Should You Ever Work for Free?

December 09 2011

In this tough economy, when good jobs are sparse and can seem nearly impossible to find, modern job-hunters can consider working as a volunteer or unpaid intern in order to gain experience and connections.  While this won’t work for everyone, if you’re in a position where you can afford to donate your time in exchange for the potential benefits, it’s an option worth considering. (

Working for free is ideal for those who are brand new to the workforce, especially those that are still living with parents, since they have fewer financial obligations.  Some internships may allow some unpaid workers to get a deferment on student loan payments, some volunteer organizations can forgive some or all of student loan debt, in exchange for making a large commitment to working for them. (

Working for free will allow you to get to know your particular field from the inside, as well as provide you a foot in the door when the company is hiring.  As a team member everyone already knows and can vouch for, you’ll be a much more attractive hire than someone the company is unfamiliar with. Like many things, finding a great job is as much a matter of who you know as what you know, and being inside a company or field will help you stay on top of current trends, as well as filling your contacts list with associates and mentors who can help you get a boost in your field.  (

Working for free can also help get your foot in the door at other companies, if your hard work and dedication results in glowing letters of recommendation in your field.

Finding a job that doesn’t pay can be as challenging as finding paid work, and many available work experiences may not be advertised.  Your best bet to find an unpaid position is to plan on putting in a lot of footwork.  This can involve everything from going door-to-door or cold-calling local employers in your field to searching through your old contacts to seeking help from the job placement office at your college or university.  Your local chamber of commerce can be a great resource, as well. (

When applying and interviewing for a volunteer or intern position, put in as much of an effort as you would if you were applying for a paid position.  You’ll want your supervisors and co-workers to regard you as professional, hard-working and dependable, so put your best self forward.  After you’ve been brought on, apply this same work ethic to your daily activities and you’ll be well on your way to a paid job that’s even more rewarding than your unpaid work. (

While working as a volunteer or intern, keep good records of the time you spend, any expenses you accrue and what you’ve been working on, both as a reference for yourself and to show potential future employers.  Some expenses for some jobs may be tax deductible, as well.

There is some room to negotiate when you aren’t working for money.  You’re more likely to be able to work on a flexible schedule, you’ll likely have fewer bosses to answer to, and everyone will be so grateful for your help and expertise, your job experience should be very positive.  Take care, while still doing your best work, to not let yourself be taken advantage of. Keep lines of communication open between your peers and your supervisor to ensure expectations are clear on all sides.

In short, working for free, either as an intern or as a volunteer, can be a valuable experience for your career.  Even when you can’t find paying work in your field, you can stay abreast of current trends in your field, you can keep your skills fresh and honed, and you can keep building your networking contacts with the hope of earning a few great references from people who know you’re great at what you do.

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