'Will Work for Free' -- New Way In

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job search"Will work for free" could replace "will work for food" on sandwich boards.

Currently, that's one of the most effective ways to get a job or a better job, attract new business, hold on to current clients, enhance a brand name, and generate publicity.

This isn't entirely new. For years lawyers have been doing free or pro bono work. Lawyers still are, only more of it since the legal balloon crashed. Unpaid internships have been standard for both undergraduate and professional students. And whom do you know that hasn't volunteered in a political campaign?

What is new is that so many people are working for free. But unless you get smart fast on how to use this job-search and business-development tool, you could get nothing out of it -- except not getting paid. Here's what you have to know.

Payoff not direct. Don't focus on getting anything from this experience. Instead figure out how to leverage the knowledge, skills, and contacts for other opportunities. That means not to invest totally in doing a superior job. Save energy for identifying and pouncing on what will be paid work. Look on this as a career halfway house, not a potential home. However, some unpaid work does become paid.

Gaining insider feel for industry. Remember how the ambitious worked in mail rooms in Hollywood and publishing? That was to decode the real rules for success. Only then could they begin their own careers -- as brilliant players. You're there to do the same. Only that shouldn't be obvious. Concentrate on the crucial tasks, and appear like you're giving your all to the rest.

When to hold, fold. Much of unpaid work leads nowhere. Sense that and exit with a polite cover story.

Full disclosure: I nailed down my first few jobs by offering to work for free until I proved myself. All employers hired me, for pay. Willingness to work for free sends a message of enthusiasm, commitment, and willingness to compromise.

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