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The "real world" job market is looking pretty bleak. Some five million U.S. workers lost their jobs since this recession started in December 2007.

Going to graduate school may feel safer, and it’s a respectable way to acquire new skills and boost hiring and earning potential. But, as we know, it’s not cheap. According to the College Board, grad students assume close to $13,000 a year in federal loans. Law and business school students can easily pile on more than $100,000 in debt.

The School of Hard Knocks = Free Grad School
So what if, as an alternative to grad school, you take on a temporary apprenticeship?  What if you offer to volunteer at a company or non-profit? Setting up an opportunity where you learn in the "school of hard knocks" (that's the "real world" we mentioned before), can mean real life lessons without high tuition and loans.

Consider such a move an investment in yourself—just like grad school—minus the diploma. Instead, you won’t lose touch with your chosen industry and when the job market opens up, you’ll be in a competitive position to get hired full-time.

Of course, in some fields, like medicine and law, you need to be accredited in order to find work. The sooner you earn those advanced degrees, the sooner you can start paying down your loans. But even for aspiring doctors, lawyers and MBAs, working an extra year, albeit unpaid, may either boost your chances of getting into a graduate program or, if you end up getting hired, your employer may offer to help pay for your tuition.

Here is some strategic advice to get started:

1. Be careful of the "I-word" (intern). At many large companies, as soon as you mention “internship” to a human resources director you’ll discover you need to receive school credit in order to participate as an intern. Since that would not apply to you, present yourself as a volunteer. There are strict labor laws that prohibit companies from employing you without pay, but perhaps there are other arrangements the company can make to allow you to work at least part-time. The smaller the business, the more flexible the hiring rules may be. Maybe it’s that you agree to work on a commission-only basis (See no. 2) where you only get paid if you end up adding to the company’s bottom line.

2. Make it formal. Present your volunteerism to companies you’re interested in with a plan, a timeline and an objective. For example, after getting laid off from a hedge fund, a friend of mine offered to “volunteer” for six months at another firm. The offer: If he brought in a certain number of clients or a certain amount of revenue, the company would either pay him, hire him, or both. The company said yes, because they lose nothing if he fails and gain a lot if he scores.  My friend gets the chance to prove his skills and possibly get a great job.

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3. Get a part-time job. Paying your bills and expenses while working for free will require multi-tasking. It won’t be easy, but then again grad school also keeps you up at all hours. Even if you have enough in your emergency savings account to get you through this time, you will probably need to find a part-time job. The good news is you can create your own schedule with many part-time jobs (think direct sales, freelance writing, dog walking, catering) many of which you can do during evenings and weekends.

4. Diminish housing costs. Your housing costs tend to eat up the biggest portion of your income. Consider bartering for a place to stay by temporarily moving in with family or friends for free in exchange for doing chores. Or get a roommate and split the rent.

5. Continue looking for full-time work. As the saying goes, “the best time to find a job is when you have a job.” Being in the workforce keeps you in the game, and may make you more desirable to competitive employers. Attend career workshops and job fairs and continue to network on and off-line to find a full-time job. And once you’re full-time, you may be able to bank on the company’s tuition reimbursement plan and finally go to grad school for a lot less.

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