It's Only Money -- Especially When You're Seeking Work
There is a persistent myth that many that people seeking work aren't willing to "pay their dues" in order to advance in the labor market. I know from first hand experience -- this simply isn't true. The problem is that in many fields, it's necessary to be able to afford to work for free or even foot the bill to gain entry or make significant advancements. When you're unemployed or working for skimpy compensation, this isn't a viable option.
It is true that volunteer stints and unpaid internships can and often do generate outstanding opportunities that yield major dividends, including lucrative pay. Sometimes digging into your own pockets really does constitute a worthwhile investment. The problem is that when you don't have a job or the work you have doesn't pay enough, pennies become dollars, and dollars quickly mount into insurmountable barriers.
In my particular instance, a very small fraction of the $300,000+ that Mitt Romney received in speaking fees last year would allow me to take advantage of a spectacular opportunity. When I say small fraction, I mean less than 1/100 of that amount -- approximately $3,000.
For Mitt Romney, that much money is pocket change. For me, $3,000 may as well be $3 million. And because I don't have three million dollars, barring an unforeseen miracle, it is likely that I will miss out on participating in an event that could provide a rocket boost to my career options as a writer and researcher in the sustainability sector.
Qualifications aren't the issue. I hold advanced degrees in sociology and law and have extensive experience as a writer. I also have reasonably substantive knowledge about sustainability and affordable housing. I was a speaker at the Chicago Green Festival in 2009 and again in 2011. I have also been a guest blogger for JustMeans, and presently moderate an online LinkedIn group, Sustainable Urban Development, which as of this month (February 2012) just cracked the 3,000-member mark. From 2004 to 2007, I did much of the heavy lifting in analyzing demographic data for public housing developments in Chicago and contributing to annual reports on the progress of the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation.
I have also been willing to invest in my own professional advancement in the past when I was able to do so. I attended World Urban Forum 3 in Vancouver in 2006 on my own dime. I also ponied up to complete a course in urban development in 2007 at the Helsinki Summer School. I did manage to recoup a bit of that expense, because I wrote about my experiences for the Transitions Abroad webzine.
This time around, I simply don't have the coin. Like many people in this tough economy, I’ve had personal and professional setbacks. And although I am frequently frustrated and even tempted to throw in the towel, I keep slogging along, hoping for that one crucial break -- and hoping that I can take advantage of it when it comes along.
The Globe 2012 convention, held every two years in Vancouver, is devoted to addressing sustainability from a business-oriented perspective. This year, one of the major conference tracks is devoted to Sustainable Cities -- an area of personal and professional interest for me. The conference would provide a valuable opportunity for me as a writer and researcher to learn about -- and report on -- innovative strategies for constructing affordable housing, among other subjects. I could form valuable connections with movers and shakers, and maybe even snag an assignment or several.
I sent out feelers for possible writing assignments, and found a receptive outlet in SustanableCitiesCollective, whose editorial curator seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of my providing on site updates at the event. As a result, I was able to obtain press credentials, which would provide admission to the entire conference without having to pay the nearly $1,300 conference fee. I eagerly made hotel reservations for my stay, and began checking out flight schedules.
Then reality hit -- I had absolutely no way of paying for any of this. SustainableCitiesCollective isn't paying me for this assignment. In fact, unless I sell one or more stories or reports during or after the conference, I won't make a penny from the trip. It would actually cost me more than $2500 for air fare, hotel and incidental expenses (like food).
Not to say I haven't given it the old college try. I posted a project on Kickstarter, which, as of the writing of this blog post has raised the grand total of $25. With less than two weeks to go before the fundraising drive expires, I'm not holding my breath on that. I am also prospecting for paid assignments, related to the project or not, that would allow me to foot the bill for the trip, but again, I'm not holding my breath.
My case is far from unique. Unfortunately, excellent career opportunities often translate to unattainable career opportunities for anyone who is not a) already well-connected b) well-heeled or (more likely) c) both. Many career fields have a de facto requirement for aspirants to complete one or more unpaid internships. In extreme cases, workers actually pay for the privilege. Never mind that oftentimes the duties involved take the form of low-wage, tedious grunt work dressed up with a glossy title. Even when the internship truly does provide an opportunity to gain related experience -- well, there's still that matter of not being paid.
And therein lies (IMHO) much of the driving force that has dissolved much of the middle class and is dividing this country into a small elite of "haves" and a vast sea of "have nots." The fact that so many career paths involve low-paid or unpaid work locks out many would-be aspirants, reproducing successive generations of workers in these sectors that all look alike. Money may not buy love or happiness, but it is often the necessary ticket for entry into fields like journalism, fashion or publishing.
Worse, it stifles potential innovation and creativity. Many of those pushed out of their dream careers represent the potential for just the sort of invention or problem solving that made this country great, and could do so again. For every feel-good rags-to-riches story (and I would be the last to suggest that we shouldn't celebrate each one), I would wager there is at least one matching rags-to-rags saga of someone who gave 110%, but just couldn't catch a break.
As for me, who knows? Maybe the Kickstarter project will come through after all. Or maybe I'll run into Mitt Romney and he'll hand over some of his walking around money. Barring that, the Globe conference will be held again in 2014. Perhaps by then I'll be able to afford to go.