Thursday, November 14, 2013

Would you work for nothing?

Would you work for free? The answer isn't always as black-and-white as it seems. And as the debate over unpaid internships continues to rage, I can't help but think back to my own experiences working in exchange for no salary.

It's how I got my start, actually. A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away - okay, it was Montreal - I cold-called a news director at a rather large radio station, and was rather stunned when a) I got him live on the phone, and b) he told the naive, teenaged me to drop in for a meeting later that week. The meeting went well, I got the "job", and before long, I was spending an evening every week writing scripts, pulling clips, stacking carts and updating the on-air announcers with whatever news, weather, sports and entertainment they needed. There may have been the occasional coffee run, as well.

Making it real

The "job" eventually turned into a real job with a real paycheck. And I worked through my undergrad and after graduation, using it as an ideal counterpoint to what I was studying in class. After it turned into a real job, I'd often write the morning news run, then head over to campus for classes as I tried my best to not fall asleep. It added an amazing dimension to my education, and it set the tone for everything that came afterward. I wouldn't change a thing.

The goal of an unpaid internship, of course, isn't to simply be in a freakishly cool environment. Interns who stand at the studio door - or the reception area, or the VP's office, or anywhere else in the building - with their jaws agape because they've "made it" and are simply awestruck at the experience will, to be kind, usually crash and burn. You take unpaid work as an opportunity to become a known quantity to others, to prove your worth, and to convince Those Who Make The Decisions that the value you add to their lives makes you an essential - and eventually paid - addition to the team.

A place to start

An internship - or any kind of  a springboard, a steppingstone, a launching pad - is a window, with a defined start and end, within which you need to make something happen. And if, after years of toiling away, you're still waiting for your so-called big break, you may want to rethink what you thought an internship was in the first place.

I'm lucky in that I seem to have used the idea of free work to my advantage, and now that I'm somewhat established I'm long past the point at which I need to work in exchange for nothing. I've managed to build enough of a brand for myself that I don't have to do much cold-calling anymore, and I don't need to work for free in order to prove my worth. Yet, oddly, I still get requests for free. I'm often told that the work will bring me some great exposure, will help me build my brand, will help me invest in my future.

Um, I don't want to sound mean-spirited, but I've got all the "exposure" I need right now - here's just one example - so if it's just as well with the free-seekers, I'd rather focus on doing the kind of work that keeps the lights on, the writing that either generates revenue directly, or maintains my branding, visibility and image in support of direct revenue generation.

Because in the end, I can't pay the electric bill with "exposure". And I'm guessing you can't, either.

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