Random Thoughts

Observations on life as I see and experience it.

Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson
Chicago, Illinois, United States
August 09
Founder and Owner
Knowledge Empowerment
Independent writer, researcher and policy analyst with a progressive viewpoint. Especially interested in arts policy, housing, world events, sustainable development and socially responsible travel.

Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 9, 2012 4:12PM

It's Only Money -- Especially When You're Seeking Work

Rate: 19 Flag

Vancouver is the site of the Globe 2012 conference. Photo credit: Audrey F. Henderson (all rights reserved)

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.

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Despite highlighting yet another way besides multiplier effect that unemployment insurance is important, this post raises the important issue of, “barriers to entry.” I once heard Steve Jobs muse about how he wished that the cost of time and money were lower entry to the automobile industry.

Barriers to entry provide frustrations and obstacles for the rich and poor alike, but as usual, the poor (and increasingly the middle class) suffer more for it and encounter more barriers.

The important question is, why do these barriers exist? I would be very curious to know about the profit margins for people involved with the Globe 2012 convention. Something our culture has sadly ignored lately is social cooperation and indeed the social general. Social goods such as libraries or town commons or roads and rail are typically undervalued in favor of private goods such as cars, houses and consumer items.

If we want to lower barriers to entry, emphasizing social goods, pooled resources is an excellent and productive step.
Of course, the (free and open!) internet itself is an excellent social good.
David -- you raise an excellent and undervalued point. Social goods and pooled resources are increasingly important as a means of survival in an American economy that continues to bifurcate into a two-tiered society. I think the Kickstarter system touches on that in a way -- it's a type of barn raising, supported by the Internet (which is, and must remain, a free and open social good), but fueled by a rewards system (because people seeking funds are, in the immortal words of Blanche DuBois -- relying on the kindness of strangers).
David -- thinking about your question re: Globe participants -- to be fair, there are no direct sales transactions that I know of conducted during the conference. This is not to say that a lot of the participants don't come away with (at least potentially) lucrative contracts. I certainly would mind that. One of the major purposes of many conferences is to generate future business, and there's nothing wrong with that, as far as I'm concerned.

As for your question about why barriers to entry exist, possible reasons include 1) initiation process (à la fraternal organizations) (2) genuine need for workers to acquire experience and training before taking on critical duties for which errors could be costly or more cynical) 3) a covert (or even overt) desire to keep "undesirables" out. I actually think this subject deserves its own essay, and I may just write one.
I think you make some very fine points here..
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Thank you for your kind words and your wishes for my well being. All the same to you! :)
Barriers to entry to all professions have systematically increased in recent decades. Back when I was first out of college, you could become an attorney in TX without a law degree - all you had to do was pass the bar. The partner I worked for as a paralegal urged me to do it, but I put it off too long. Now, you have to have a degree. Some are pushing for realtors to have law degrees in TX now....
@Laura -- as I mentioned in an earlier comment, it's difficult to dismiss the suspicion that in at least some instances, barriers to entry in certain career paths are a deliberate means of keeping "undesirables" out. However, perpetuating endless generations of people who look alike and think alike often causes stagnation within the closed walls, to the detriment of those inside the walls as well as those shut out. Thanks for your comment.
Audrey--I did an unpaid internship in college. Not only was it unpaid, I paid my college a semester's tuition for the privilege. It was a class, called "internship." It did later turn into a real job, and I was grateful for it. However, if that situation had dragged on, or I'd needed one at another company, I'd have been sunk. My parents didn't (and still don't) live in a major metro area. They live in a small town, 250 miles from the nearest real job. An unpaid internship means you have to have someone footing the bill in some way so you can live indoors, eat, and have access to a shower, a washing machine, and a bus pass while you do it. A lot of people don't have that luxury--family living far away, family with little means, and so on. I totally understand the conundrum you're in. Good luck with landing a job, and yes, there are a lot of people who could do with some of Mitt's money.
@froggy -- I also grew up in a small town, so I know where you're coming from. I also completed more than one internship class where I not only didn't earn a salary, I paid tuition for the privilege. But those were (like yours) valuable internships, so there is some consolation. It's not looking good for the Globe conference this year, but who knows? Thanks for your well wishes.
Really enjoyed your post. I have similar ambitions and have been running into the same barriers. I am more than willing to pay my dues but after investing in two degrees (MS Env Policy) and working two internships, you start wonder how much is enough.
It isn't easy to work for nothing and still pay your bills and student loans, especially when you have to put in so many hours at a 'getting by' job to actually get by.
It is so competitive out here I feel stifled. I dont go anywhere near Facebook anymore and I write under a pseudonym here because I worry about anything that may possibly offend a potential employer.
I am lucky enough to have an interview this week at an Energy Efficiency non-profit. All I had to do was move back to my parents house in a bigger city and send out a hundred applications over the last couple of months. Whatever it takes...
I hope you find something soon.
I really do like your writing style.
totally sympathize but one of the big factors in paid writing is the internet. theres now mountains of quality free writing on the internet & it seemed to contribute to the commoditization of paid writing.
@SouthofProgress -- all my best wishes to you in your upcoming interview. I hope it turns out to be your last one (because you've found a job, of course). I thought about writing under a pseudonym here, but decided against it. I figure any one I work for will find out sooner or later what my true nature is -- but I totally respect your choice.

