Working for Free: It’s Not Just for Student Interns Anymore

An article in the Boston Globe starts by profiling a laid-off executive search firm consultant who is attempting to jumpstart her job prospects by volunteering with a non-profit agency.  The article goes on to say:

At a time when companies aren’t likely to consider inexperienced applicants, more professionals are seeking ways to beef up their resumes by volunteering for work at nonprofit agencies. Many of them are unemployed, or worried about job security. Some have well-polished skills to offer, while others, like [the profiled individual], see volunteering as an opportunity to steer their careers in a new direction.

Yup, we’re seeing it everywhere: Laid-off and unemployed workers are trying to bolster their job prospects by volunteering.

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to emphasize that volunteering to contribute to one’s community is a great thing.  But volunteering because you’re without a job and can’t obtain paid work is, well, often not so great.

However, in some cases, it may be necessary, or at least a means to an end.

Before the meltdown, working for free was considered the province of the student intern.  Now the ranks of unpaid workers are swelling with those who have a lot more experience than the typical student intern.  I hope that their efforts will translate into good paying jobs down the line.  As an educator I probably will suggest to others that they consider the volunteer route to pick up experience and contacts.

But I also know that our economy has a long way to go towards recovery if this is the approach that people are taking to get back on a payroll.  After all, something has gone haywire when people aren’t compensated for their labor.

For “Volunteers discover another path in job hunt”: boston.com/jobs/news/articles/2009/08/03/volunteering_your_way_to_a_new_job/

A legal sidebar: Several years ago I wrote a long law review article analyzing the employment law rights of student interns.  I observed that roughly half of student internships are unpaid, and I concluded that many of them are in apparent violation of minimum wage laws.  No doubt some of the volunteer arrangements for more experienced workers also are in likely violation of these laws.  To download a pdf file of my law review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns”: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1303705.

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