Working for free can get you ahead at work — but it can have big downsides
Recognize an opportunity even when there’s not a paycheck attached.
That’s advice famous chefs, radio personalities and writers preach when it comes to working for free in exchange for invaluable skills that could help boost your career.
Before earning a Michelin star at her New York City gastropubs The Spotted Pig and The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, celebrity chef April Bloomfield tells Moneyish she worked for free at a prestigious London kitchen. She says it shaped her culinary career.
“I did a couple weeks as a stage at River Cafe and I didn’t get paid for that. I didn’t expect to. I did it in my hours when I wasn’t working my regular job,” Bloomfield says. “I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today if I hadn’t put in the time when I was younger.”
It worked for Bloomfield because she loved the work. “It’s never been about money for me, it’s just about being successful and learning. The money part comes a little bit later,” she says during the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition in New York City. But she cautions that “you’ve got to be passionate if you’re going to take a job that you’re not going to get paid for.”
“They said I can’t pay you, but I can get you a place to stay. That’s all I needed. That was a priceless position,” he recalls of his 2006 work with the then radio show host. He juggled paid jobs — like hosting parties and ghost writing — with the unpaid work for Williams, but still struggled financially.
“I starved. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat. I just learned how to be a radio show personality. You can’t pay for that time. I would be with her [Williams] on her book signings and tour. I remember just sitting there at the table with her and thinking one day that’s going to be me,” says Charlamagne, who released his first book “Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It,” this year.
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Of course, working for free doesn’t always turn out to be beneficial, says workplace expert and author Anita Bruzzese, who recalls getting taken advantage of by bloggers who promised to promote her website in exchange for free content. “Make sure the people you’re working with are legitimate,” she advises.
“One of the traps that people have fallen into in the last several years is ‘Oh, we’ll give you exposure to this’ and then you don’t really get that. Don’t fall for that kind of language unless you’ve done your homework.”
Here are the most beneficial times to take a free gig:
If you want to make a career switch
If you’re looking to make a major career change, doing unpaid work on the side or as an internship can be a good way to get experience in the new field.
That’s what on-air lifestyle expert Valerie Greenberg, who interned at Rolling Stone, did. At the time, she was working in the publicity division, but she used the in as a way to break into editorial. “I spoke with the assignment editor who started sending me out to cover red carpets,” Greenberg recalls of getting a scoop on actress Rosario Dawson dating Jason Lewis. “The unpaid assignments prepared me to do whatever it takes to get the story,” she said.
Toby Moskovits, the founder of real estate and development firm Heritage Equity Partners in Brooklyn, studied pre-med in school but quickly realized she wanted to do business, so she worked for free at a medical diagnostic company doing marketing. The experience left her with a portfolio of work she used to get her next job as a venture capitalist before she eventually owned her own company.
If you need more experience
Getting hired out of college is tough, but having an internship in a relevant field on your resume can help. “When you’re looking to build a solid network of contacts and gain real life work experiences I say absolutely go for it in terms of working for free,” says Greenberg.
But be upfront with your manager about the situation though — if you need to work another job to make ends meet while you’re working there for free, let them know. You should also inquire about getting college credit for the work or potential job opportunities that might follow. And make sure to secure a letter of recommendation and network with people on staff who can serve as references.
If it’ll boost your resume
If it’s a more prestigious job you want on your resume, consider unpaid work to boost your skills — and then look out for other payoffs. “Even though you’re not getting paid in money you can get paid in other ways, like free entry into a seminar, or having an employer write a testimonial,” says Bruzzese.
If it’s a cause you love
If you enjoy working for a non-profit that’s particularly fulfilling, there’s certainly a way to balance your time with paid work hours. “Break it down into a per hour type situation,” Bruzzese suggests.
This story was originally published on October 20th, 2017.
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