As for your student loans, you might look into Obama's special repayment program, hardship forbearance or re-consolidating your loans to get lower monthly payments and a lower interest rate. No guarantees but it won't hurt to look.

@vzn -- The whole subject of the Internet and online media as a causal factor (or at least accelerating the process) is a subject over which much ink has been spilled and many pixels generated. I can't help but note the irony that we are having this exchange over a platform that promotes -- wait for it -- writing for free. Although, to be fair, Open Salon seems to fill a somewhat different niche than "citizen journalism" sites. That said, I have earned paid writing assignments as a result of writing I've done for free. I think there is room for both, and at least with writing for the the Internet, the barriers to entry are (potentially) small and easily mastered. Thank you for your comment.
I volunteered at a local zoo. I ended up working there as a -- as I described it -- sometimes paid volunteer. I worked there almost seven years.

I know what you mean about barriers to entry. I consider myself, though, as a "bicycle mechanic" breaking into an engineering position. Or perhaps a patent clerk working on math late at night.

In any case, don't quit. I know it's hard and many, many words of encouragement are just that -- words. From your writing and candor, it appears you have the talent and skill. Sometimes, it's about getting recognized. Doing this outside the confines of the "system" that's supposedly designed to weed out the wannabes from the next rising stars is especially tricky the older that system is.

We suffer in this country from social inertia and commercial inertia. In fact, these inertial resistances to change are exactly one and the same. You must fight the current and swim upstream. No salmon ladders for you when you get to the damn's spillway -- figure something out.

These are where folks like yourself (and, I hope, myself as well) can find that opportunity to shine -- coming up with a new way to get past the old barriers. You aspire to work in a market that sort of goes "outside the box" to meet new conditions for living in a more sane and sustainable fashion. This will require of you to consider that, while the market may be somewhat new and exciting, many of the power brokers and movers/shakers in that market are still old idea people seizing an opportunity they see to expand their opportunity to profit.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to breach those old barriers while remaining an "out of the box" thinker they are so desperately trying to put you in. I believe you can do it.

Like you said, there's always the conference in 2014. Meanwhile, don't quit planning and formulating a method to get into your chosen career path.

Lastly, Open Salon could be a great way to allow some of those others out there to see your writing style, some older reports, etc. and then instead of this being a free venue to write and exposit, it can also be exploited as a sort of "growing, sustainable resume" for cash challenged folks such as ourselves.

If nothing else, here you're at least in good company.

@dunniteowl -- I have been a lurker on Open Salon and of your blog for several months. I have enjoyed several of your posts and am flattered by your kind words. Thank you for the compliment and I accept your challenge, if for no other reason than I don't really have a choice. I have a friend who keeps telling me that she and I should make up T-shirts that say "BoatRockers" -- she's always after me to stop trying to fit myself inside a predetermined box -- there isn't one that fits.

