How to Get Work Experience Without Having a Job

"Need experience to get a job; need a job to get experience" is one of the most frustrating paradoxes faced by those who are still in school or in the midst of a career change. Although unemployment numbers are slowly falling, the race to land an entry-level job is not only hyper-competitive, but also somewhat deceptive, since some employers require a couple years of experience before applicants qualify for even an entry-level position. (See also: Awesome Accomplishments: 50+ Questions to Ask Yourself and Figure Out What You've Done)

If you're currently searching for a job but don't have extensive work experience to back you up, boost your resume and make valuable contacts in the industry you want to work in by exploring some alternatives.


One of the most popular ways of getting your foot in the door is by completing an internship. Depending on the industry, these may be paid or unpaid, part time or full time, short term or for several months, and for college credit or just for another bullet point for your resume. and InternMatch are great resources for finding internships in your area (remote/virtual internships are also available). If you go above and beyond what is expected of you during your internship, your boss might write a letter of recommendation, which will help you stand out from the crowd when you apply for your next job. Or better yet, your internship could potentially lead to a full time, paid position with the company.


If you want to make a difference in your community and gain valuable experience while you're at it, consider becoming a volunteer. Like many internships, this isn't paid work, but compared to the regular job market, volunteer positions are much more readily available. Although there are certainly differences between regular jobs and volunteer positions, you could perform similar tasks at a nonprofit as you would in a normal work environment (office work, teaching, researching, event planning, etc.). At the very least, you'll likely improve your communication skills and make connections that can serve as references later on when you're job hunting. (See also: Translating Volunteer Experiences to Workplace Credentials)

Take Specialized Classes

Being a college student or graduate is almost mandatory for decent-paying jobs these days, but employers want more than employees who learned everything in a classroom. Consider taking some hands-on classes that relate to the industry you want to work in. This can be anything from wood or metal shop to culinary classes. Many community colleges offer trade-specific classes, and some high schools have a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) for their students. ROP offers hands-on courses to prepare students for careers in industries such as health care, engineering, manufacturing, tourism & hospitality, and more.

Start Up Your Own Startup

Entrepreneurship isn't for everyone, but if you're really determined to get your foot in the door, you could run your own side business until you amass the experience needed for your dream job. This is probably the most complex way of getting experience, but you may find that working for yourself is more rewarding after all. Either way, entrepreneurship will help you add valuable experience to your resume, as well as show you both the employer and employee's perspectives in your industry. (See also: 6 Reasons Your Great Startup Business Is Doomed)


If running a business isn't your cup of tea, and you offer services rather than products, consider getting into freelancing.

Upwork is a popular website for new freelancers, although there's one thing you should know about bidding sites — it's a race to the bottom. You'll be competing with other freelancers, many of whom are willing to charge minimal prices just to get work. An alternative to this is building a portfolio in which you have several pieces of your work available for potential employers to peruse prior to hiring you. As an independent contractor, you could also offer your services for free for a couple clients when you're just starting out (in exchange for portfolio samples and references). (See also: New Year, New Resume)

Final Word

Landing a new job — even in a struggling economic climate — isn't impossible. It's admittedly harder for those who don't have firsthand experience required by many employers, but as you can see from the points above, there are ways around this problem.

How have you gotten experience without first having a job? Tell us your job search story in the comment section below!

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Guest's picture

I spent my summer volunteering at a ton of different festivals doing different things.

Guest's picture

Completing an internship while studying is a great way to stand out - I know some university courses actually require a 6 month unpaid internship to be completed before they will let you graduate. Once you're out into the 'real world' internships are still a great way to go, but I believe they are harder to obtain - being a student gives you a reason to not already be working in the field, whereas a non-student intern would have me questioning why they can't get a job to begin with.