should I work for free to get experience?

A reader writes:

I’m an engineer with a technical job in the pharmaceutical industry. However, I really want to work as an engineer at a large corporation that produces chocolate and confectionery products. I have some relevant training and plenty of transferable skills, but no direct experience in the food or confectionery industry.

I am currently working with a career advisor who suggested that I should volunteer at the particular companies that I’m interested in, with the goal of getting hired for a paid position. I have no problem with volunteering to gain experience. However, I’m concerned that I will come off as desperate by asking for an unpaid technical position at a large, for-profit corporation. It’s a different story if internships are available, but I rarely meet the criteria because I’ve been out of university for a few years. I would think that there are also legal issues, trust issues (who wants to reveal the trade secrets to a volunteer?), never mind that most for-profit companies aren’t set up for volunteers. At the same time, it seems like it would be a good opportunity for me to gain experience and visibility. Do you think it’s worthwhile (or even possible) to approach a company for an unpaid technical position?

There are so many issues here — starting with the fact that your career advisor might be full of crap. I don’t have enough details to say with confidence, but I’m questioning her assertion that you need experience in the food or confectionery industry to work as an engineer in it. (Any engineers want to back me up or refute me?)

But to your direct question, yes, there are problems with volunteering for a for-profit corporation. With the exception of nonprofits, the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer. And if it’s not, they can reclassify you as an employee and require the employer to pay back wages for all the work you did.

Now, do companies violate this rule all the time? Yes. (Although the Department of Labor is supposedly cracking down on it.) But a smart company or a company with an alert HR or legal department isn’t going to mess with this

I think you’d be far better off making contacts at this (delicious-sounding) confectionery company you want to work at and seeing what their advice is for you. And I am going to view your career advisor with great skepticism until/unless someone corrects me.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask an Advisor*

    When I was a career counselor, I MIGHT suggest trying to get direct volunteer experience when a person has no direct experience to break into a particular field. In this case, I'm with you AAM because it's just not appropriate for a current engineer looking for another engineering position. (My guess is that the OP's career advisor is new-ish or doesn't understand the engineering field, which a lot of career counselors don't)

    I WOULD suggest, just like AAM did, that the OP network with folks at the confectionery company–and other like it, if feasible–and get their insider perspective. Informational interviews and following the advice gained from them is key for the OP, not volunteer experience.

  2. clobbered*

    Boy, does that doesn't sound right. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the poster would be better off acquiring some kind off food-relevant credential (look at the engineers working at the company already and see what they have got – is there like a Food Safety certification or something like that?) than seeking unpaid work.

    Most people love giving advice. Email somebody who has the job you love and ask *them* to evaluate your background, not some career counselor who may have never hired anybody in their life.

    I don't know about this particular industry, but when looking at a career change you would be amazed at the stuff that only insiders know.

  3. Original Poster*

    AAM, thanks so much for your insight! This was just one of the many suggestions given to me by my advisor – info interviews, networking, tailoring my resume/cover letter, using recruiters…all the usual stuff was suggested and I've tried it. She never said that I absolutely needed direct experience to switch industries, but pointed out that direct experience would definitely help my case. She's experienced but doesn't have many clients who are engineers (although the company she works for does…hence why I decided to work with her).

    I don't live in the US so the labour laws might not be exactly the same. However, I know that the company I currently work for definitely not set up to handle volunteers. I suspect if a lot of people were using this technique to score a job, then I would have been able to find more info about it online.

    Through information interviews I learned that the size of engineering departments at these confectionery companies are often quite small. That's probably what's making my career switch more of a challenge – not my lack of experience.

  4. Joe Mama*

    I'm a mechanical engineer and while having experience in the food industry would be helpful, I don't see it being absolutely necessary.

    Mechanical engineers are good with mechanical systems (gears, motors, forces, etc.). The fundamentals are the same from job to job.

  5. Anonymous*

    Joe Mama is correct. I work on high precision physics experiments, and we have engineers on our team who have built missiles, microwaves, mopeds, and manufacturing lines for drug companies. F=d/dt(mv) just works.

