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The Intern Trap: on getting out alive

It’s the conundrum every unpaid intern knows well: You don’t have a paycheck, but you still have living expenses….What’s to be done?….I’ve learned a few tricks, as have the other interns at Ivanka Trump HQ…

So begins the post by Quincy Bulin, a 20-something embarking on her THIRD unpaid summer internship in New York City. Published on, the item is generating much negative press for Ivanka, an empire builder who styles herself as a champion of #womenwhowork.

To the moral and practical complications unpaid labour presents, I add another concern. What must employers think when they see internship after internship on a resumé?

Do they think: she’s a go-getter with a strong work ethic and possibly a trust fund?

Or do they think: why isn’t anyone hiring her?

The question got me thinking about my own stint as a PR intern many summers ago.

By today’s standards, I was a dud.

I had no MBA. No elite sports background. No experience volunteering or living abroad. And no fledging charitable foundation or third language under my belt. I didn’t even own a handheld garment steamer.

My lack of interning prowess was clear from Day One. The swag bags I assembled looked like they’d been stuffed by a crime scene cleanup crew. I couldn’t even nail fetching coffee. The image of Sharon the VP – whipping out the pencil from behind her ear and plunging it into her Americano to underscore the fact that I’d forgotten the stir stick – haunts me still.

I was the Inspector Clouseau of Interning.

It didn’t take the brass long to figure out I couldn’t be trusted to do anything but write. They set me to work in the back room, crafting press releases, brochures and mailers. Before long, my supervisor, who hated writing but liked long martini lunches, was showing me the mechanics of new business proposals and marketing plans. At one point, the president said I could bill for the late nights I had spent writing inspirational mantras for the underside of custom-painted sneakers. (Don’t ask.) After that, I just kept invoicing for ‘special projects’. At first, there was confusion. The president called me into her office. I explained that I was billing because…I needed the money.

A few days later, a contract materialized. For full-time, paying work as a junior account executive.“We’re hiring you,” the president said. “Try not to screw it up.”

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