In an ideal world there would be no such thing as unpaid work. Even the most insignificant and entry level tasks would be rewarded with some kind of financial compensation. After all, we all need money, right? Can’t pay the bills with experience, or eat exposure.
But, in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in an ideal world. And if you’re starting out down a creative career path and you’re looking for some precious real world experience, or need to build up your portfolio, you might find yourself considering working for free.
You’ll probably be told at some point to never, under any circumstance, offer your services unless you’re getting paid. And this is good advice, mainly. But there might come a few times when you’ll want to expand your personal definition of the word “paid”. As long as you are gaining something from the experience, and you can attribute sufficient worth to it to justify this to yourself, then you’re being paid – at least by your new definition.
Throughout your career you’ll come across many opportunities which seem great, until you scroll down looking for the payment information and you’re met with “We don’t offer payment, but your work will be seen by our thousands of viewers/readers”.
And honestly, most of the time, you should absolutely ignore these kinds of opportunities. In most instances if someone can’t afford to even pay you for your work, then the platform on which they’re going to give you some exposure probably isn’t all that great in the first place, and barely anybody will see your wonderful work. You’d be as well doing it for yourself, and posting on a blog or personal site.
With that being said, don’t feel like you can never take up these offers. Maybe it’s for a good cause, or maybe you’re looking for a home for work you’re proud of, but can’t place elsewhere.
There will also, unfortunately, be a few high profile publications or clients who, despite being very successful and looking really good in your portfolio or on your CV, are unwilling or unable to pay you. Depending on how much of your time the project will likely take up, and if there’s paid work you could be doing instead, these kinds of opportunities are almost definitely worth taking. You might not be given any money directly as a result of the work, but having a high-profile client on your CV at the early stages of your career might actually be worth a lot more in the long run than the fee you should have received for the work. It ain’t exactly fair, but it’s the life of a creative.
The need for experience in most jobs offers up a classic Catch-22 situation for anyone starting out – particularly graduates. No job without experience, but no experience without a job.
If you’re attempting a total career change, you can find yourself in an even worse position. When I left a sales career for freelance journalism, I worked for a long time to build up a broad portfolio of work, but I had no formal education in my field and no experience to counter that.
Part of my solution was internships. I worked for free in established publications, learning everything I could and attempting to prove myself in a work environment. The references, connections and experience I’ve garnered from these experiences has helped me no end, both in practically improving as a journalist and making me a more attractive prospective candidate on paper.
Not all internships will provide 100% useful experience – you might get stuck making teas and collecting lunch for 2 weeks – but in this, the absolute worst case scenario, you will at least have something to put on your CV. If you’ve not got much else on there, it might just be worth the time-investment. You’d be surprised at how many companies offer internships, some of which can be done fully or partially remotely – which can be a big help if you’re not a city-dweller. Don’t commit to anything indefinite or too long-term though, and try to get some assurance that you’ll be given a reference at the end.
Internships, particularly if they’re unpaid, come under criticism a lot. And it’s right that companies who can clearly afford to offer at least basic renumeration should. No doubt. But in the creative and media industries, there’s precious little money floating around at the bottom, and though dynamic start-ups or independents may not always have the resources to pay interns, they can sometimes provide real benefit in many other ways.
Now in a lot of industries, the question of whether you should ever offer your services for free is a hotly debated one. Does unpaid work lower the perceived value of your skill and therefore affect others in the industry? If employers increasingly feel that offering unpaid work is a viable option for them, will it become more common, eventually forcing out those who can’t afford to work for free to build up experience?
Honestly, the answer to both is kind of yes. But the vast, vast majority of people who’ve come before you will have taken some kind of unpaid work, even those who are now telling you off for even considering it. You alone will not be responsible for the downfall of an industry because you take a couple of unpaid gigs when you’re starting out.
As long as you don’t do it unnecessarily, don’t do it forever and don’t do it for people or publications who offer absolutely nothing in return, then you can take on unpaid work without feeling guilty.
The bottom line is, if you’re smart about it, and you pick your opportunities wisely, even unpaid work can pay-off.