  6. Gayle*

    As least for software engineering, there is no need for this kind of "relevant" experience. It's all the same.

    You said that your career counselor doesn't normally work with engineers. Get one who does!

    The engineering space is very different from other fields.

    ME = former engineer for Microsoft, Google and Apple. Founder / CEO of, which helps software engineers land jobs at tech companies (primarily via interview prep and a book "Cracking the Coding Interview").

  7. Anonymous*

    I don’t think a company will say “Oh that person has experience in X industry, therefore we will not even look at them”. If you have the right technical transferrable skills they need (and I don’t mean the personal business skills but the exact technical skills), you’ve really covered the tough part. The only thing you’ll have to do is potentially be prepared to answer why you want to switch industries, and possibly do some homework on the food industry. I will say that I believe if you were up against someone with food industry background, they might have an upper advantage. But you got the desire and dream to work in the industry, which employers may admire and prefer.
    i agree with AAM.. contact insiders and learn more about the industry and for opportunities.

  8. Anonymous*

    Having worked as an Intern at Intel I will say that you should definatly get paid for the job you do UNLESS, they are doing a demo or other work that gives no direct benifit to the company.

  9. Anonymous*

    What's the difference between an "internship" and "volunteering"? Is an internship a way that companies get around that owing-back-pay law that AAM mentions? I ask because I see tons of ads that are looking for unpaid "interns", but read like regular job ads. I think lots of employers are taking advantage of the economy to get desperate people to work for free.

  10. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous, the Department of Labor considers them the same thing, and the same rules apply. Remember though that nonprofits are exempt from these rules, so if the internships you're seeing are with nonprofits, those are legal. As for all the others? Those aren't (but it's probably not intentional law-breaking; this seems to be a rule that didn't get much attention at all until earlier this summer, when DoL starting cracking down).

  11. Anonymous*

    AAM, you write, "the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer." But can't a for-profit company argue that their unpaid worker was benefitted by getting experience? It seems this is an easy loophole for them to use; they can just say "well, he was out of work for two years, so we're benefitting him by letting him keep his skill current." And yes, the ads I've seen have been for for-profit companies.

  12. Ask a Manager*

    Their rule is that the *net* benefit has to be the worker, not the company. So the worker has to be getting *more* out of it than the company does. So, for instance, an internship that was very heavy on training might qualify.

    Some of their criteria are:

    * The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
    * The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
    * The intern does not displace regular employees but instead works under close supervision of existing staff
    * The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded.

  13. Jamie*

    The comments about engineering and making sure you have a career counselor/recruiter who knows the field is very similar to IT. Generalists can do more harm than good.

    It's one thing if one is interested in marketing and offers to intern at a company folding brochures and making calls in order to get a feel for the working of a marketing department.

    It's a whole different ballgame when the department you wish to work in deals with proprietary information (engineering as well as IT and finance come to mind.)

    The advice from the career counselor should serve as a warning to switch to one with expertise in your technical field, imo.

  14. Anonymous*

    Anonymous employment lawyer here:

    No way, no how, is that legal. No, no, no. Not legal.

    The exceptions are for companies who have a specific training program in place. If they have an "_____ internship program" which is set up to benefit the INTERNS (usually in conjunction with a school of some kind) then those interns can work for free. But any company who takes on a "volunteer" is asking for trouble, and any career counselor who doesn't know that is a bloody idiot.

    And for what it's worth, your state may have *stricter* laws for employment (mine does.) Or, your employer may incorrectly believe that the state can lessen federal laws. When you have federal and state laws which both cover employment, *the stricter one wins*.

    (My state excepts cooks from overtime. Federal law does not. I've made a lot of money suing restaurants over mistakes in that area.)

  15. Christopher*

    As a freelance illustrator, it really bothers me when I see people who request/adivse that you should work for free. I know that it seems like a good idea — that it might send the message that you're willing to go the extra mile and be the Nice Guy. But trust me, it's exploitation, pure and simple. There is absolutely no guarantee that volunteering will lead to anything other than resentment on your part. Instead of spending many hours working for zero compensation, you should spend that time actually looking for decent employment.

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