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Young business person at a desk.

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Thanks for reading our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.

I agreed to work for free once.

Fresh out of university and six months into a fruitless job search, I accepted an unpaid six week internship under the impression that it would lead to a paid, full-time position at the same company or some serious resume ammunition.

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My situation ended exceptionally poorly. As it turned out, the company wasn't paying me because they didn't want to – rather, they weren't paying me because they couldn't afford to pay anyone. Regardless of why, the bottom line is that no one was paying my bills or repaying my student debt.

Unfortunately, companies like these are out there, preying on young people struggling to get a toehold in a tight labour market. Anyone who has job hunted in recent years knows just how stressful that process is, especially for those of us lacking experience.

That's why I feel betrayed by Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz's recent comments that my peers and I should seek to bridge the experience gap through unpaid work. I can't help but think that my unpaid internship situation could have been avoided had there been a few more people in positions of power on my generation's side.

But as much as my experience was a lesson in the danger of job hunting desperation, it was also a lesson in how to get around the the "one-to-three years of experience" requirement.

When I accepted the unpaid internship mentioned above, I believed that the promise of work experience would be enough to get me through the six weeks. As it turned out, my motivating thoughts of "Do it for the reference!" or "Picture your first big, fat, Godzilla-sized paycheque!" were quickly squashed by the big, fat, Godzilla-sized reality that I would be returning home to the suffocating stress of my student loan and a supper of plain instant rice.

What working for free confirmed was that actually moving on with my life would require paying off my debt. Paying off my debt would require a paycheque, and a getting a paycheque would require a paying job, ideally in my field.

And a paying job in my field required at least one-to-three years of work experience – or did it?

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Until about a year ago, the crown jewel on my resume was a paid internship position at a blogging network that I'd held in my third year of university. "Why the heck did they hire me?" I wondered as I launched my job applications into corporate cyberspace. When I was hired for that blogging job, the highest position I'd previously held was a camp councillor and I still used a former babysitting client as a reference.

I thought back to my interview. My soon-to-be manager was less interested in my high grade point average and more concerned with my field of study, my working style and why I wanted to have the position. It was a stroke of luck: I had found a company that wasn't hiring for skill – they were hiring for fit.

So I switched tactics. Instead of applying for positions that required skills and experience, I started applying to companies that appeared to be looking more for the right fit. I thoroughly researched the culture of the companies to which I applied, not simply because I'd been burned by my unpaid position, but because I wanted to channel their ideal employee in my cover letter.

I also ditched the corporate career portals and started working my "network." Abandoning all inhibitions, I reached out to anyone I knew and beyond, opening up my chances of finding a company that would look past my lack of experience. More often than not, my contacts were incredibly helpful. Slowly but surely, my calendar started filling up with interviews.

I'm not trying to convince anyone that job hunting is easy – in fact, I believe that job hunting could be the tenth ring of hell. Many positions require hard skills, regardless of your passion or how well you fit the culture. In my experience, however, the best companies for those entering the work force are tho se that will invest time in helping you learn these skills, while handing over a regular paycheque.

As for me, I refuse to accept unpaid work as a solution to having a lack of experience. I've invested in an education and I've been hustling ever since to stay out of my parent's basement. Volunteering my spare time to help a charity or learn a new skill is acceptable. Volunteering my productive time to support my own livelihood is not, especially at such a foundational point in my life.

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By the way, fellow Gen Yers – happy to lend a hand with your job hunt, at least until the job market gets a little more even-Stephen.

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