Work for Free

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by Jeffrey A. Tucker: Pittsburgh’s
Rise from Ashes



With young
people nearly shut out of the market (by recession, regulation,
and ghastly minimum wage and child labor laws), I would like to
suggest the unthinkable: young people should work for free wherever
they can and whenever they can. The reason is acquire a good reputation
and earn a good recommendation. A person who will give you a positive
reference on demand is worth gold, and certainly far more than the
money you might otherwise earn.

Many of the
essays in my book Bourbon
for Breakfast
turn out to have forecasted both the current
mess and this solution. But first let me tell a story of two cases
in point, the first an example of the worst possible kind of worker,
and the second an example of brilliant foresight.

The first case
comes from a job I had in my teens. I was standing around with a
few other employees in a clothing shop. The boss walked by and said
to my co-worker: "please straighten these ties on this table."
My co-worker waited until the boss walked away and then muttered
under his breath: "I'm not doing that for minimum wage."

That comment
seared right through me, and I thought about it a very long time.
The worker was effectively asking for money up front before working,
even though he was employed to do things like straighten ties. This
was even worse than insubordination. He had this idea that they
value he contributes to the firm should never exceed the value of
the money he is earning in money. If that must be true, one wonders
why anyone should ever hire him.

The goal of
every employer is to gain more value for the firm from workers than
the firm pays out in wages; otherwise, there is no growth, no advance,
and no advantage for the employer. Conversely, the goal of every
employee should be to contribute more to the firm than he or she
receives in wages, and thereby provide a solid rationale for receiving
raises and advancement in the firm.

I don't need
to tell you that the refusnik didn't last long in this job.

In contrast,
here is a story from last week. My phone rang. It was the employment
division of a major university. The man on the phone was inquiring
about the performance of a person who did some site work on
last year. I was able to tell him about a remarkable young man who
swung into action during a crisis, and how he worked three 19-hour
days, three days in a row, how he learned new software with diligence,
how he kept his cool, how he navigated his way with grace and expertise
amidst some eighty different third-party plugins and databases,
how he saw his way around the inevitable problems, how he assume
responsibility for the results, and much more.

What I didn't
tell the interviewer was that this person did all this without asking
for any payment. Did that fact influence my report on his performance?
I'm not entirely sure but he probably sensed in my voice my sense
of awe toward what this person had done for the Mises Institute.
The interviewer told me that he had written down 15 different questions
to ask me but that I had answered them all already in the course
of my monologue, and that he was thrilled to hear all these specifics.
The person was offered the job. This worker had done a very wise
thing. He earned a devotee for life.

The harder
the economic times, the more employers need to know what they are
getting when they hire someone. The job applications pour in by
the buckets, all padded with degrees and made to look as impressive
as possible. It's all just paper. What matters today is what a person
can do for a firm. The resume becomes pro forma but not decisive
under these conditions. But for a former boss or manager to rave
about you to a potential employer? That's worth everything.

Sadly, many
young people who can't get jobs have no work experience to show
for themselves at all. They have been wildly mislead all their lives
about the great glories that await anyone who "stays in school"
and gets great grades. There are innumerable aerospace engineers,
mathematicians, and even lawyers who are in this situation, to say
nothing of sociologists, historians, and people with degrees in
communications and marketing.

Adding to the
problem today is the burden of student loans. Kids are graduating
today with six figures in debt that they will immediately be forced
to service if they accept employment. But with no prospects outside
Wal-Mart and Starbucks, they opt to stay in school and get yet another
degree, hoping all the while that the labor market will turn around.
This is a terrible trap. They structured their lives around the
speculation that a high paying job awaits following graduation.
But there is no such thing. A low-paying job isn't even enough to
pay the rent plus debt service.

It was a very
bad speculation. Their dreams are being killed by a desperately
tight labor market for anyone without work experience or any kind
of work reference at all. Under these conditions, the solution is
to gain that thing of highest value. That means volunteering. The
state can't come after you to start paying the student loan debt,
and yet you gain people will become your benefactors later.

to volunteer? A non-profit such as a church or educational group
would be fine. But also fine might be a local plant nursery, lawn
service, mail house or printer, or even at a law firm. You can make
an application informally but be clear that you want no payment.
If you are accepted (not a foregone conclusion), set hours for yourself
and stick with them. Make yourself super useful, super dependable.
Get to know as many people as possible. Explain that you are working
only for the experience, which you value. Do this for six months
up to a year. Then you will have something interesting and wonderful
to tell future employers about.

A time will
come when any of the people who came to know will receive a phone
call. They will be asked their opinion of you and your work. That's
when the whole of your life can change for the better. Is that six
months to one year of volunteer work worth it at that moment? It
is worth everything.

On the other
hand, you can spend your life refusing to straighten ties because
you aren't paid enough to do that. That person will never be paid
to do anything.

2, 2010

Tucker [send him mail]
is editorial vice president of

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