how to survive an unpaid internship. And most of them, while well intentioned, miss the mark.
Much of Bulin’s advice makes a lot of sense, but it ignores certain realities of unpaid work. The first is “save up during the school year.” She quotes another Trump intern who says she worked on-campus jobs and did freelance design work during the year. Great, except for a lot of students, bills like rent, groceries, and tuition payments are taking up a good chunk of change. Also, let’s remember that she’s talking about internships in New York City, where it costs almost $400 a month to sleep on someone’s couch.
The next piece of advice is to take on a part-time job, which is pretty obvious advice if your internship is only two days a week. However, it ignores that many unpaid internships require a 40-hour a week commitment.
The rest of her advice centers around budgeting yourself and seeing if you can get reimbursed for lunch and travel expenses, which is smart, but also not groundbreaking penny-pinching advice. And the general reaction online seems to be that the article is completely tone-deaf about the struggles keeping people from taking unpaid internships.Legally, unpaid internships are supposed to exist for the intern’s benefit, and there are six factors considered when judging what that means. Mainly, they involve making sure the intern is not displacing any staff members, and that “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
Most people who have held an unpaid internship know that companies don't usually adhere to these rules. Two years ago, underpaid interns at Conde Nast sued the company for violating these rules, which resulted in a class-action settlement of $5.8 million, and Conde Nast replacing the internship program with a paid fellowship program. And those original internships were at least slightly paid. Many don’t even get the luxury of $300 a summer.
The defense for unpaid internships comes from people who see it as paying dues, that they got their big break in the unpaid internship system and anyone who doesn’t want to do it is a crybaby. But just because one person wasn't paid or had a bad experience, it doesn’t mean that the infrastructure of internships isn't flawed and we should continue to settle for it. Because really, what good is an opportunity if it’s limited to a select few?