Get a job: When it makes sense to work for free

Alberta's tight labour market means some people are taking more risks in order to secure a permanent job. Here's what you need to know if you're considering doing sweat equity for a startup company.

Career coach says sweat equity can sometimes help you climb the corporate ladder

There are several factors you need to consider before you agree to give sweat equity to a startup. (Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock)

First published on March 7.

A Calgary career coach says if you are an experienced professional searching for work in Alberta's tight labour market, you may want to consider working for free.

"The traditional opportunities right now are pretty thin and I'm not sure that's going to improve anytime in the short term," said Richard Bucher, a senior consultant with the talent and career management company Right Management.

Bucher told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday that he's currently coaching several seasoned professionals who are considering unpaid job opportunities with startup companies.

"They're looking at it as a potential option to a longer-term relationship."

That relationship could translate to a speedy climb up the corporate ladder, said Bucher.

He's seen clients whose sweat equity has quickly landed them senior leadership roles that normally would have taken "five to 10 years" to move into at a large, established company.

And if that startup takes off "you could find yourself in a very lucrative opportunity," said Bucher.

But, he says this strategy can also be "risky" and '"dangerous" if it doesn't pan out into a paying job.

Ever thought about working for free? Here's why our Get a Job guy, Richard Bucher, thinks it's a good idea for professionals looking for employment. 6:12

Temper the risk

  • Network "like crazy" while you're doing it. "Because at the end of the day if this doesn't pan out you can't afford to give up six months of your job search time," said Bucher.
  • Ensure you're not giving 100 per cent of your energy to this opportunity. 
  • Set an expiry date. Don't do it for too long.

Beware of losing EI benefits

While Bucher says you should never "take legal advice from a career coach"  from his understanding you can get in trouble with Revenue Canada if you collect EI — even if you're doing unpaid work.

"The fact that you're not generating any income does not mean you still qualify necessarily for a benefit and you could impede your benefit, or lose it," he said.

Bucher says it's better to apply this strategy while you're still getting severance.

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