Stephen Poloz, The Canadian Press, Adrian Wild

Stephen Poloz, The Canadian Press, Adrian Wild

Recent comments by Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz have stirred up a debate that has been percolating for years, but is especially loud during lean economic times.  Addressing the issue of high rates of unemployed young people in Canada, Poloz commented that he thinks they should consider working for free.

Judging from the response to his comments, you’d think Poloz suggested they should all jump in a lake. Of course, the ensuing outrage is no news to anyone who has worked for free.  People think you’re nuts to work for nothing, and love to argue the point, often suggesting that only people who can actually afford to work for free benefit from it.

That may be partially true, but if you’re living in your parents’ basement with no job and no prospects, you can probably afford to work for free (hence Poloz’ comments).  And if you do venture into the freebe world, you just might find that you end up in a job you enjoy, making a decent amount of money.

Take the example of Charlie Hoehn, who did just that a few years ago and lived to tell the tale to TED audiences all over the world.  Mind you, he worked smart, and for free for 8 months before he was able to start making money, doing what he really loves. He's now a very successful author, marketing strategist, and obviously, speaker.

But what about those of us for whom university is but a vague memory, or never happened at all?  Is there any real benefit to working for free, other than what the company you’re working for gets?

You bet there is!  And if you ask around in today’s entrepreneurial world, you’ll find that working without financial compensation has helped many people move toward achieving their career and business goals.

I’ve worked for free on and off for most of my writing career.  In fact, I started writing for fun, and then roughed up a few columns and sent them to the editor of my local paper, suggesting that if he wanted to run them for free, I would be delighted.  He did run them, and started paying me a couple of weeks later (and retro-actively).  That seemingly small step started me off on a whole new media career mid-life that hasn’t made me rich, but has certainly been fulfilling.

A young friend we’ll call Nate who was anxious to get in the brokerage business (back in the days when it was fun) asked me what he should do to get a job.  At the time (late 1990’s) the major brokerage houses had hundreds of applicants looking for a handful of jobs.  This particular young golf pro didn’t feel he would be able to stand out in the general application process, and so volunteered to cold call 4 hours a day, 5 days a week for a local broker he knew. I know, brutal.

The broker jumped at his bewildering offer, and Nate proved to be so hard working and such a quick study that the Retail Manager hired him 6 months later.  He’s now one of the top producers at Scotia McLeod.

As a parent, I always encouraged my kids to offer their services free if they had trouble landing a job.  And they have, both in the not for profit and business sector.

But I whole heartedly endorse working for free to anyone of any age who is looking to advance their career and work on something they actually care about.

Here are several reasons why working for free is a good idea:

  1. You get your foot in the door, and a chance to prove your value to a business.
  2. You have an opportunity to learn new skills, working on real world problems with real world feedback.
  3. You establish new connections that may help you further your career.  Even if you don’t end up with a paying job at a company you’ve worked for for free, the connections you make there may be agreeable to helping you in the future.
  4. You gain exposure in your field.  It helps to advertise what you’re doing by blogging and sharing on social network sites.
  5. Optics:  you prevent a gap in your resume. Recruiters don’t like to see periods of unemployment in resumes.  Even if you’re working for free, you’re still active, productive, and involved.
  6. You may earn a title you wouldn’t otherwise qualify for.  I would never have applied for the job of ‘managing editor’ at a publication, but because I worked for free for a while at, I moved into the job organically. (Okay, it’s not that impressive, but it’s a new title for me.)
  7. Finally, there is a sense of accomplishment in working for free, even if there’s no pay cheque.

I should clarify here that I’m not talking about internships, where you apply and often end up with menial tasks for limited periods of time.  And I don’t endorse businesses displacing existing employees with free workers to cut costs.

I’m talking about offering your talents, free of charge, to a business that will benefit from them, with the hope that eventually you will be paid for your efforts.  While there are no guarantees that you’ll land a paying gig, the audience, relationships, and experience you gain in the process are priceless.