Will work for free: Why young workers should consider unpaid positions

Volunteering offers young workers the chance to gain valuable experience and references, making them more competitive in a tough job market.

Eric Risberg/AP
In this photo taken June 28 Flora Guan, left, and Jessica Yang, right, recent graduates of San Francisco State University, fill out forms at a National Career Fair in San Francisco. Unpaid work during tough economic times could help young workers in competitive job markets.

With young people nearly shut out of the market (by recession, regulation, "child" labor laws, and ghastly minimum wage laws), I would like to suggest the unthinkable: young people should work for free wherever they can and whenever they can. The reason is to acquire a good reputation and earn a good recommendation. A person who will give you a positive reference on demand is worth gold, and certainly far more than the money you might otherwise earn.

Many of the essays in my book Bourbon for Breakfast turn out to have forecasted both the current mess and this solution. But first let me tell a story of two cases in point, the first an example of the worst possible kind of worker, and the second an example of brilliant foresight.

The first case comes from a job I had in my teens. I was standing around with a few other employees in a clothing shop. The boss walked by and said to my coworker: "Please straighten these ties on this table." My coworker waited until the boss walked away, and then he muttered under his breath: "I'm not doing that for minimum wage."

That comment seared right through me, and I thought about it a very long time. The worker was effectively asking for money up front before working, even though he was employed to do things like straighten ties. This was even worse than insubordination. He had this idea that the value he contributes to the firm should never exceed the value of the money he is earning in money. If that must be true, one wonders why anyone should ever hire him.

The goal of every employer is to gain more value from workers than the firm pays out in wages; otherwise, there is no growth, no advance, and no advantage for the employer. Conversely, the goal of every employee should be to contribute more to the firm than he or she receives in wages, and thereby provide a solid rationale for receiving raises and advancement in the firm.

I don't need to tell you that the refusenik didn't last long in this job.

In contrast, here is a story from last week. My phone rang. It was the employment division of a major university. The man on the phone was inquiring about the performance of a person who did some site work on last year. I was able to tell him about a remarkable young man who swung into action during a crisis, and how he worked three 19-hour days, three days in a row, how he learned new software with diligence, how he kept his cool, how he navigated his way with grace and expertise amidst some 80 different third-party plug-ins and databases, how he saw his way around the inevitable problems, how he assumed responsibility for the results, and much more.

What I didn't tell the interviewer was that this person did all this without asking for any payment. Did that fact influence my report on his performance? I'm not entirely sure, but the interviewer probably sensed in my voice my sense of awe toward what this person had done for the Mises Institute. The interviewer told me that he had written down 15 different questions to ask me but that I had answered them all already in the course of my monologue, and that he was thrilled to hear all these specifics.

The person was offered the job. He had done a very wise thing; he had earned a devotee for life.

The harder the economic times, the more employers need to know what they are getting when they hire someone. The job applications pour in by the buckets, all padded with degrees and made to look as impressive as possible. It's all just paper. What matters today is what a person can do for a firm. The resume becomes pro forma but not decisive under these conditions. But for a former boss or manager to rave about you to a potential employer? That's worth everything.

Sadly, many young people who can't get jobs have no work experience to show for themselves at all. They have been wildly misled all their lives about the great glories that await anyone who "stays in school" and gets great grades. There are innumerable aerospace engineers, mathematicians, and even lawyers who are in this situation, to say nothing of sociologists, historians, and people with degrees in communications and marketing.

Adding to the problem today is the burden of student loans. Kids are graduating today with six figures in debt that they will immediately be forced to service if they accept employment. But with no prospects outside Wal-Mart and Starbucks, they opt to stay in school and get yet another degree, hoping all the while that the labor market will turn around. This is a terrible trap.

They have structured their lives around the speculation that a high-paying job awaits following graduation. But there is no such thing. A low-paying job isn't even enough to pay the rent plus debt service.

It was a very bad speculation. Their dreams are being killed by a desperately tight labor market for anyone without work experience or any kind of work reference at all. Under these conditions, the solution is to gain that thing of highest value. That means volunteering. The state can't come after you to start paying the student-loan debt, and yet you gain people who will become your benefactors later.

Where to volunteer? A nonprofit such as a church or educational group would be fine. But also fine might be a local plant nursery, lawn service, mail house or printer, or even at a law firm. You can make an application informally but be clear that you want no payment. If there are legal issues, try to work around them. If you are accepted (not a foregone conclusion), set hours for yourself and stick with them. Make yourself super useful, super dependable. Get to know as many people as possible. Explain that you are working only for the experience, which you value. Do this for six months up to a year. Then you will have something interesting and wonderful to tell future employers about.

A time will come when one of the people you came to know will receive a phone call. He or she will be asked their opinion of you and your work. That's when the whole of your life can change for the better. Is that six months to one year of volunteer work worth it at that moment? It is worth everything.

On the other hand, you can spend your life refusing to straighten ties because you aren't paid enough to do that. That person will never be paid to do anything.

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