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Should Army Wives Work For Free?

Sometimes the job hunt for military spouses gets so desperate you feel like you ought to be standing at the side of the road with a little sign: Will Work For FREE.

Anything to get out of the apartment. Anything to tell yourself your $50,000 student loan is not paying for an MRS degree. Anything, anything, ANYTHING to break into the local job market after a PCS move.

But should military wives and husbands work for free?

We aren’t talking about Army wives volunteering to help a cause they care about a couple of times a month. We aren’t talking about Marine husbands picking up Thanksgiving donations.  We’re talking about unpaid internships. Pro bono work. Blogging. Free photo shoots. Working with no expectation of getting a check.

Crystal Johnson, a professional photographer who is also an Army wife, wrote about getting ahead in photography for Military.com (check out her terrific article here). Crystal told me that she only believes in unpaid work in very, very limited circumstances. Giving your work away trains the consumer to expect photographers to work for next to nothing. That isn’t good business.

I can see that. Then again, I can also see how a little free work can help you break into a new line of work or a new market after a PCS move.

At our Spouse Summit in Washington, DC this year, participants said that the biggest hurdle to breaking in to a new job market was the fact you didn’t know anyone in the local area. So some spouses elected to work for a temp agency (which is paid employment) and then got job offers.

Should you try some strategic volunteering?

Others recommended a little ‘strategic volunteering’ in which you demonstrate how awesome it would be to work with you by volunteering at a school or an on-base service organization or a publication. You do a limited amount of excellent work for free and when an opening comes up then at least they know you.

It ain’t a perfect situation. Crystal points out how there are quite a few unseen costs.  Building connections like that can also take a long time. Sometimes it seems like it is taking forever.

But I can’t deny that strategic volunteering is how I got my clips together when I was learning to write. Our managing editor worked a full-time unpaid internship for months before she found a paying job.

In the interest of full disclosure, most of our bloggers volunteer while they are learning their craft. Yet when we hire or when we hear about job openings and paying gigs, we turn to these volunteers first. We know them. We know their work. Even more basically, we have their contact information.

Are you really making progress?

Still, it is hard to know whether you are getting somewhere while you are doing your strategic volunteering. It is hard to know if someone is taking advantage of you or whether you are making a good tradeoff.

Right now the value of unpaid work is under the scrutiny of the courts. Several lawsuits have been filed by unpaid interns who claim labor laws are being violated by this practice. Although unpaid interns are common in creative fields like filmmaking and journalism, cases have been brought against Fox, Hearst, Conde Nast, and the Charlie Rose Show.

I think the key to free work for military spouses is that you have to focus in two directions to make strategic volunteering work for you. First, you keep your eye on the big picture. Will this free work broaden your reach? Will it build your skill set? Will it lead you closer to paid employment?

Next, you have to keep your eye on the bottom line. Like Crystal said, working for free has a cost. Is what you are investing in time and money yielding anything for you?

Military spouses must figure out how to get around the fact that they have no contacts in the local area when they PCS. I think a little strategic, thoughtful, quality work performed for free can help you overcome that barrier.

What is your experience?  Have you ever done free work that led to a job?

 

 

About Jacey Eckhart

Jacey Eckhart is the Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.