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Working for FREE…why it is not really free

Have you ever heard the saying “nothing is for free”?

What does it mean? It means that even if someone offers you something as a ‘gift’ (outside of your birthday or holidays) for free, it does not mean you will not be paying for it later one way, shape or form.

Here is a story as an example: my grandmother was moving apartments and needed to ‘de-clutter’. She offered me a large amount of her old plates, dishes, vases and nick knacks. I did not want them, they were out-dated, I had no use for them and most importantly, I had no room for them. Nonetheless, she forced them on me -free dinnerware and all. My mother told me she can keep them in her storage unit for me until the time I had enough space to store them in my own home. That time never came. A year later, my mother told me she could no longer afford the storage unit and I had to come and collect the boxes of ‘stuff’ I had in there and to cover $900 worth of storage fees as she was unable to keep up with payments.

$900!! I was blown away. For that money, I could have purchased myself brand new dishes, and ones I truly wanted. I never even wanted nor needed my grandmas stuff, but to make her happy and avoid arguments, I took them. So you see, her ‘free’ things ended up costing me money. In the end, I paid for them, and I paid high.

So the moral of this story is – be careful what you accept as a free gift, because you will pay one way or another. It does not have to be financially, it can be with time, energy and mental health.

How does this all translate to career and your personal employment? Well, there is another side of looking at this concept. Imagine then you give away something for free, what is it that you get in return? Imagine you gave away your labour, skills, time and energy for free? What do you gain from it? Are you paid in any way? We would argue yes.

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So what is the payment of working for free and why you should consider it, even as a short term or an hour a week.

  1. Experience. This is invaluable. We cannot put a price on experience, however, companies seem to do so – the price comes in the form of a salary. The more experience you have, the more valuable you are to an organisation. Logical dictates that the higher level of work you put in, the higher your salary would be. Thus, if you put aside time to grow and develop your skills, whilst you may not get paid much today, you are laying down the foundation for a much more lucrative tomorrow. So if you decide to invest some of your time to take on different projects, shadow a manager or work for free to gain that experience, you will be paid well in the long run.
  2. Networks. Building relationships and networking can take time and not always easy. However, when you are in a workplace, those work friends seem to take form faster and easier than two strangers in a networking event trying to make small talk. Those connections you make during your time in a workplace (or together working on a project) can become strong bonds and ones you can benefit from time and time again. People know people. Especially within the same industry – it becomes a community. If you are new within an industry connect with an employee working in the same space while you are gaining your experience. Attempt to form a relationship and stay connected with them well after you moved on. That network may just be your payment to your next big break.
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  1. Insight. The time you place in working for free can give you an insight into the role, industry and career path you can take. This insight can tell you if you are on the right path of change. It may save you time and money down the track if you realise this is not right for you. Imagine you want a career change, so before you start the process of re-training, applying for jobs and signing contracts, you work an hour a week for free for a period of a month to get a sense of the industry. You realise it is not what you expected and find that this is not your direction. You just got paid with future savings – the saving of potential loss of money and time.
  2. Open doors. How many times do you see a job advertisement requesting experience? How can an entry-level role ask for an experienced employee? How can you even get experience if no one is willing to hire someone without it? The same can be said for someone who wants to progress in their career – ‘how can I have a management position if no one will give me a chance to manage’? This is where working for free can open those doors. Most companies would be a lot more willing to have an additional person in their workspace if they do not have to pay for them. This not only gives you the chance to get the experience and grow, but can open the doors to get paid in the first place. You can make this happen for yourself in two ways – the company you are interning for can consider putting you on the books once they see your value or you can start applying for those roles which require the experience you need and be ahead of the line because you have the practice they seek! It will give you that edge to be more competitive when job hunting. You can get that foot in the door for your first job or the next level up.

So as you can see, working for free is not really free – whilst the organisation who gets your services without having to pay may seem like the only ones benefiting, you benefit as well. On top of that, the organisation who has you will be paying by investing their time in training you and developing your skills. So really, it is not free for any party. There may be no financial exchange, however, an exchange of time, service, training and relationship building would be trading at high levels.

Thanks for reading – we hope we inspired you to consider expanding your options and volunteering or giving an hour of your time either within your company or another business where you can benefit and grow. Don’t be afraid to ask, you never know what chances you could be given.

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