Avoiding the “free intern” or “pro bono consulting” trap


Experience, they say, is key.

In a world where thousands of résumés come in for any position that’s posted, it’s not just good enough to have something close to what’s specified. “Close but no cigar” on the specifics but having worked all around it (and thus be a reasonable shot to succeed) is for when there’s trouble recruiting, not when you’re swamped with possibilities.

Of course, if you’re just starting out, or you’re trying to make a career change, sometimes you have to make experience happen. Enter the idea of working for free.

No one, of course, really wants to work for free. But for all that, there’s a lot of free work getting done these days.

Students entering the work force take a free internship simply to put relevant experience onto their sparse résumés. Seasoned professionals take on volunteer roles to do the same when they’re looking to draw out skills that are close as part of a career change. For those “earning while changing”, operating as independent consultants or contractors, a project or two might be taken on “pro bono” simply to get a bogie or two on the client list (or to flesh out the résumé against the day a job is again sought).

I’m not against working for free — I just completed one piece of it Monday night (which will lead to another piece before it can become paid, something I knew going in) with a business association and am tying up another piece for a community group this week. Both highlight things I can do but my résumé doesn’t scream out (it’s hard to convince a person that “Director, National Data Centre” or “Senior Vice-President & Director, Executive and Industry Services”, for instance, gave you skills in corporate communications, and it’s even harder to get a computer program that’s scanning your résumé to see the connection…).

But there are a lot of people today that, frankly, are being taken advantage of. Ayn Rand, in her book The Fountainhead, has publishing magnate Gail Wynand start in the business by sitting on the steps of the newspaper’s office ready to run errands. Eventually he’s useful enough to be paid, and his career is off. It took only a few days. If more internships transitioned to paid status that easily, I’d be more in favour of them.

But they don’t, when you see employers realizing that there’s a lot of desperate people out there who aren’t, in this economy, going to find anything else and depart suddenly on them, and thus unpaid for months works.

Much like the ghost teaching History of Magic in the Harry Potter stories, if you’re looking at improving the bottom line there’s nothing like permanent work done without having to pay anyone.

Umair Haque, one of Twitter’s most followed thinkers on the modern political economy (he’s the Director of the Havas Media Lab, a strategic business advisory service, and has been published in the Harvard Business Review), answered a question this morning. The question was “what’s the best way to fight the free labour that’s become internships”. Haque’s answer: “start something”.

It’s sound advice, even if being an entrepreneur is something you run screaming from as fast as your legs will carry you.

(Note: “start something” might very well be “start a not-for-profit”, “start a co-operative”, “start an activist group”: it doesn’t have to be “start a business” in the traditional sense. But there are those of us who truly do want the security blanket of working for someone else…)

The process of “starting something” requires you to sit down and think through questions of value. What makes a difference, how do you get paid for that difference?

There’s really no difference, after all, from figuring out what would make donors cover the costs of activism over an issue you care about (and throw off a paycheque for you as the executive director) and figuring out what product or service would make customers crash your website with orders, or line up out your door trying to get one (and throw off a paycheque for you as the CEO).

At both these extremes, you’re creating a value proposition, you’re identifying an unserved or unmet need, you’re differentiating your offering so that you get the results, not someone else (there are many opportunities relative to the number of really new ideas out there) — and from that, you can answer the question “does this free work actually get me anywhere?”

If it does, great, go do it, and collect the customer reference (for the solo practitioner) or experience for your résumé (for the job seeker). Otherwise, it’s just work you’re giving away without getting a return.

That’s a trap, because if you can’t tell the difference between the two, you can’t get enough traction to move forward toward what you want.

Is the book you write and give away as a Kindle book “for free” a good use of your time? It is if the book leads you somewhere where dollars pile up. (Or if you’ve got the time and you just want to be a “published author”: “doing it for myself” is reasonable, although it does take time — the one commodity you can’t buy more of — out of your hands.) It’s not if it’s just another bit of misapplied effort.

I have a friend who speaks and runs workshops for a living. He wrote several small books, to be sold at the back of the room when he finishes talking. None of them are worth what he charges, but he’s aware that if you liked his talk you are primed to part with money if you can take the book with you right now — and the prices reflect his costs of lugging inventory, however small, around. The investment of “free” (both in writing them, and in giving many copies away to win a workshop opportunity or keynote speaking engagement that’s paid) is worth it.

So “start something” to avoid the “free” trap. You’ll be glad you did. And if you don’t know how to do the “start” process, that’s where we can help.

Mind you, that’ll cost. After all, you just got this article for free, didn’t you?

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