Monday, 16 January 2012

Voluntary Work

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” – The Joker, ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
On face value, the idea of doing work for free is a strange one. After all, you are a trained at a specific skill and are performing a professional service, so why shouldn’t you get paid? After all, you couldn’t expect a mechanic to fix your car or an electrician to rewire your house for free? So why should a filmmaker have to work for free?
I guess that BA Film Studies Degree
didn't teach you to take the lens cap off.
The answer is all to do with experience. Sadly, in almost all areas of Arts and Media, experience is more valuable than any qualification. There are many potential employers who either can’t afford, or aren’t willing, to pay money to hire a filmmaker to do a job and risk wasting money if they turn out to be terrible at it. The only way to reduce the risk is to hire someone with experience. And thus, we come to the great Catch 22: You can’t get hired because you have no experience and you can’t get experience because no-one will hire you.
Which brings us to voluntary work. People who offer voluntary work are usually considerably less picky when it comes to choosing who to hire, allowing you to earn the experience you need to get paid jobs later down the line. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Firstly, and most obviously, voluntary work doesn’t pay. You may be gaining a lot of important experience, but experience doesn’t pay for rent, gas, electricity and food. Also, for many reasons the job may just be a waste of your time.
So how do you decide what work to apply for and what not to apply for?
When we were in our placement year of University, we learned an important formula that we have applied ever since to these kind of situations: Imagine a triangle. At each corner of the triangle there is a reason why you SHOULD do a job.
  • Money: Obvious enough. Are you getting paid? If so, how much? Even if the job sucks and you have no desire to do it in the future, if it pays well enough, you should do it.
  • Experience: Will you be learning anything new from doing this job that may help you later down the line? Will be be learning to operate a new piece of equipment or working on a specific type of production that you can add to your CV?
  • Exposure: It would be more suitable to rename this one “Contacts”. Will you be working with anyone who will be able to get you paid work in the future or will be great have as a contact? Put it this way, if Steven Spielberg asked me to make coffee on set of his latest film for no pay, I’d still do it.
Now, if a job fulfils:
  • One of the criteria – You should consider doing it. It may not be perfect, but you will probably be better off (one way or another) than if you didn’t do it.
  • Two of the criteria – Great! You’ll gain a lot from this experience, which will help you in the future.
  • Three of the criteria – Jackpot! Take it!
  • None of the criteria – Simply enough, don’t do it. It’s not worth your time.
Of course, it’s not always immediately clear what jobs will fulfil what criteria. But what is important to remember is not to apply for everything regardless just because “it’s better than doing nothing”. Your time could be much better spent applying for different jobs, tweaking your CV or working on your portfolio.

Remember: You are a trained professional. Don’t devalue your skill by letting other people take advantage of your position.

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