Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pro Bono Lifestyle

I've been musing recently about my quest to make the ever sketchy transition from a generic job to an industry specific career. Perhaps I'm not historically savvy (read: old) enough to remember things clearly, but I seem to recall that there was a point in time where the natural progression went as follows: childhood, post-secondary, career. Or in some cases: childhood, entry-level job, working up to executive-level. It seems now that the natural progression is: childhood, post-secondary, strange limbo where you panic about your debts and your lack of career options in your field, slave labour where you work for free trying to gain experience, possible aligning of stars leading to entry level position indirectly related to your field.

I heard today that one of the young kitchen guys at work has given his notice. I guess his plan is to use his savings to support himself as he volunteers at high end restaurants to gain the necessary experience to be employed by them, experience he isn't receiving at our mid-market restaurant. Perhaps I am just suffering from the syndrome that causes every generation to see themselves as hard done by but I seem to remember a time where the work-for-free stage was not necessary to break into your field. We are in the limbo right now. We don't have enough work through the production company to quit our day jobs and still make our student loan payments, but we have too much work to continue at the pace we are going. Getting the amount and type of work that would allow us to forgo casual employment requires a lot of experience. For instance, I am pursuing script reading for cash I have applied to one internship and have had at least two opportunities to read pro-bono for production companies to gain resume experience. All of this still will not guarantee me a position reading for a salary.

My question is this: Has there always been this much competition to break into a career? I know its not solely the film and entertainment industry. I know photographers who are doing weddings for free and musicians who play free gig after free gig. To be a journalist you have to work for your school paper, then your community paper, before obtaining any kind of paying gig. Is it an unwritten rule that you have to prove your dedication to your chosen field within an inch of your sanity and solvency before you are granted your gold (or in some cases silver) star and given the chance to move onwards and upwards?

I was discussing this with my husband today. He mentioned that perhaps we are experiencing a generational standstill in the workforce. The baby boomers are occupying many of the top-dog positions as executives, head chefs, department heads etc., and that perhaps when they hit retirement we will experience a widespread shift in power. The next generation will take the top spots, leaving a gap in the entry to mid level positions in many industries that are currently full to bursting with talented potential workers. He theorized that perhaps we will see a tipping of the scales of opportunity, and anybody with a small portion of skill will be accepted for paying positions. Neither of us being a student of population growth verses employment opportunity we are simply hoping for the best. Regardless, it will be interesting to see the continued progression of the employment cycle over the next decade or two. Until then, does anybody have an internship opportunity for me? I will work for credits!

Also, when in doubt blame it on the baby-boomers.


  1. I think a lot of it comes down to what field you're trying to break into. There are boat loads of people who want to make movies, and plenty of them are willing to work for free. If you're planning on working in the Canadian business (especially as independent filmmakers), you better get used to doing a lot of work for free. Ditto if you're trying to be a musician / photographer / poet / sculptor / whatever-other-artistic-thing-you-want-to-be.

    There are still plenty of gigs where you go to school, get a degree, and then go into a career (lawyer, doctor, CGA all spring to mind), but you've never been able to do that in the arts.

    Comes down to the choice of profession in the end...



  4. I think that you do have to prove your dedication to your chosen field of work up front. It seems to me that 'earning your stripes' often takes the form of 2-4+ years of post secondary credentialing; which once earned, merely constitutes an entry into practice. In addition, most degree programs require students to complete at least one semester of practicum (i.e. working without receiving a salary), though the entire 2-4+ year degree program requires you to work without being paid.

    And correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always understood "pro bono" to mean work done for the public good (typically of a legal nature), not working for free in order to eventually gain paid employment in your chosen field.

    Einstein offered these words of advice: "You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else."

  5. I believe you're correct about "pro bono". I like to use it tongue-in-cheek by considering myself the public good, however, over-misuse is definitely a concern at this point. Cheers, thanks for the response.