When I was fresh out of college, a friend of my mother’s gave me the advice that I should volunteer with an organization that I’d like to work for. After some time with them, he said, they would have a sense of my skills and would hire me. I didn’t take the advice at the time because something about it didn’t feel right.
Since then, through my experience and that of others, I’ve found sufficient reason to list the second piece of advice I will never give:
2. “Volunteering will lead to a job.” This is unlikely to happen for two critical reasons.
First, in today’s economy, we have what a recent article in Washingtonian magazine describes as “a glut of young people willing to slave for practically nothing just to get a foot in the door.” This being the case, simple market economics demonstrates that working for free will not result in a desirable job.
Here’s how it works: From the employer’s point of view, recruiting and training are costly, and the hired employee must be worth the cost of hiring. In addition, an employee is an “experience good,” one that, unlike a physical good, you know the value of only after you’ve paid for it. So employers are cautious about spending more than necessary on labor because if an employee doesn’t work out, they rarely are able to recover those costs. (To the employer, volunteering is the “free trial period,” and we all know how often people cancel when the free trial is over.)
Furthermore, when the demand for new employees is low and the economy is still uncertain, the price of labor drops to almost zero, and companies have the luxury of getting the most bang for their buck. Leaving altruism, union contracts, and labor laws aside, an employer will prefer to spend as little as possible on employees because they are a significant cost. The safe bet is either a) an experienced worker with a known employment record, where there’s a virtual guarantee of return on investment, or b) volunteers, who provide substantial return for almost no investment. An employer is more than happy to have workers that cost nothing–it doesn’t get much better than that.
The same is true for the evil twin of volunteering: unpaid internships. The Washingtonian magazine article spells out, in sobering detail, the grim situation facing most interns today. “In the old days, there were internships in journalism that gave paths to more regular jobs,” says a journalist interviewed in the article. Those days are gone. In fact, some have labeled the situation today as the “internship rip-off”.
Second, and more fundamentally, is the fact that it is human nature to want something for nothing.
We all do this. We shop at sales, we line up for free ice cream or beer, we go to see performers at free shows that we would be unlikely to pay to see. We look for a deal.
Employers are no different. Considering that the single most costly commodity on the planet is human labor, if an organization already has a virtually inexhaustible supply of free labor, what incentive do they have to begin paying for it?
Furthermore, the idea that volunteering will help you meet people who can assist with your career is equally flawed. People who volunteer have a large amount of time on their hands. This effectively means that they are either retired, supported by a spouse, or are unemployable. If these are the people in your “professional network,” what kind of career opportunities will they be in a position to offer?
It seems that it hasn’t always been this way. Once, companies saw new employees as investments in the corporation’s future, according to the Washingtonian article. But the culture has shifted, making work for free something that is pervasive but not in the individual’s best interest. If you submit to being a volunteer, then you convey the message that you are not worth the money.
Next week: Three Pieces, Part III