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Five on Friday: Will work for… free?

Five on Friday: Will work for… free?

Welcome to Five on Friday, a round-up of views on a theme. In this edition we look at some of the reasons people work for free and whether it’s a good idea to slave it out for a while if it gives you a start on the career ladder.

Work experience, volunteerism, vulnerability to exploitation… these are all common reasons why people work for free. But what will actually help you in your career?

I have previously written on Gaining work experience to help your career, which pretty much sets out all the reasons you may consider exchanging hours and effort for no remuneration in a skills context, but there are also other considerations that may affect your decision.

1. Can I afford it?
Internships can offer a really comprehensive experience for students and new graduates. A good internship will expose interns to the work environment and allow them to apply some of the skills they will need in their first job. The problem is, unpaid interns need to sacrifice their time for this experience and not everyone can afford it.

If you’re weighing up an unpaid work experience opportunity, you may need to reign in the time you can spend in proportion to your study and/or paid work commitments. Apportion a time you think will give you enough experience, for example a day a week, and set a period, such as three months. Have a date in mind when you'll stop unpaid work and pursue paid work.

2. Use the (work) force
Don’t forget that work experience is not just about the work you do and the skills you learn. Access to a network of people in the industry is also a key benefit so take every chance to meet people, starting with others in the organisation—don’t just hide in your department.

If you can, take the opportunity to go to meetings and events where you might meet a future employer or contact. You can even ask your supervisor to introduce you to people in his or her network who may be able to assist you with future paid roles.

3. Am I being exploited?
Exploitation is a very real possibility with a lot of unpaid work experience positions. Let’s assume the experience adds to your education: that’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for undertaking unpaid work. Think of exploitation as an opportunity cost to paid work.

Writer Elmo Keep says her rule is: “Anything you spend time on that someone else is making money from, you should get paid for.”

Management guru Seth Godin says to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?
  • Is this public work with my name on it, or am I just saving them cash to do a job they should pay for?
  • Do I care about their mission? Can they afford to do this professionally?
  • What's the risk to me, my internal monologue and my reputation if I do this work?

4. Decisions, decisions
Still unsure? Designer and illustrator Jessica Hische created a handy flowchart that can help you come to a decision.

Should I work for free? flowchart

Click to go through to shouldiworkforfree.com

5. Free now, paid later
The final thing to remember is to make sure your unpaid work leads to paid work down the track. If you’re going to make a career out of it, you need to make a living from it. Your landlady does not accept payment in sweat.

full-time unpaid internship


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