@baltimore aureole -- to be fair, I initiated contact with SustainableCitiesCollective, not the other way around, and I knew what I was signing up for. That said, I think the internship situation as it exists in this country borders on criminal. There are some subsidy programs (my law school sponsored one) that allow students who have secured unpaid summer jobs to receive funds that allow them to cover basic expenses while working on their internships or practicums. I would like to see a program like that expanded to the federal level. (I know, dream on, right.)
Musicians (I've been one professionally for nearly 50 years now) are routinely told that some poorly or non paying "gig" will be "good exposure". The common rejoinder is "people DIE from exposure".
The growing disparity between the outrageously wealthy and the subsistence poor is an in your-face testimony that the old conservative mantra of small government, trickle down economics, laissez faire economics are not working for the overwhelming majority. Isn't working for nothing called slavery? What kind of feudal state is America headed for? It is time to take the old Reaganeque Rhetoric head on...it doesn't work, it never has worked. Perhaps we should seriously visit the policies of FDR whose legacy the conservatives have been trying to bury for more than half a century.
@porsadgai -- What a good comeback! I have to remember that one for future reference.

@Seamoremonster -- it will be interesting to see what happens in the future for this country and worldwide. What some in the upper echelons keep forgetting is that you can only repress people so much and for so long before they rebel Just ask Hosni Mubarak, etc. As Janis Joplin once sang "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." Thank you for your comment.
All too painfully well stated.
Thank you for your comment Mary. I hope we all have better fortunes in 2012.
As Janis Joplin once sang "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."
OH my goodness. All this time I thought she was singing, "nothing left to DO"! No wonder I had so much trouble learning how to live a happy life! All I wanted was to have nothing to DO, so I could spend the day being a little drunk, and not having any committments! ...that the alcoholic mentality, I suppose!
@weather wrangler -- OK, I admit, I laughed out loud at your comment. Thanks for the giggle.
@shubhajyoti There is a saying "You either work to live or live to work." In a perfect world, work would be fulfilling -- but still allow workers to conduct a full life (with family, etc.) In today's world ROI is definitely a consideration in career choices for many people, especially when expensive college degrees are involved. Then there are others who follow their passion regardless of the monetary rewards or lack of same. Unfortunately, in this country, this latter path is not always rewarded -- at least financially. Thank you for your comment.
Well, that's odd. I responded to a comment and the original comment disappeared! Oh well. I have to say that the experience of having a blog post chosen as an Editor's Pick was gratifying to my ego at a time when my ego could use a bit of massaging. But even more gratifying was the outpouring of support I have received from the people who have rated and commented on my post. It doesn't look like I will be going to the Globe 2012 conference, but I am not giving up. In fact, I've moved on to my next project, a charrette on affordable housing. I may blog about that in a future entry. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can read about it at (http://www.indiegogo.com/2012-reboot?a=418149).
As a former actress, I cannot tell you how many times I was told that a gig was important for me to take because of the "exposure" (means, no money). Been there, done that. If only we could all be so lucky as to work for free. Very erudite piece.
@Erica -- I totally understand. It seems that professionals in the publishing and entertainment fields are disproportionately targeted by "employers" (quotation marks deliberate) or others who seem to think that we should be willing to work for free. Actually, if I would be happy to do that, except for the small problem that my creditors don't seem to want to return the favor and provide their facilities and services for free. So it goes. Thank you for the comment and your kind words.
Hey, even hookers get the money up front. Live and learn!
@KC Redding-Gonzalez -- First, my apologies for my delayed response.
As for your response itself, when I do paid work, I do have a policy of collecting half my fee up front, especially with new clients. That said, the writing assignment I had was initiated by me, plus, as I've stated previously, I knew what I was signing up for. However, I will say that it's a sad commentary on the state of affairs when the only way to advance in a career is to be willing to work for free, especially given that you really need to be rich to be able to afford to do that. Thanks for reading my piece and for your thoughts.